If you're not quite familiar with Utah Jazz forward Royce O'Neale, you certainly aren't alone. It's easy to lose track of a role player doing the dirty work away for a smaller market team located in the middle of the country.
Draft folks and Front Office Executives continue to look down upon older draftees, because they don't offer as enticing of a ceiling as more talented prospects otherwise might. O'Neale planted himself firmly in the second camp after failing to get drafted in 2015 at the ripe old age of 22. There have been older players both drafted and undrafted to be sure, but potential is coveted so heavily in today's development landscape that you're almost penalized by departing your teenage years before entering the NBA. How many times have you heard a fan of analyst get giddy about a rookie or sophomore after a big performance and proclaim, "Do you see this kid?? He's already carving up NBA defenses and he's ONLY 19!" Jayson Tatum stans pulled that card out of their hype deck repeatedly during his first 1.5 years of professional run.
A lack of shooting touch definitely was not a reason for him missing out on the draft. During his four year collegiate run, he shot an average of 39.9% from three. 38% in year one, 33% in two, 46%(!!) in three, and 43% during his senior year. Despite his picture perfect shooting at Denver and Baylor, he was awarded a 2/10 score on Bleacher Report's 2015 draft profile. He'd be lucky to become a decent role-player. BR noted his lack of explosiveness and shot creation when evaluating him and the concerns were warranted at the time. As pessimistic as the analysis was at the time, it still projected him as a late first round pick somewhere between 45 and 60 overall. Reality wasn't as kind to him.
Well, O'Neale didn't let his status as an undrafted athlete in his early 20s get him down. He took the opportunity to hone his skills overseas in Germany, Spain, and Lithuania. Much like PJ Tucker, O'Neale learned to set himself apart from his peers during his overseas adventures by becoming an absolute dog on the defensive end of the floor, while offering positive value on offense as a floor spacer. His desire to outwork the competition and find minutes through grinding down his opponents instead of using sheer talent probaby endeared him to Utah, the first NBA franchise to give him a legitimate opportunity. His international grind paid off and on July 19th, 2017, the Utah Jazz signed him to a three year deal worth $3.8 million. Not much by NBA standards, but probably a magnitude more money than he'd ever seen as a G-League and international basketball player. According to Spotrac, both 2018 and 2019 were non-guaranteed years to hedge against the threat of Royce failing to meet expectations as an end of the bench contributor.
Those fears were subsequently squashed when he stepped on the court and slowly found favor in the eyes of Quin Snyder, who is not easy to impress. The per game averages from his 1st year in Utah don't jump off the page:
35.6 3PT% on 1.7 attempts per game
-3.2 defensive differential (Per Cleaning the Glass)
Ok, ok the last stat was snuck in for good measure, even though it is not a per game average. This exercise could be categorized as cheating, but it provides valuable context when attempting to evaluate a player who rarely drops big numbers in nightly box scores. In his first true NBA season, the Jazz performed better defensively when he was on the court, as opposed to off of it.
When the Jazz surprised the masses by eliminating the Westbrook/George led Thunder in the 2018 playoffs, they got matched up with the Houston Rockets. Houston of course featured James Harden, a true superstar that is almost impossible to slow down offensively. Harden was fresh off a regular season where he led the league in scoring at 30.4 per game and shattered records for both the Rockets and the NBA at large. Here's a snapshot of what the Beard achieved during his one and only MVP season to this point:
- Joined Wilt Chamberlain as the only players in NBA history to have at least 10 assists and shoot better than 75 percent from the field in a 50-point performance
- First player in team history to score at least 20 points in each of the team's first 20 games of a season.
- First NBA player to score 50 or more in consecutive games since Kobe Bryant did so in four straight in March 2007.
- Became the first player in NBA history to score 60 points as part of a triple-double, finishing with 10 rebounds and 11 assists (Also set the Rockets single game scoring record)
The accolades go on and on, but suffice to say, Harden was on a nuclear tear that nothing short of miracles could bring to a halt.
Enter Royce O'Neale.
Rookie Royce O'Neale was the most logical option to guard Harden despite his lack of experience to that point. He matched up almost perfectly in terms of physical metrics at 6'4" and a chiseled 226 pounds. During that 2018 series, O'Neale spent 80.2 partial possessions and ~22 minutes of total game guarding Harden. In that time, he held Harden to 29 points on 10/24 shooting from the field and 4/13 shooting from deep. Royce was clearly a defensive upgrade compared to every other wing that they could deploy at the time, as his 23.5 minutes per game clearly evidenced. That's around seven minutes more per game than he got during the regular season. Although he isn't the ultra long and versatile player most teams look for in a wing, he is plenty tough enough to hold his own in any situation against any offensive player. He turned out to be a perfect fit for the fiery crucible that the playoffs very often are.
If that series proved he belonged in the NBA, the next two years have solidified his case as something more than a typical rotation player. Last season, he was given 20.4 minutes per game (1,565 minutes total, compared to 1,067 the year prior) and didn't miss a single contest, becoming one of the few players to actually reach the 82 game threshold. Utah continued to perform better on the defensive end whenever he entered the game and started 16 out of those 82 games. Furthermore, his potential as a true 3 and D came into focus. In 18-19, he routinely guarded 3 and 4 different positions on defense and moderately increased his shooting efficiency and volume from three to 38% and 2.1 attempts per game, respectively.
Another great trait about O'Neale is that he knows who he is on offense and doesn't get caught up trying to do too much like some players looking for a bigger role do. Last season, 73% of his shots came after 1 or less dribbles. 46% of his field goals were of the catch and shoot variety. 51% of his field goals were categorized as being "wide open", which means the closest defender was 6 feet or more away at the time of the shot. He's all about taking advantage of high quality looks. (It also doesn't hurt that he plays in a great system led by Donovan Mitchell and Gobert, who command lots of attention).
