It’s easy to get lost in the majesty that is Donovan Mitchell. As a rookie, he has constantly pushed boundaries and followed in the footsteps of countless NBA greats that have come before.
But the Mitchell isn’t the only rookie in the playoff rotation for the Utah Jazz. In the current series with the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Jazz have given just over 55 minutes per game to rookies. Mitchell accounts for a little less than 38 of those minutes. The rest of those minutes have gone to the 24-year-old rookie, Royce O’Neale.
Like with Mitchell, O’Neale has made people think “this guy isn’t a rookie” on plenty of occasions. When he’s on the court, he dominates on defense and has shown flashes of offensive potential. And since late November — when he began to get consistent minutes — he’s been arguably the best player off the bench for the Jazz.
The former Baylor standout has earned the unquestionable trust of Quin Snyder (which is hard to earn, just ask Dante Exum). He’s even been kept in during clutch situations and he hasn’t disappointed.
Who could forget Utah’s Feb. 3 clash with the San Antonio Spurs? In that game, the Jazz were clinging to a lead after the Spurs went on a 10-4 run and were within reach of ending Utah’s then 4-game win streak (which would later peak at 11 games). Then this happened.
Spurs had it close late. This steal and finish by Royce O'Neale put an end to their comeback, though. pic.twitter.com/eMjqggyjfK— Bruno Passos (@bouncepassos) February 4, 2018
O’Neale finished the regular season with the best defensive rating among bench players in the NBA at 97.5 (fun fact: Ekpe Udoh was second), but not only that, he had the second-best defensive rating among all players.
A lot of Utah’s success in the last several months has coincided with the individual successes of O’Neale. On the year, O’Neale has 18 games with at least eight points and the Jazz are 14-4 in those games (14 of those 18 games have come since January).
In his four starts this season, the Jazz are 4-0 with three of those wins being by double-digits. O’Neale averaged 11.0 points, 6.3 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 1.8 steals in those game.
Though there are ties between O’Neale filling the box score and Utah wins, so much of what he brings to the table doesn’t show up on the stat sheet. Things like his defense, hustle, and poise.
When you look at his five best games in terms of his box plus/minus, he scored four or fewer points in three of those. And of his 13 games with a plus/minus of +10 or better, he’s scored six or fewer points in seven of those.
Taking a look into how he’s done in the playoffs so far, it’s clear O’Neale has had his struggles on defense. His defensive rating of 108.7 doesn’t even crack the top 50. But that can be explained by his primary defensive assignment: Paul George AKA “Push-off P.”
George has averaged 27.3 points per game on 44.9 percent shooting and 42.5 percent from three. He’s also shot 24 free throws in the series and made 22 of them (he went 12-12 on Monday). But O’Neale has made him work for those shots, and will continue to do so.
If the Jazz didn’t have Donovan Mitchell, Royce O’Neale would be receiving a lot more praise, minutes, and be hailed as part of the future for the Jazz as a key piece on a championship winning team. But sometimes that’s what happens when you have to stand in Mitchell’s shadow.