There have been a lot of headlines in Utah over the course of the summer, more than usual for a Jazz team that normally is out of the national limelight. Mike Conley was traded to Utah, Bojan Bogdanovic, Ed Davis, and Emmanuel Mudiay signed in Utah, Donovan Mitchell’s shoes sold out, Jazz players had amazing performances at FIBA, and Donovan Mitchell did this. There’s a lot to talk about in Utah, but the most important piece to Utah’s success has been quietly skimming beneath all the noise while working to improve his game. His ability to take even the slightest step forward in his development could mean the difference between another disappointing early round playoff exit and a championship. That player? Royce O’Neale.
Royce O’Neale is used to be counted out. Undrafted out of Baylor University, he had to start his professional career in Europe with MHP RIESEN Ludwigsburg and then Herbalife Gran Canaria. His numbers over in Europe didn’t scream “Future NBA Player”. It’s fair to wonder how the Utah Jazz were able to separate the diamond from the coal in his game during this point. While in Europe he averaged 8.3 points on 43.8% shooting from the field (33.5% from three), 4.9 rebounds, and 1.3 assists. How did Royce O’Neale leap to the NBA?
You know those no-name scrubs on Summer League rosters that you have trouble identifying? He was one of those “scrubs.” In the summer of 2017, he played on the New Orleans Pelicans summer league team in Las Vegas. Who ever said what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas? His defense there won the Jazz over because his offense didn’t. He shot 15% from three and averaged only 4.6 point per game. However he averaged 3.6 rebounds in only 19 minutes a game as a guard. That’s good for 6.8 rebounds PER36. The Utah Jazz saw potential.
That potential led into the Jazz’s training camp where he beat out the second round drafted Joel Bolomboy. A move that many—most of us at this site not named James Hansen—didn’t see coming. He went from being the last man on the roster to a playoff starter in his 1st season. In his second season, he had a sophomore slump. He started slow and found himself in and out of the rotation. By the end of the season his play improved. He had a net rating of +12.3 when he was on the court and averaged 5.1 points, 3.8 rebounds, and 1.9 assists in 24 minutes a game. His shooting metrics dropped, but his defensive intensity was back.
This upcoming season, the Utah Jazz will ask Royce O’Neale to take the arguably the biggest step forward in his development: play power forward. Back in July, Tony Jones of The Athletic reported the Utah Jazz were seriously contemplating starting Royce O’Neale at Power Forward. That would mean Royce O’Neale went from undrafted shooting guard at the end of the roster to starting power forward of the Utah Jazz in only two years time. Playing power forward for the Utah Jazz is akin to piloting the black lion of Voltron. It’s a position that has been held down by some big time players such as Adrian Dantley, Thurl Bailey, Andrei Kirilenko, Carlos Boozer, Derrick Favors, and Karl Malone. How could the Utah Jazz be looking at a 6’6 shooting guard for the power forward position?
Because the power forward position is not the power forward position. It’s another perimeter position. And not just a perimeter position, but a playmaking position. We can’t think of the stretch fours as the reason the NBA has changed so dramatically. There have always been fours who could stretch it out to the three point line for spacing. However, there haven’t been that many fours who could handle the ball well. That’s why Andrei Kirilenko was so dangerous at the four position in his early career. The ability to force a traditional power forward to guard the ball handler in pick and roll situations or be the tip of defensive spear for a team’s defense on the perimeter is remarkably potent. That’s why Draymond Green is so special in Golden State and PJ Tucker has been so vital in Houston.
It doesn’t end on the offensive end either. They still have to have the strength on the defensive end to matchup against four different position AND still rebound at an above average rate. (Yet another reason why prime Andrei Kirilenko would dominate this era, but I digress.)
