If you look at box scores or rookie rankings, you won’t see Royce O’Neale at the top of most lists. But when you look closer, you’ll find that O’Neale quietly had a great rookie season last year both in eye test and statistically.
For a rookie, his 3pt% (35.6%) was impressive and combine that with elite level defense, you have the makings of a great player with some solid potential. O’Neale’s impact last season was very apparent, and his defense won games for the Jazz.
His offensive numbers have room for improvement, but that’s to be expected for a rookie. Especially an undrafted one.
So what should Jazz fans expect of Royce O’Neale this year and beyond?
O’Neale is part of an ongoing trend for Utah in the draft and in free agency
Before setting any expectations, it’s important to look at the big picture of the Jazz and how O’Neale fits into their long term strategy. Looking at the rotation players the Jazz have picked up in the last 4-5 years you’ll see a lot of similarities.
Royce O’Neale 6’6”
Jae Crowder 6’6”
Dante Exum 6’6”
Thabo Sefolosha 6’6”
Joe Ingles 6’6”
Grayson Allen 6’5”
Georges Niang 6’8”
(measurement numbers via NBA.com)
The Jazz have filled their team with long, switchy, perimeter players that can play multiple positions. Outside of Niang and Allen, who are entering the first year of their contracts, each of these players is a positive defensive player. Also, all of these players do more than one thing. You wouldn't call any of these players a “specialist.”
To play on the Jazz you have to be, at the very least, a solid defensive player. Any less than that and you will lose play time.
You also have to pass the ball within the offense. You can’t be a player that pounds the ball for three or four dribbles and then make a telegraphed pass. The Jazz require players to be quick with their decisions to create opportunities in the offense.
You also need to shoot. The Jazz offense creates open shots and players that make them will get time.
Royce O’Neale does all those things and will get more and more time as he improves.
What role will O’Neale fill for the Utah Jazz this season?
Whenever one of the Jazz’s perimeter starters went down, O’Neale was the immediate replacement. So at the very least, O’Neale will be the first man off the bench for Quin Snyder and a spot starter for any injuries that come.
When O’Neale started last season the Jazz were 4-0. The ability to have O’Neale step in and keep the Jazz at a winning clip is a huge advantage. When you consider O’Neale makes 1.3 million this season it’s remarkable.
But can O’Neale be more than a sixth man?
O’Neale shot 35.6% from three last year. What happens if he ups that to 37% or more? Combine that with elite defense and you have an elite plus minus player on your hands. In limited minutes, O’Neale was in the top 20 of small forwards in RPM. With more time and better shooting there’s no reason he can’t climb into the top ten.
Last year, O’Neale exceeded expectations and made Rodney Hood expendable. With more improvement, and his bargain contract, he might be the key to the Jazz making an even bigger move.
To crack the starting lineup, O’Neale will have to beat out one of Ricky Rubio, Donovan Mitchell or Joe Ingles. Not likely.
But even though O’Neale is most likely a sixth man, he’ll provide 20-30 minutes a game of high level defense and shooting. This will help the Jazz extend leads with the second unit. Then at the end of games, O’Neale will help choke out opposing teams by guarding their best wing defender.
O’Neale won’t be a regular starter, but he’ll be an important part of the Jazz winning over 50 games and going deep in the playoffs.