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Utah’s other star rookie: Royce O’Neale

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One of the league’s best rookies wasn’t even drafted.

NBA: Utah Jazz at Detroit Pistons Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

While one of Utah’s rookies had the eyes of the nation on him Friday and Saturday night, Utah’s other rookie phenom watched. It’s a familiar scene for Royce O’Neale, who once seen as a footnote to a Utah Jazz offseason that will be remembered more for Gordon Hayward’s spurning of Utah than by shrewd moves made by Dennis Lindsey to reinforce Utah’s defensive identity. Royce O’Neale’s signing was low key even by Jonas Jerebko signing standards. Even googling the event takes some scrolling and possibly going to the second page of search results. Yet the signing of O’Neale might be one of the most impactful decisions of Dennis Lindsey’s offseason; one that includes trading up for a possible rookie of the year candidate in Donovan Mitchell.

Few could have predicted that Royce O’Neale could have been ripe for a breakout in Utah. In 2016-2017, O’Neale was only seeing 20 minutes a game with Valencia Basket in Euroleague and ACB. He averaged 8 points and 5 rebounds a game. Respectable numbers, but they were being tallied in Europe. The exchange rate on those in the NBA wouldn’t naturally transfer over so nicely. Yet, Dennis Lindsey took a chance on him. At the time many wondered if it was the old Baylor connection that drew Lindsey to him. After all, Lindsey’s son plays for Baylor and played with Royce. Most didn’t think Royce had a chance to beat Joel Bolomboy out for a roster spot.

Then preseason rolled around. Royce played well in limited minutes and must have showed glimpses of his potential in practices. Royce beat out Joel Bolomboy. Many questioned whether the Jazz picked the wrong person. Then like Wesley Matthews, Royce O’Neale started chiseling out minutes chunk by chunk. First it was a bit of Burks’ minutes. Then it was Joe Johnson’s when he got hurt. Then it was Neto’s. Then it was Hood’s. Every time O’Neale’s number was called he produced.

[Author’s Note: We have to credit to James Hansen of our site who was his biggest stan over the summer. We clowned him for it then, and now he’s laughing at us for it now.]

Month by month, O’Neale has improved.

October

3.0 min, 0.7 points, 0.7 rebounds, 0.3 steals

November

10.6 min, 2.9 points, 1.9 rebounds, 1.1 assists, 0.6 steals

December

11.4 min, 3.8 points, 2.5 rebounds, 1.1 assists. 0.2 steals

January

16.1 min, 6.5 points, 3.6 rebounds, 1.0 assists, 0.5 steals

February

28.2 min, 10.3 points, 5.9 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 1.1 steals

It’s not just that he’s improving statistically. He’s been the catalyst in a lot of these games. During the win streak, Royce O’Neale has had a +/- of +4.9. When he’s on the court good things happen. Nowhere was that more apparent than in one of the Jazz’s games against San Antonio. The Utah Jazz looked like they were close to losing the San Antonio Spurs JV team. The momentum had changed and it looked like Utah’s win streak was about to come to an end. Until Royce O’Neale had his 1.1 steal/game at just the right moment.

Royce’s wingspan and athleticism help so much at this level as is apparent in that San Antonio highlight. Length cant be taught but it can be utilized. It’s partly why Joe Ingles has had such a unique late stage development this late in his career. Learning how to use that length has changed the trajectory of Royce’s career. The Utah Jazz’s knack for developing players at all ages and skill levels has accelerated O’Neale’s improvement. If a player comes to Utah eager to improve, Utah’s development system will give that player a better makeover than Ryan Gosling’s makeover of Steve Carrell in Crazy Stupid Love.

While some of us thought that Royce O’Neale was worthy of being invited to the NBA’s Rising Stars game—he was—it was miraculous that he was even in the conversation considering most expected him to be spending as much time with the Salt Lake City Stars as Tony Bradley has this year. (Remember Tony? Utah’s OTHER first round draft pick?)

Royce O’Neale has even started to show an ability to work off the dribble. Keep in mind, this is an undrafted rookie showing the ability to create for himself. At this point, we have to wonder how Utah is even developing this. They’ve done it with Ingles and now we’re starting to see it with Royce.

With every passing game he is gaining more synergy with Donovan Mitchell. He has taken on some of the minutes left by Joe Johnson and Rodney Hood. The Utah Jazz’s success over the past 11 games has been built on Rubio, Mitchell, Favors, and Gobert, but the improvement of Royce O’Neale has sustained this incredible winning streak. While Dante Exum’s looms over another potential minutes increase for O’Neale in March, one thing is for certain. The Utah Jazz don’t have just one rookie phenom; they have two.