Halfway through the 1st quarter of Utah’s first preseason game against the Adelaide 36ers, it looked as though the 36ers were going to give the Jazz another run for their money just like last preseason. The Jazz were turning the ball over frequently, looked out of sorts, and their defense—albeit missing three starters—was looking very un-Jazz-like. That is ... until Royce O’Neale checked in. The 36ers were leading 13-12 at that substitution, and it would be the last time they saw a lead. O’Neale would score 7 points, shut down Adelaide’s best player Jerome Randall, and lead Utah on a 16-3 run to end the quarter. Royce no longer looked like a super sub coming off the bench, he stood tall as a starting caliber NBA wing out there on Saturday.
The talk with Royce O’Neale even in July was that Utah was eyeing O’Neale for the Power Forward position. That seemed crazy at the time for a team that has had the likes of Karl Malone, Paul Millsap, Carlos Boozer, and Derrick Favors manning the position. Little 6’6 Royce O’Neale? A power forward? The same player who was starting at shooting guard just a couple seasons ago in Europe? After only one preseason game against admittedly subpar competition, it looks to be the right call.
Royce O’Neale has always been a strong player and an intelligent player, but he’s now a savvy player. Just as Donovan Mitchell commented that the game was finally slowing down for him, it’s slowing down for O’Neale who entered the league as a rookie in the same year. O’Neale is also the beneficiary of a league that is now position-less. High rebounding wings now dominate the power forward position because of their defensive versatility and ability to spread the floor with both their shooting and playmaking ability. Royce displayed that playmaking ability by dishing out 6 assists on Saturday night. He actually was Utah’s top assist-man.
While his rebounding wasn’t on full display on Saturday—he only pulled down one rebound—those are sure to come as he plays more of the power forward position in the coming preseason games.
This is not to say he’s fully ready. He could very well receive his coming to Jesus moment when he’s asked to guard Giannis Antetokounmpo on Wednesday when the Jazz visit the Milwaukee Bucks. For the Jazz’s credit, players like Giannis are why they are confident in Royce O’Neale’s abilities. He has the ability to guard Giannis as a wing on the perimeter then as a big man down low.
To O’Neale’s credit, he’s not going to be the only player asked to face up against Giannis, but he’s one arrow in the Jazz’s quiver to guarding unicorns like the Greek Freak. In order to throw different looks at players like LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Giannis, and others, Utah can sub out Royce O’Neale for the bigger Jeff Green. If Utah wants to make those players expend more energy on the offensive end, they can slot Bojan Bogdanovic down to the four spot. They can also throw the pests of all pests, Joe Ingles, at them for another look. Utah’s ready for the challenge, and Royce is the tip of the spear.
Royce O’Neale finished with 12 points, 1 rebound, 6 assists, and only 1 turnover in 22 minutes. He was a game high +/- +34. Remember that Royce O’Neale can do damage in low usage situations. He doesn’t need the ball in his hands to be dangerous. He can be weaponized on defense and put up big roadblocks to a team’s best offensive player. James Harden knows this from the playoffs, and the 36ers Jerome Randall learned this the hard way.
It was only one preseason game, but it’s a very promising start for a player who has been getting a lot of praise in the offseason and training camp. So far, it looks like it’s well-deserved.