2017-18 Rewind: Royce O’Neale Seizes the Moment

July 5th, 2018 | by Steve Godfrey

Though a rookie, O’Neale carved out a steady role by playing elite defense. (Melissa Majchrzak via utahjazz.com)

Flashback to February 11. 

The Utah Jazz were on an eight-game winning streak but took flight to Portland, Oregon to face the potent and division-leading Trail Blazers. Making matters worse, floor general Ricky Rubio had just gone down with an injured hip, prompting Jazz coach Quin Snyder to make an important lineup decision: who should start at the vacant guard spot? 

Buried on the bench was Royce O’Neale, a 24-year-old rookie, who hardly played in October and November, cracked the rotation for a bit in January, but still tallied multiple DNPs1 across his game log up to this point.

While everyone was rightfully raving about Donovan Mitchell, this other Jazz rookie was about to log his first NBA start. Mitchell moved to starting point guard that night, and O’Neale was inserted into the starting lineup to showcase his versatility and ability to just play ball.

Against the Blazers, O’Neale was quietly amazing. He only finished with four points — including a nice dunk —but had a block and a steal, 11 rebounds, and six assists. Oh, and he was a plus-28, the highest on the team.

The next game, versus the mighty San Antonio Spurs, O’Neale got the start again and did enough of the little things to make an impact: eight points, three rebounds. In addition, O’Neale did the defensive thing which was really why he made the Jazz roster in the first place. In 38 tough minutes, O’Neale proved he was an NBA player as helped the Jazz squeak out a two-point win against a playoff seeding rival. He took it to the next level in his next start, as the Jazz took down Phoenix behind a stat sheet-stuffing performance from Rolls Royce: 19 points, a block, two steals, two assists, five rebounds, 3-for-3 from deep, and a plus-9. 

The Rolls didn’t want to just stay in the garage anymore. 

Every Hero Needs an Origin Story

It’s amazing to see how far O’Neale has come just to be on the Jazz roster in the first place.

He played college ball at Denver, where his crowning achievement was being named All-Western Athletic Conference Third Team.

For emphasis: Third Team. In the WAC.

After two years in grand Colorado, he transferred to Baylor for his next two. During his senior season, O’Neale started and played in 33 games, averaging six rebounds and 10 points a ball game. His shooting percentage was high and he hustled on defense, but he went undrafted in the summer of 2015.

O’Neale did the overseas thing next—in Germany, with a Spanish Club, and with a Lithuanian club—mixed in with some summer league ball with the Golden State Warriors and the Jazz. Before the season tipped off in 2017, O’Neale was the last man added to the roster. To add him, the Jazz had to cut Joel Bolomboy: a potential stretch big man and an alumnus of nearby Weber State alum. That the Jazz released their own former draft pick (and a fan favorite) despite his guaranteed salary was the first indication of how much they saw in O’Neale.

O’Neale became just another example of Dennis Lindsey’s knack at finding talent and Snyder’s ability to maximize that talent. Instead of just being another guy who can’t get into the league, Lindsey found a gem in his pocket and took a chance on it. Lindsey has done this a lot, helping the Jazz field a team of youth and depth. You combine that with Snyder and his staff being focused on development and making players better, and Utah holds a recipe for the best chocolate chip cookies.

Could O’Neale be another Wesley Matthews? Joe Ingles? It’s really easy to foresee. Given O’Neale is on a favorable minimum-scale contract, —essentially a three-year deal worth $4.1 million and then restricted free agency2 —let’s just hope Utah doesn’t let this one go away.

Super-Power: Defense

His value starts on the defensive end. It’s what got him in the league, on the roster, and extended minutes in the first place. To be a Jazz player, to be on Quin’s good side, to excel in the NBA: you have to play defense.

At 6-foot-6, 215 pounds, O’Neale can switch across the guard positions, while also lining up at his natural small forward position. Due to his size, weight, muscle, and length, it’s easy to conceive that he will one day be able to man up at the power forward slot as well. In the modern NBA, that means O’Neale could theoretically cover four positions, or switch across any pick-and-roll, a valued skill in the league. 

Per stats like those at Basketball Reference, O’Neale is already on his way to thriving on the defensive side of the ball in the NBA. For comparison’s sake, Ingles scored a 1.0 Defensive Box Plus/Minus in 2017-2018, which estimates the number of points per 100 possessions a player contributed above a league-average player, translated to an average team. O’Neale sits slightly higher at 1.7. 

