Despite being a quiet presence, Royce O’Neale is the ‘pulse’ of the Utah Jazz, teammates say

While his production on the court is modest, the effort and intangibles he brings all help set the tone.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz forward Royce O'Neale (23) as the Utah Jazz host the Miami Heat, NBA basketball in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 13, 2021.

It’s an unquestioned fact that Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert are the Utah Jazz’s two best and most talented players.

And yet, when public address voice Dan Roberts concludes announcing the team’s starting lineup in games at Vivint Arena, it’s always one of two other guys bringing the team together in a circle with a quick little impromptu dance routine.

Mike Conley, as a respected veteran and third All-Star, is perhaps not a surprising choice to be a tone-setter. But the other?

Royce O’Neale.

Asked about the genesis of his pregame routine, O’Neale smiled and, as usual, kept it simple.

“I just like dancing,” he said. “That’s easy. You put me in a circle, I don’t get stage fright. I’ll dance anytime.”

The thing is, he’s doing a bit more than merely showing off some moves.

“Honestly, he’s like the pulse of our team,” said Conley.

Aside from his venerated 3-point shooting, the Baylor wing’s stats don’t really jump off the page. And still, his numbers are indicative of a certain level of balance he brings, with his 2021-22 averages of 7.8 points, 5.0 rebounds, 2.4 assists, and a career-high-by-far 1.5 steals per game.

The Jazz are certainly well-aware of just how well-rounded his game is.

“He does so many things on the court to help the team,” said Gobert. “It’s hard to put a value to all of the things that he does.”

Which brings up a compelling point.

O’Neale certainly would seem to be one of those players whose worth cannot be defined solely and simply by raw data and on/off splits and whatever other statistical models you can throw out there.

It can be something of an overused basketball cliché to suggest that a player’s full worth cannot be defined by his stats, and yet there’s no denying that what O’Neale brings would seem to be greater than the sum of the individual component parts.

Obviously, it’s established that he’s the Jazz’s best and most versatile defender not named Gobert. He’s also respected for being a willing and effective rebounder, frequently throwing his body around among the league’s giants in spite of only being 6-foot-4 himself.

And still, there’s more to it than that.

Asked about O’Neale’s penchant for contributing some way or another in clutch situations, coach Quin Snyder shook his head slowly in a show of appreciative disbelief.

“That bell keeps ringing, and he keeps answering it,” Snyder said. “What he’s given us, in terms of his toughness defensively, and he’s been really consistently opportunistic with his shots — he knows when the shot’s gonna come, and he’s confident shooting it. Oftentimes, the baskets that he gets, they’re big buckets.”

Conley added that he “brings the intangibles, the little things that don’t show up on the nightly news.”

Along those lines, work and sacrifice don’t show up in a boxscore, but are integral components of Utah’s success.

“He’s the guy that dictates how we play with the way that he plays, with the effort he plays with every single possession,” Conley continued. “Defensively, you know what you’re gonna get, but even offensively, the stuff he sacrifices for our team — he’s more than capable of doing a lot more; if he was on another team, he might handle the ball and bring it up as a point forward more often. But we have so many [ball-handling] guys, he’s told to run to the corners, sprint and dive out of the way, offensive rebound, and just do all the dirty work that a lot of guys in this league pass on.

“The guys like him are invaluable, and make your team who they are,” he concluded. “We know who he is for us and how much we value him, regardless of what the outside world might think.”

Told of Conley’s comments, O’Neale nodded and replied that it’s actually a somewhat familiar refrain.

The point guard and others have, he said, made it a point to tell him consistently that every time someone sees him show up to the Zions Bank Basketball Campus early, or stay late, or ask an assistant coach to work with him on an extra drill, or observes him getting in one more film session, it makes an impact.

“A couple guys have said [thing like] that — that I’m the heartbeat,” O’Neale said. “It’s a big compliment for myself. I try not to think about it like that. Mike, every day me and him talk — he tells me that I’m the one who keeps everybody together, keeps everybody under control, [that] I’m the one who has to lead, bring the energy every night, and everybody else is gonna follow.”