Low Usage / High Efficiency
Draymond Green is so potent on the offensive end because he doesn’t demand the ball. He’s a low usage rate guy compared to his teammates—and for good reason. He plays on the same team as Steph Curry and Klay Thompson. He played with Kevin Durant. They just added another high usage guy in D’Angelo Russell. Draymond’s playmaking and efficiency allow him to fit nicely with high usage guys. Green for the last 3 seasons has been in the 100th percentile for assist to usage rate. So how does Royce O’Neale measure up?
He’s in the 88th percentile. He also has a low turnover percentage. That’s good for Utah as Royce O’Neale could be starting with high usage guys like Mike Conley, Donovan Mitchell, and Bojan Bogdanovic. Many are clamoring for the Utah Jazz to start their five best players, but it’s more important to put your players in the best positions to succeed. Having Royce O’Neale who is capable of hitting the open three—92nd percentile in three point percentage—and doesn’t demand the ball is the perfect low usage complementary piece for guys who need the ball in their hands to do damage. Royce O’Neale is the release valve for an offense when it starts to get stifled.
Royce O’Neale is actually a better shooter than Draymond Green who was in the 18th percentile in three point shooting. You can’t leave Royce open or make that a point of your offense to leave him on the perimeter. Where Draymond really is special is his playmaking. While Royce O’Neale was in the 44th percentile when it came to assist percentage, Draymond was in 98th percentile. Pretty big difference.
Even though the size and agility at the four position is rapidly changing, teams still need that rebounding. According to a recent article from Seth Partnow of The Athletic, scoring opportunities after a defensive rebound are the third best opportunity for points behind a steal and offensive rebound.
The average difference in efficiency between the two start types is around 6.5 points per 100 chances, with 19 of 30 teams between five and eight points better per 100 in live ball situations than off of deadballs.
While ballhawking steals is great for points and Royce O’Neale is no slouch when it comes to steals—in his rookie year, he had a steal in San Antonio that sealed the game—O’Neale is a beast at rebounding. According to Cleaning the Glass, Royce O’Neale was in the 92nd percentile in defensive rebounding. In offensive rebounding, he was in the 23rd percentile. But there is hope for better performance in that area. In Royce’s rookie year he was in the 53rd percentile.
On the defensive end, Royce O’Neale is an amazing defender. According to FiveThirtyEight’s DRAYMOND rating which measure how well a player closes out on a shot and defends it, O’Neale has the third highest rating on the team behind Rudy Gobert and Dante Exum.
DRAYMOND Rating - Utah Jazz
Areas for Improvement
This is where Utah wants to see the biggest developmental gains with Royce O’Neale. Royce O’Neale is going to be surrounded by weapons. If he improves his playmaking ability in transition—identifying the open man and weapons available—and becomes a player with whom Quin Snyder is comfortable initiating the offense, then Utah is a very dangerous team. Now he’s not just a floor spacer and defensive stopper. He becomes the total package. The ideal modern power forward.
When Royce O’Neale gets a live defensive rebound, good things can happen for the Utah Jazz on the next possession. As a rookie, Royce O’Neale made the Utah Jazz an additional +1.8 points per play when he came down with the defensive rebound. That advantage was gone last year as he dipped to +0.9 points. Can he return to his rookie level?
The other part to weaponizing Royce O’Neale on offense is his ability to create out of the pick and roll. This does not mean Royce needs to find his own shot. When Royce O’Neale is on the court with the likes of Mike Conley, Donovan Mitchell, Joe Ingles, Bojan Bogdanovic, and Rudy Gobert, teams would much rather have him playmake than any other player. The better Royce O’Neale can be with putting his teammates in positions to succeed and becoming a better facilitator—aka point forward in the likes of Joe Ingles—the higher the ceiling Utah can have for their star-laden lineups.
While Royce O’Neale’s journey into the NBA has been a success story, he will need to have a Joe Ingles like glow-up in year three for the Jazz’s championship hopes to become real. The tools are there. He has shown glimpses of different parts of his game in his rookie and sophomore seasons of becoming the modern power forward Utah craves. If O’Neale puts all the pieces together in year three, watch out, he will have unlocked Utah’s star potential and made their championship goal obtainable.