Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.
Royce O’Neale first tweaked his right foot and ankle in the Jazz’s pre-Thanksgiving win in Oklahoma City. He played two nights later against New Orleans — taking on the responsibility of being the primary defender against former All-Star Brandon Ingram — but he’s sat out the past two games because of the injury.
Naturally, with the Jazz posting back-to-back blowout victories against the Pelicans and Trail Blazers, respectively, and fill-in starter Joe Ingles posting two of his best performances of the season, it didn’t take long for a certain contingent of the fan base to flood social media with pleas for Ingles to remain in the lineup full-time.
It was pretty much inevitable.
Not that the Jazz themselves were taking the bait afterward.
“I’d love to start nine guys with our team,” coach Quin Snyder quipped Monday night, following a query about the importance of starting Ingles in the win over Portland. “Maybe that would be the answer and we’d beat everybody. But that’s not the way it is.”
Meanwhile, the initial question posed to Ingles in his postgame media session straight-up asked him if he plays better as a starter than coming off the bench.
“I do not care,” he enunciated slowly, leaning into the mic for emphasis. “I mean, I don’t know. … I don’t really have much of answer for you, to be honest.”
From the team’s perspective, permanently replacing O’Neale in the lineup with Ingles is something of a faux “controversy,” an answer in search of a nonexistent question.
“Joe’s presence in the game is what’s important,” said Snyder, “whether it’s the 10-minute mark or the 3-minute mark or the end of the game.”
There’s no denying that Ingles has been a more dynamic scorer these past two games — scoring 14.5 points against his season average of 7.9. And he’s certainly shot the ball well, making 9 of 14 field goals (64.3%) and 8 of 13 tries from 3 (61.5%). His rebound and assist numbers have been commensurate with his seasoning numbers. Even his defense has earned praise, as he’s bounced between fending off Jonas Valanciunas post-ups during switches in Saturday’s game to trying to stay in front of scoring machine Damian Lillard on Monday.
“That one possession with Dame where he iso’d me like eight times in a possession — it’s obviously different trying to stay in front of someone like that, a high-caliber player, compared to trying to wrestle with a Lithuanian … I don’t know, you guys enter a word at your own fear of him,” Ingles said. “If it is that [I’m asked to do], then I’ve got to try and figure out how to get him off the boards, and if it’s Dame, I’ve got to figure out which way to stay in front of him, contest his shots, and make it tough. Both just as tiring. Not as tiring as three kids, though.”
The thing is, his efforts on that end the past two games are pretty much what O’Neale is asked to do on a nightly basis. As Snyder pointed out, it’s not like the Jazz are stocked with guys who can capably switch between defending players as disparate as Lillard and Brandon Ingram: “It says a lot about what Royce does for us that those are two very different matchups.”
A certain three-time Defensive Player of the Year extolled the defensive impact that O’Neale brings, and noted that his absence must have the trickle-down effect of teammates such as Ingles increasing their efforts in order for Utah to be successful.
“Royce brings so much energy, so much physicality to the team. We always miss him when he’s not there,” said Rudy Gobert. “Everybody else knows they have to raise their level, especially defensively. In a way, it allows other guys to have to step up defensively — it can make us better as a team to have to go through some games without Royce. Hopefully he gets back soon.”
For what it’s worth, the Baylor product has been listed as “questionable” preceding the prior two games before ultimately being ruled out. The present three-day break between games may well be sufficient time off for him to be ready to return Friday against Boston.
Whenever he does return, it will be to the first five. After all, it’s not only that he remains the team’s best perimeter defender, but that in a lineup with such ball-dominant players as Donovan Mitchell, Bojan Bogdanovic, and Mike Conley, his low-usage offensive style is a good complementary fit.
As far as the Jazz are concerned, it’s all irrelevant anyway. The important thing is to maximize every lineup, every rotation, to have a group capable of matching up against any opponent. Yes, O’Neale and Ingles bring different things to the table, but that doesn’t make one more important than the other.
“Royce provides a huge spark as far as defensive prowess, we all know that, but offensively, our plays are different, our reads are different when it’s Royce,” said Mitchell. “They’re [both] special in their own right. When Joe’s in, he brings the ball up the floor, he initiated a lot of the attacks tonight early, he hit Rudy on a bunch of passes, he’s [6-foot-8] so he sees a lot of different things that myself and Mike don’t see because we’re only [6-1 and 6-0, respectively]. So it gives a different perspective in that starting lineup. But when Royce gets back, he’ll be back at it, and we’ll keep doing what we’re doing.”
Snyder did acknowledge that Ingles “has been really good” of late, and was “terrific” against the Blazers. Then again, given Portland’s curious defensive strategy, there were a fair amount of Jazz players who looked pretty exceptional against the Blazers.
For his part, Ingles said he’s not clamoring for a starting gig. Yes, he conceded, it’s fun to be out there on the court at the beginning, and yes, he admitted, starting for several seasons and then being moved back into a reserve role was “tough” — not because he didn’t want to do it, but simply because he needed to figure out how best to make it work.
And now, he said, he’s relishing “doing something different” almost every night. If one of the guards or wings is out, he figures he’ll be starting. If not, “I also enjoy coming off the bench with [Jordan Clarkson] and jacking a bunch of 3s and playing with him as well. Two different styles.” Either way, he added, he figures he’s at his best when he’s creating for his teammates and getting them involved.
In that spirit, he’ll stay firmly out of the online debate about who should start. All he’s worried about is what he can do to make the team better.
“I don’t know what the statistical correct answer is, but I enjoy my role every night,” he said. “… The real, honest answer is I don’t care. I’ve just got to figure out how to be as aggressive and effective and all of that whether I’m starting or coming off the bench.”