Since the beginning of the bubble in Orlando the narrative around the Jazz is that they’d be missing Bojan Bogdanovic too much to make any sort of significant impact in the playoffs.
Royce O’Neale might be changing that perspective.
In their opening game against the New Orleans Pelicans O’neale fit perfectly within the offensive and defensive Jazz schemes. And against a perpetual Jazz killer in Brandon Ingram, who averaged 39 PPG against the Jazz before the pandemic, O’Neale changed the game.
-- NO was 0-5 when contested by Royce O'Neale.— Eric Woodyard (@E_Woodyard) July 31, 2020
-- He held Brandon Ingram to 0-5 alone (0-3 3-pt FG) as a primary defender including the potential game-winner.
-- Overall the Pelicans were 1-9 with him as a primary defender (0-3 in clutch-time).
Again, in the second half.
O’Neale also guarded Zion Williamson about as well as you could ask. Williamson’s style of basketball reminds of Mike Tyson. He comes into the game and throws hellacious hooks that create momentum out of nothing. O’neale’s counter to that is his dogged determination and motor. Just like with Tyson, if you can withstand a few rounds, you can start to make your moves. And that’s what O’Neale did, he stayed active all night.
On top of his solid shooting and underrated defense, O’neale’s motor might be his biggest talent. He doesn’t give up.
Whether it was guarding Ingram or Williamson, O’Neale brought the heat. Instead of his typical 39 points, Ingram was held to 23 points on 35% shooting from the field.
Also encouraging for O’neale was his rebounding. O’neale pulled down 9 rebounds for the game and some of them were in traffic near the end that contributed to the win.
And just for context on those 9 rebounds. While starting alongside Rudy Gobert last season, Derrick Favors averaged 7.4 rebounds per game. If O’neale can keep up this level of rebounding, the Jazz have a chance to be a real surprise.
Does that mean they might not miss Bojan Bogdanovic? Maybe.
It depends if Royce O’Neale can make up for the loss of Bogdanovic by being an improvement on his deficiencies.
Obviously he won’t be an improvement on Bogdanovic’s offense. Bogdanovic was the most efficient offensive player on the Jazz at a pretty high volume and that’s why he got his big contract.
But O’neale could definitely be an improvement on his defense and his rebounding.
For example, Royce O’neale averaged just 6 ppg during the season. That means, in rudimentary thinking, the Jazz need to make up about 14 points per game.
Probably the biggest complaint against O’neale is his non shooting. He’s a good shooter and should be taking more than just 3.4 3-point attempts per game. Against New Orleans he did just that. He took 11 field goal attempts with 7 of those being three point attempts and scored 12 points. That’s already a fantastic sign of O’neale making up for the missing Bogdanovic!
If Royce can keep that up and score about 12 ppg in spot up shooting and layups, that means the Jazz really only have to make up about 8 points. Maybe 9-10 if you’re taking into account Bogdanovic’s efficiency.
Because Bogdanovic played in the 4-spot, his rebounding has to be taken into account. Gobert can’t get every rebound. But like we mentioned, O’Neale pulled down 9 rebounds against the Pelicans. That rebounding means saved points on putbacks and more transition opportunities.
And like we mentioned before, O’Neale’s defense saved a lot of points on the defensive end. How many of those possessions that Royce guarded equal points for the other team if Bogdanovic were on the floor? Because of Bogdanovic’s defensive deficiencies he was almost never on the floor without Rudy Gobert to try to negate the defensive deficiencies. With Royce O’neale, the Jazz’s defense looked more like the defense we’d been hoping for all season. Utah had a bulldog defender at the point of attack and then the best defender in the world to back him up. It’s a formula that led the Jazz starters to all have positive net ratings. Not all of that can be blamed on Bogdanovic’s lack of defense but it does appear that O’neale’s defense is a game changer.
The other thing that needs to be considered is whether this creates a little better fluidity in the offense. Utah has a plethora of ball handlers. Between Mike Conley, Donovan Mitchell, Bojan Bogdanovic and Joe Ingles there are a lot of guys on Utah that can either iso or initiate a pick and roll. But at some point are there too many cooks in the kitchen?
Because O’neale is more of a catch and shoot player it means the ball will be spread around more between Conley, Mitchell and Ingles on offense. Then on defense the ball will be in Jordan Clarkson’s hands even more.
And that’s far from a bad thing.
Against the Pelicans, Joe Ingles had a nice impact on the offensive end. One of the most difficult things for Utah to figure out this season has been how to maximize Ingles’ talent. It’s been pretty apparent that Ingles is better when he plays as a secondary option with the starters and not the main sixth man threat. Ingles thrives in the pick and roll against weaker defenders that aren’t focused on Donovan Mitchell and Mike Conley. It shows in Ingles’ gaudy offensive net rating against the Pelicans.
The other player that showed up big time offensively was Mike Conley.
It’s more likely that Conley has gotten right physically, and the team chemistry has had time to flourish, than a lack of Bogdanovic unlocking Memphis Conley.
But it at least has to be considered that having one less cook in the kitchen has given Conley more freedom and opportunities to improvise.