When you look at a winning team you’ll see the stars getting all the spotlight. This season, and rightfully so, Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert are receiving a ton of accolades for their incredible play. But for good teams to become great they need elite role players around those stars.
Because these guys don’t get all the highlights on SportsCenter or the front page on Slam Magazine we typically call them an unsung hero. I couldn’t think of anyone who better fits this description for the Utah Jazz than Royce O’neale.
This season O’neale is averaging 6.6 points, 5 rebounds and 2.5 assists. Those aren’t numbers that national bloggers are going to write lead stories on. But when you look closer at Royce O’neale, you realize he’s a core part of Utah’s winning ways this season.
Here’s a few reasons why Royce O’neale should be getting more praise than he normally receives.
Tell me if you recognize this stat line? 19 points on 6/24 shooting, 1/7 from three with a -23 plus/minus.
I’ll give you a second...
That’s Kawhi Leonard’s statline from yesterday. Who was guarding him? Royce O’neale.
And this isn’t an anomaly. Royce O’neale guards the best player night after night. His combination of size, length, athleticism and strength make him an elite defender. One of Kawhi Leonard’s biggest strengths is his ability to bully his way to spots and get his shot off. Not against O’neale. Royce uses his strong frame to keep him from his spots.
O’neale is also quick enough to guard some of the quicker players in the league including bigger fours.
The numbers show out in opponent box scores but also in the advanced stats. O’neale is #83 overall in the league in ESPN’s Real Plus Minus. He’s #50 in Defensive Real Plus Minus. That’s really impressive when you consider he’s guarding the likes of Kawhi Leonard and Lebron James night after night. When you narrow it to just small forwards, Royce O’neale is the #11 player in Defensive Real Plus Minus. Translation? Royce O’neale is a FORCE on the defensive end.
Let’s take a look at the top 3 point shooters in the league:
- George Hill 53%
- Rodney Hood 49.3%
- Duncan Robinson 46.5%
- Doug McDermott 46%
- Marcus Morris 45.9%
- Royce O’neale!!! 45.4%
- JJ Reddick 45.2%
- Bojan Bogdanovic!!! 43.6%
- Davis Bertans 43.4%
- Joe Harris 42.8%
O’neale is shooting lights out this season and proving to be one of the premiere shooters in the league. When O’neale spots up with space, it’s as good as made. Speaking of spacing (that’s fun to say) and its importance for a good offense. For it to actually work you have to have players who knock down threes. O’neale has done that all season and it’s why he’s helped the offense so much this year.
Over the last three seasons O’neale has improved his three point shooting each year. O’neale has had hot streaks the last few seasons with periods where the shot wasn’t falling. The exciting thing about this season is how consistent he’s become. O’neale knows he belongs on the court and hits big shot after big shot.
It’s not just shooting either. O’neale is always making the right play. When he first started playing for the Jazz it felt frenetic at times as he was looking to not make mistakes. Now O’neale is making the right play every time. He averages 2.5 assists because he moves the ball. If it’s an open shot he takes it, if not, he swings it to the next shooter.
Not just that, O’neale has developed a nice drive and kick game, something I never expected. It’s really a comfort having O’neale on the floor, he’s truly a premiere 3 and D player.
There was an interesting moment in Utah’s win against the Clippers. In the first quarter Rudy Gobert was really struggling to box out Ivica Zubac who had 7 offensive rebounds in the first quarter alone. Through the TV you could hear Royce yelling at Rudy to box out.
You don’t hear that from Royce even last year. But this year is different. O’neale is a core part of Jazz wins now. He’s one of the strongest links in the chain and he’s expecting the Jazz stars to put the same effort he’s putting in night after night.
For every championship team, there’s the unsung heroes of the team. The Robert Horry’s and the Fred VanVleet’s of the world.