Royce O’Neale’s journey to the NBA was about as unlikely as you might find. He went from playing basketball at the University of Denver to locking down the reigning NBA MVP in the playoffs in a matter of a few years. Despite not being drafted, and playing overseas for two years and being in and out of NBA Summer League squads, Royce has finally found his groove as an NBA player in Salt Lake City.
Despite coming in a loss and an elimination from the NBA Playoffs, O’Neale is fresh off one of the best games of his NBA career. In game five of the series against the Houston Rockets, he scored 18 points on 8-13 shooting, including 5 rebounds and 2 assists.
This came in a series in which O’Neale was tasked with one of the most difficult and borderline impossible duties in today’s NBA; trying to guard James harden. While Royce O’Neale was on the court during the series vs the Rockets, the Jazz sported a defensive rating of 96.2 in 137 minutes. Without him on the court in the series, that number skyrocketed to 117.6, a difference of 21 points per 100 possessions. This was by far the highest differential of any Jazz player during the series. This defensive rating differential stat from this year’s playoff series is just one example of the potential that we’ve seen out of Royce O’Neale.
After completing two seasons in the NBA, where does Royce O’Neale go from here? He has one more year left on his rookie deal with the Utah Jazz, and how he performs this next season will be a very strong factor in what determines the next path of his NBA journey. If you were Dennis Lindsey and were looking at him next summer, with a contract extension in mind, you’d probably ask yourself “Ok, how good is Royce going to get?”. That question, and the answer to it, should tell you exactly how much, and for how long, you wanted O’Neale to be on your team for.
So, how good is Royce O’Neale going to get? What’s his ceiling as an NBA player? Before we look at where he is going, let’s look at where he’s been. During his first two seasons, O’Neale averaged 5 points per game for the past two years. He improved pretty drastically as a shooter over the past year, improving his shooting percentages from 42/36 in 2017-18 to 48/37 in 2018-19. O’Neale showed some very strong defensive abilities at several points over the past two seasons, including locking down some of the NBA’s best at certain times when called upon.
In both seasons of Royce O’Neale’s NBA career, he’s stepped up his play come playoff time. His averages jumped up nearly five points per game both years, including a jump in his FG percentage to nearly 50 percent. As a big-bodied, defensive-minded wing in today’s NBA, if you can get 50 percent shooting and 38 percent from three, you’re probably going to get paid. And that’s exactly what Royce O’Neale has been thus far in his career.
The true question now is whether or not he can get better. And if so, by how much? He’s probably not going to shoot much better as far as percentages go (because he’s already shooting pretty dang well), so how can he improve offensively? We saw his game expanding quite a bit just recently in the Houston series, with some impressive moves off the dribble and some strong finishes at the rim. This, to me, is where Royce O’Neale can see his game take off. Instead of just being a solid knock-down spot-up shooter, O’Neale has the skills to be a great finisher off the dribble. He’s long, athletic, and strong, which is the perfect equation for someone that could be finishing more at the rim. He’s not going to be the next LeBron James or Giannis Antetokounmpo, but Royce O’Neale can cause some serious damage to teams near the rim if he can hone this in.
There are a lot of guys that have skill sets similar to Royce O’Neale’s that have made a solid living as NBA players. Guys like Andre Iguodala, Rudy Gay, Wilson Chandler, etc. To me, I think that’s exactly what Royce O’Neale’s ceiling is. A guy that averages 12-16 points per game, with an occasional 25 every now and then. A guy that you stick on the best opposing player on the court and let him to go battle every single night to get some defensive stops. Someone that has that toughness, grit, and stamina to try and slow down guys like LeBron James, James Harden, and Kevin Durant on a nightly basis. It’s really not crazy to see Royce O’Neale becoming one of those guys. But it will be up to him to ultimately achieve it and make the most of his NBA career.