The Other Rookie: Utah’s O’Neale Seizes Opportunity with Energy, Smarts

February 16th, 2018 | by Allen Schowengerdt

O’Neale has forced his way into Utah’s rotation (Streeter Lecka via ESPN)

Jazz rookie Royce O’Neale spent last season in Europe playing for Gran Canaria in Spain’s ACB league, where he averaged eight points and five rebounds per game. So it was quite a surprise when it was announced that the Jazz had signed the 6’6″ forward to a guaranteed contract last summer. Jazz fans had never heard of him, highlight videos were difficult to find, and the roster was already basically full. Most considered it a lock that O’Neale would be cut from the team in favor of local fan favorite Joel Bolomboy.

But now O’Neale has cemented himself in coach Quin Snyder’s rotation and is averaging 10.3 points and 5.9 rebounds per game for the month of February. His season long plus-minus average of 3.2 is excellent for a rookie. To top it off, he heads into the All-Star break fresh off a career-high 19 points against Phoenix that included a 3-for-3 performance from behind the arc. Those stats are awesome, and so is the story. But lets take a deeper look at why Snyder has so much trust in the rookie. 


Very early on in the season one of the things that stood out to me about O’Neale is how aggressive he is at hitting the boards. He averages 7.6 rebounds per 36 minutes, an excellent number for a wing. Almost all of those rebounds are on the defensive end and he is quick to push the ball up the court and look for an offensive advantage. This rebounding skill is especially valuable when bigs like Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors have to focus on keeping the opposing big off the offensive glass. 

This play in particular stands out. O’Neale not only gets into a perfect help-side position to make LaMarcus Aldridge pass the ball after catching it on the pick and roll, but he then boxes out the bigger man, elevates for the rebound, and begins the break:

On this play, he’s guarding in the far corner, but you can see how well he reads the trajectory of the ball and then uses his athleticism to go get the ball:

These are small things that he was doing even when he was seeing just spot minutes early in the season. Gaining possession on the rebound is an incredibly important part of defense, and coach Snyder undoubtedly noticed these plays from the start. 


An aspect of O’Neale’s game that has not gotten enough attention is his passing. He makes quick decisions, sees where the play should go in advance, and is confident enough to throw passes others may not. This is getting even better as he becomes a more confident playmaker out of the pick and roll and in go-and-catch situations. All of this adds up to a very respectable 3.1 assists per 36. 

Here you see him in a high pick and roll. He reads the soft defense and attacks to make the big man commit to him, then expertly lays in a little pocket bounce pass:

This next clip shows him catching on the move, so the defense in a bind already. He sees the cutting Favors and puts the pass where only Favors can get it.

In the flow of the Jazz offense, that kind of play will happen more often from the wing where he is adept at hitting the pass to the opposite corner for a three, or dropping it off to the big if the defense sags off the corner.

Another key component of passing is being able to read the defense and make quick decisions. O’Neale often knows where he is going to pass the ball even before receiving it, as he does here by zipping a quick pass to an open Ricky Rubio.

When you have players that are able to read and react that quickly, the defense simply cannot react in time. These are the exact situations that Snyder’s offensive scheme is designed to create. 


O’Neale possesses a lot of the characteristics you would look for in a quality NBA defender. At 6’6″ and 226 pounds, he has the size and athleticism to comfortably guard positions 1-3 and on occasion can even switch onto some fours and hold his own. Combine that with consistent effort and you have a heck of a player. 

In the video below he uses his athleticism to fight over the screen, attacks All-Star guard Klay Thompson aggressively and with high hands. Favors had showed on the pick and roll in order to deter the quick shot, and O’Neale recovers with high hands and long arms to prevent the pass to Favors’ man and create the steal.

On this possession O’Neale is guarding DeMar DeRozan, one of the premier scoring guards in the NBA. He keeps active feet and active hands, forcing DeRozan into a tough fadeaway shot.

Defense of that quality and effort will keep any player in the league for a long time. 


Those are some of the less obvious things that O’Neale does that impress me. But I can’t resist the chance to talk about his offense as well. He is up to 39.5 percent from three on the season, thanks to nearly 56 percent marksmanship in February. During Utah’s current 11-game win streak he has had games of 4-for-4 (San Antonio) and 3-for-3 (Phoenix) from behind the arc. He scored a career-high 19 points against Phoenix to keep the streak alive heading into the All-Star break. You can actually see the confidence he is playing with, which leads to more aggressive play as well. When he sees an advantage, especially in transition, he attacks it. Once again in this clip he gathers in the rebound, notices he has a step on the defense and doesn’t stop until he is fouled and earns some free throws.

These kinds of plays can be the difference in close games. 

Jazz GM Dennis Lindsey and his staff of scouts did an amazing job with this find. I don’t know how many teams were considering signing O’Neale this summer, but I am willing to bet that none of them were willing to give him a guaranteed contract. The Jazz organization deserves some credit for this find. But ultimately, the credit goes Royce O’Neale. It is obvious that the rookie wing has put in the work to be successful. He is willing to make any play it takes to stay on the court. This is one of the best stories of the year for Jazz. I am happy for him and look forward to him being with the Jazz for a long time. 

Allen Schowengerdt

After playing basketball all the way through college, Allen understands the Xs and Os of basketball and enjoys breaking down film. He's passionate about sports in general, especially the Jazz.

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