Here another: Ingles gaves the Jazz a 3.6 Defensive Win Share this season, which is the number of wins a player gives the team based on their defense. O’Neale isn’t too shabby himself, nailing down at 1.8. For perspective, Ingles contributed a 1.6 DWS his first two years on the Jazz roster, before extended minutes and role helped him leap forward. Again, picture Royce as a Joe 2.0.

What I like about O’Neale on defense is that he keeps his feet moving and hands up. You rarely see him commit a foul. In fact, O’Neale only committed 39 total shooting fouls on the season (in 69 games played). This number was a testament to his technique and work ethic on the defensive side of the ball to fight, scheme, and defend appropriately.  It’s sound defense. 

John Keefer, of the JNotes, added further emphasis to O’Neale’s Defensive Super Power. He noted, “Of players who played at least 50 games and averaged 15 or more minutes, O’Neale had the second best defensive rating in the entire NBA. At 97.3, his defensive rating was even better than Rudy Gobert‘s. Of qualified wing players, he was tops in the league. He also had the sixth-best defensive real plus-minus of all small forwards.”

Go ahead, read that again. 

Simply: since he can play defense, he will always have a place in the league. Lucky for Jazz fans, it will be in a sunset jersey.

Developing Power: Three-Point Shooting

The next necessity for a Jazzman is to be able to shoot from deep. It’s the modern NBA, and three-pointers are worth more than two. O’Neale is extremely consistent as a shooter, hitting at 50% on his Effective Field Goal Percentage, higher than both Rookie of the Year candidates Mitchell and Ben Simmons. He did have some speed bumps along the way, but he has the potential to be a consistent shooter and scorer for year’s to come. In fact, I’d label his development as key as that of Mitchell or Dante Exum this off-season. As those three continue to evolve and progress, the future of the Jazz will stay bright. O’Neale should be considered in that same conversation. 

For the season, O’Neale ended up shooting 35 percent from deep, as he rode highs (44 and 50 percent in February and May, respectively) and lows (22 percent in March). During the playoff series versus the Oklahoma City Thunder and Houston Rockets, he was right on his season average, but he put up more attempts, 2.5 per game (compared to 1.7). Like most of the corner-loving Jazz, 41% of his threes are from a corner, where he can hit on 48% of his attempts. It’s the bread and butter for the team, and for O’Neale.

Shooting Table
TMPOSGMPFG%DIST.2P0-33-1010-1616 <33P2P0-33-1010-1616 <33P%AST’D%3PA3P%ATT.MD.
Provided by Basketball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 5/22/2018.


While it’s nice that O’Neale is (and could become) a shooter, he is just as well-rounded offensively as he is defensively. O’Neale took 43% of his shots at the rim, 20% of his shots were from the corner three, and 37% of his shots were from deep. That’s great distribution. We can also dissect the numbers to learn that a chunk of his threes, 35% in the regular season and 47% in the playoffs, are catch-and-shoot which tell viewers he can be a spot-up guy, run off screens, and thrive in the well-oiled machine that is Utah Jazz offense. I also like to look at his Shots Dashboard to see his effective field goal percentage in the 60s in various scenarios. The guy is, and can continue to be, efficient. 

The Sequel: What’s Next? 

Front office staff saw something in O’Neale to pick him up, give him guaranteed money, and add him to Utah’s bench. He then proved his worth in practice and preparation to get a shot when guys went down. In those minutes, O’Neale more than held his own, showing potential and promise, which allowed front office to take another risk: sending starter Rodney Hood away. O’Neale, and admittedly getting Jae Crowder in return, was plenty insurance for losing Hood’s services. In fact, I’d contend that O’Neale’s advanced development and tenacious defense made the decision easier than expected for Lindsey and friends. 

If O’Neale can keep developing on the trajectory fans saw with advanced minutes, he will be a valuable contributor as the Jazz make runs deeper and deeper into the playoffs. As mentioned earlier, if he can develop into an above-average contributor — even if only defensively— it heightens the Jazz’s ceiling just a bit more. 

Add it all together: Rolls Royce is humble, hard-working, knows his role, and does his job. He is a quality NBA player.

And he’s a quality human being, too. What made him that way? Probably his mother. Who is even cooler than Royce? Probably his mother. How should we end this article? Probably with his mother. 

Steve Godfrey

Steve studied journalism and English, and now teaches high school in Northern Utah. He started his own website and writes about being a Tortured Jazz fan at: http://www.thetorturedfan.com/. He joined the Salt City Hoops team at the start of the 2017-18 season to connect with more Jazz fans and to continue to apply his passion for writing and for basketball.

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