In 2017, the Utah Jazz signed a little known forward from Baylor to a three year, partially guaranteed contract. Having spent his professional career bouncing around summer league camps and Euroleague teams, this 24 year old forward appeared as nothing more than an end-of-bench addition to a Utah roster attempting to find it’s identity in the post-Gordon Hayward era.
Five years later, that forward, Royce O’Neale, holds one of the most outstanding undrafted NBA careers in recent history.
But Thursday afternoon, O’Neale’s time with Utah came to an end. Initially reported by ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, O’Neale was traded to the Brooklyn Nets for a future first round pick:
The Nets are acquiring the Jazz's Royce O'Neal in a trade for a 2023 first-round pick, sources tell ESPN.— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) June 30, 2022
In his time with the Utah Jazz, O’Neale experienced a wildly successful, (and frankly unpredictable) career. In his rookie season, O’Neale gained the trust of Quin Synder’s staff through hard play and stifling defense. While only 6’4” (at time listed as 6’6”), O’Neale played above his weight class and brought a much needed level of tenacity to a Jazz team headlined by a young Rudy Gobert and a rookie Donovan Mitchell. While his counting stats didn’t jump off the page (only 5.0 points and 3.4 rebounds per game), O’Neale’s play was always more impactful than the box-score showed. He proved his value with incredible defensive positions like these:
That first clip of O’Neale staying in front of a prime James Harden shows why the Jazz rewarded O’Neale with a 4-year, 36 million dollar contract in 2020. And, for all intents and purposes, O’Neale proved to be worth the money.
In the 2020-21 year, O’Neale was an integral part of Utah’s run to the first seed in the regular season. He had career-high numbers across the board, posting 7.0 points, 6.8 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 0.8 steals, and 0.5 blocks. That season, O’Neale slotted in as Utah’s primary perimeter defender, and he held his own against the NBA’s best offensive talents. But more than that, O’Neale became a significantly improved shooter, rebounder, and playmaker for Utah. He bumped up his three-point shooting to 38.5 percent and looked much more comfortable making quick decisions with the ball in hand. These highlights from a game against the New York Knicks really show how valuable O’Neale can be as a role player on offense:
Watching this version of O’Neale was awesome. He was everywhere on the court and made his presence felt night in and night out.
Unfortunately, this past season, things went south for both the Jazz and O’Neale. For whatever reason, O’Neale no longer had the same impact on either end of the floor. His decision making on both sides of the ball were shockingly questionable and he seemed one step behind on a plethora of plays. Weird moments like these became a signature of his 2021-22 season (shout out to Andy Larsen for collecting these clips):
The truth is, O’Neale was never built to become the best perimeter defender on a championship team. He simply doesn’t have the size, length, or stamina to do so. He’s best fit as a secondary or tertiary perimeter defender where he doesn’t have to consistently defend the best players in the world. Hopefully he’s able to find a role like that in Brooklyn.
Nonetheless, Royce O’Neale’s time with the Utah Jazz was filled with some amazing teams, memories, and moments. His story truly represents how far hard work and dedication can take you. From the team at SLC Dunk and from Jazz fans as a whole, thank you for your time in Utah, Royce! We wish you the best of luck in Brooklyn!
Drop your favorite Royce O’Neale memory in the comment section!