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Royce O’Neale — versatile defender, still-reluctant shooter — is a major storyline in the Utah Jazz’s surge

While coaches and teammates praise him for his willingness to guard pretty much anyone, they’re still pleading with him to let more 3-pointers go, as he did late Monday vs. the Sixers.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah forward Royce O'Neale (23) celebrates after sinking one of his 3-point shots the 4th quarter for the Jazz, in NBA action between the Utah Jazz and the Philadelphia 76ers at Vivint Arena, on Monday, Feb. 15, 2021.

Royce O’Neale is well-known to Utah Jazz fans as a defensive Swiss Army knife of sorts, as well as an exceedingly efficient if frustratingly reluctant shooter.

So, naturally, on a night when flame-throwing sixth man Jordan Clarkson made headlines for casually dropping 40 points in 29 minutes on Monday against the Sixers, it was O’Neale — who did not have a single made basket in the first 44 minutes and 59 seconds of the game — that had a hand in the Jazz’s final four crucial buckets.

On the first, with the Jazz up just seven points with a little more than 3 minutes to play, Rudy Gobert gave the ball to Joe Ingles, then attempted to free him for a 3 with a screen, but it was well-defended. So Ingles passed to Donovan Mitchell at the top of the arc, and he drew the attention of both Ben Simmons and Seth Curry. With Danny Green planted near the basket, guarding no one for reasons unknown, Tobias Harris was left with a choice — stick with the nearby Bojan Bogdanovic, or sprint out to O’Neale? When he chose the former, Mitchell casually whipped a pass underhanded to the unguarded O’Neale, who launched without hesitation.

Swish.

About 50 seconds later, with the Jazz up eight, O’Neale held the ball at the right arc as the shot clock wound down. He dumped the ball inside to Gobert, who knew he was too far out to attempt a shot, and immediately re-routed to Ingles, who gathered the ball near the mid-court logo and sprinted into the paint. He appeared ready to loft a floater, but seemed to think better of it when Dwight Howard stepped into his path. However, noticing that Green had been sucked in by his drive, Ingles elevated, turned sideways in midair, and heaved a sinking pass to the again-wide-open O’Neale …

Swish.

“We talk about Jordan, and obviously what Jordan did [Monday night] was special, but what Royce did, having the confidence to keep shooting the ball and make those two big 3s late, that was tremendous,” coach Quin Snyder said after the Jazz’s eighth consecutive win. “And you notice every time the ball gets swung to him and he’s open, guys want him to shoot. And that’s what he did. That shows his mental toughness and it shows his teammates’ and his coaches’ belief in him.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell (45) \hig-fives Utah Jazz forward Royce O'Neale (23) after he hit another 3-pont-shot, in NBA action between the Utah Jazz and the Philadelphia 76ers at Vivint Arena, on Monday, Feb. 15, 2021.

Ingles was even more blunt about that belief, in an admittedly ironic way.

“I honestly still think he needs to shoot more. I think he passes up 3s at times that, not necessarily hurt our team, but we sometimes don’t get a better shot than him shooting that wing 3 or the corner 3, which he’s obviously so good at,” Ingles said. “I mean, I’ve had my fair share of times I’ve been told to shoot it, but he’s catching up to me pretty quickly. … It’s probably stupid coming from me, because I always get told to shoot it when I’m open, but I try and get him to shoot as much as possible.

“We played bloody hot potato for a second there with that end one, trying to get him to shoot it,” Ingles added with a laugh. “We’re a really good team when he shoots more.”

O’Neale effectively put the game away with two more offensive contributions in the final minute. On the former, he sprinted up court following a Sixers miss and took an outlet from Ingles. Noticing that all the Sixers other than Dwight Howard were slow getting back, he veered toward the hoop, drawing Howard, then lofted a right-handed pass high to the trailing Gobert, who threw down the alley-oop. Then, one last open triple from the left corner, off an assist by Mitchell, gave O’Neale 11 points for the game, and the Jazz an 11-point lead with 34.3 seconds to play, sealing the deal, as he lifted both arms skyward in celebration.

“When he shoots the ball, I’m confident that it’s going in — every time,” said Gobert. “He’s been improving a lot, he’s been putting in a lot of work. He’s a big part of why we’ve been able to be so successful.”

It’s a lot of discussion about the offensive exploits of a guy who’s considered a defensive player, but given that he’s shooting a career-high 43.0% beyond the arc as a player who probably considers himself Utah’s seventh- or eighth-best offensive option, there’s some merit to the idea that he could stand to be a bit more selfish with the ball.

Especially considering that contributions up and down the roster have enabled the Jazz to win 19 of their past 20 games in surging to a league-best 23-5 record.

“We need him to take those shots, we want him to take those shots,” Ingles said. “I mean, he needs to take them. He’ll keep figuring it out — he’s a smart dude — and he’ll keep making the right plays.”

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Still, even as O’Neale tries to get more comfortable being a weapon on offense, there’s zero question that he’s become just that on the other side of the ball.

In the past week alone, he was deployed on such prodigious offensive stars as the Celtics’ Jayson Tatum, the Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo, Miami’s Jimmy Butler, and the Sixers’ Harris and Simmons.

While the Simmons film won’t be appearing on any highlight reels, given that he notched a career-high 42 points, O’Neale at least had a bit more success slowing him than did Gobert, who struggled to keep up and get into position as Philly fed the ball to Simmons in transition.

The broader point is, even after seeing his defensive reputation take a hit following the postseason explosion of Denver’s Jamal Murray last year, O’Neale has reinvented himself as a stingy countermeasure to longer wings and big men alike — in spite of only standing 6-foot-4 himself.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz forward Royce O'Neale (23) pressures Miami Heat forward Jimmy Butler (22) as the Utah Jazz take on the Miami Heat at Vivint Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake City, on Saturday, Feb. 13, 2021.

Ingles gushed at O’Neale relishing his role as a defensive ace, noting, “he loves the challenge of guarding whoever it is on a nightly basis.” Snyder added that “he just competes, and he’s relentless with his competitiveness.”

Gobert, a two-time Defensive Player of the Year, was asked to put O’Neale’s defensive work into context and did not muck about with faint praise and generic platitudes.

“All-Defensive Team — that’s where he should be at the end of the season if he keeps it going,” said the Frenchman. “You know, every single night he has a challenge, whether it’s guarding a power forward — somebody like Giannis — or guarding a talented guard. He’s most of the time guarding the best scoring player. He’s bringing it every single night, and he’s a big part of what we do.”

O’Neale, of course, is as reticent in responding to a compliment as he is reluctant to launch a shot when surrounded by his talented teammates.

Following Saturday’s victory over the Heat, a reporter from Greece — unaware of O’Neale’s disdain for big-picture or open-ended questions — plowed forward on the postgame Zoom interview session with a query about what the best part was of drawing the responsibility of trying to slow an All-Star such as Butler.

“The Jazz won,” O’Neale replied.

Seconds of awkward silence elapsed, reporter waiting for elaboration, player feeling his proffered response had sufficed. Finally, O’Neale relented.

“… That was the best part.”

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