How about this season? It's the same old story. His catch and shoot frequency is up to 55%, 78% of his shots are after one dribble or less, and 56% of his shots were wide open. All of this seasons percentages have seen a legitimate increase and that fact extends to his per game numbers as well. He is so dangerous as a long range catch and shoot weapon, that defenses have tried to run him off the line and he's using that overcompensation to his advantage. He has average shooting numbers at the rim, so he is no one trick pony. That along with his sky high three point percentage have helped him become one of the most efficient players in the league with a lower usage rate. His EFG%, which factors in the added value from three pointers is an insane 59.8% (95th percentile per CTG). Pretty crazy for a perimeter player.
These developments have justified the teams' faith in O'Neale when seemingly no one else thought he could be any more than a satisfactory role player. Not only has he made the team better, but he has been the rugged, adaptable player that every team needs in order to break through to the next level.
This mimi breakout could not have come at a better time, since he is in the final year of that original three year deal he signed after returning from overseas. As of January 19th, O'Neale's deal has officially been extended for another four years at a total value of $36 million. This well-deserved payday will commence next season (2020-2021) and run through 2024. This deal features no bonuses or incentives of any kind, and it is also devoid of any player or team options. However, it is only particularly guaranteed for $2.5 million in the final year, so the team can cut ties for a minimal cost if they need to free up salary for a roster move, or just don't find him to be worth the money at that point down the road.
At first glance, this deal is a massive win for Utah for several reasons. First off, they're getting a key contributor under contract for a long time. Most players in their athletic prime are not content with signing a long-term deal that will take them into their 30s, unless it is for a large sum of cash, or it has a player option built in after year two or three. Also, it has an incredibly low average salary throughout the term. At only $9 million, the average of this contract is just above the median NBA salary. CNBC reported that amount to be around $7.7 million for contracts signed through June 2020. The NBA recently made their estimates for next seasons' salary cap and luxury tax public, and they seem to be slightly higher than what we saw this season. That would most likely mean a slight increase in the median number for next season, so O'Neale's deal could end up being even closer to that figure than it is at this point in time.
Lastly, and most importantly, this deal makes O'Neale extremely tradeable. The Jazz should be in the hunt for a title as long as they have Mitchell and Gobert. They're pushing all of their chips to the center of the table in search of a ring. That means they will probably be scoping the trade from time to time for marginal upgrades to their rotation. If they were to dangle O'Neale in potential deals, it will be easy for other teams to match his salary and it won't be a huge commitment, especially since he is still in the physical prime of his career and won't be susceptible to drop offs for at least a few years.
From a players' point of view, there are still a few positives. It goes without saying that a raise of any kind from the $3 million or so O'Neale got for the duration of his rookie deal. But more than that, he is getting long-term security against injury. All it takes is one awkward angle to completely change your future earnings outlook. Get the cash while you can. He also did well to get a deal with no options. Even though he might not get his full $9.5 million in 2024, it is only in the last year of his deal and he could hit UFA one year earlier at age 30. At that point, he won't be too old to chase one more solid deal. His game isn't really based on athleticism, so he should age like a fine wine into his 30s. PJ Tucker is still a routine starter for a contender in Houston and he turns 35 in May. O'Neale might be hitting the sweet spot when it comes to becoming eligible for his next contract. Both teams will benefit greatly from this deal.
The closest on court comp for O'Neale might be Marcus Smart. Smart wasn't quite the shooter Royce was when he first entered the league, but they are remarkably similar when it comes to their size and defensive ability. Both have the strength, lateral quickness, and basketball IQ to guard players much bigger than they are, making them matchup nightmares and delightfully flexible, fitting into an assortment of lineups. Here's the kicker though...Smart was resigned to the Celtics in the Summer of 2018 for four years and $52 million. Boston will be paying him an average of just under $13 million until 2022. Here's how their deals matchup side by side:
Year 1: $8,500,000 $11,160,716
Year 2: $8,800,000 $12,053,471
Year 3: $9,200,000 $12,946,428
Year 4: $9,500,000 $13,839,285
On offense, they are admittedly quite different. O'Neal functions mainly as a spot up threat, since Utah already features an abundance of ball handlers in Ingles, Bojan, Mitchell, and Conley. Smart on the other hand, is often a secondary ball handler, especially when Kemba goes to the bench. He has become a very good playmaker and has even been spotted making some flashy passes from time to time. Smart is a good shooter on decent volume, while O'Neale is an excellent shooter on lower volume.
On defense, they are almost one in the same. Both have been known to hold their own in the post, even though they are under 6'5" in height. Both are almost completely interchangeable in defensive schemes. The advanced defensive stats aren't far off either. Both are between 1 and 1.6 in Defensive Real Plus-Minus, and they have identical Defensive Win Shares (1.8) according to basketball reference.
To sum it all up, Utah has locked up someone who is more efficient on offense and just as strong on defense for $16 million less. Of course, this isn't a perfect comparison, since they have different roles on their respective teams. This exercise serves only to give context to the positive-value contract that Utah is getting through this recent signing. What's sad is you rarely ever hear anyone mention him when the Jazz are brought up in conversation. Mitchell and Gobert get a ton of credit, and for good reason. They have become pillars of consistency for the values this organization stands for and the lofty heights of success they are trying to reach. Still, complementary players gotta get some shine every once in awhile. For now, it looks like NBA Twitter is one of the only places you can visit that routinely recognizes his impact.
Take note (no pun intended) of who makes an appearance in the top right quadrant aka the positive offense and defense category? O'Neale has done nothing but exceed expectations during his first three NBA seasons and now that Utah is firmly in the hunt for a championship, hopefully people outside of Utah will start to take notice.