In 2014, while Royce O’Neale was a junior at Baylor, then-Texas Tech coach Tubby Smith was asked about O’Neale’s talents.
“He doesn’t get the real attention, but he’s kind of the glue guy,” answered Smith.
That “glue guy” phrase can be written off as a cliche, but it is a label that has followed O’Neale his entire career and has defined his time with the Jazz. After being undrafted and spending two seasons overseas in Spain and Germany, the Jazz took a chance on O’Neale and netted a versatile wing defender and consistent shooter.
O’Neale’s tendency to focus on the little things without dominating the ball may be part of the reason his path to the NBA was so winding. In his senior season at Baylor, O’Neale averaged only 10 points, 6 rebounds and 3 assists. He did shoot nearly 44 percent from deep and excel defensively that season, but that three-and-D archetype was not as in vogue in 2015 as it is now.
The lack of numerical production likely contributed to him slipping under the radar and into the overseas talent pool.
It may have taken him longer than expected, but two years later, O’Neale would land in a great situation with a budding Jazz team that featured two young studs in Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell. The collection of talent allowed him to immediately step in and fill his usual role on the fringes.
After starting the 2017-18 season mostly on the bench, he quickly became a fixture in the Jazz rotation towards the end of that November. His first start came in February against the Portland Trail Blazers. In that game, O’Neale tallied 4 points, 11 rebounds, 6 assists, and 2 steals while being a team-high plus-28.
From there, it was abundantly clear what O’Neale would bring to the team every night. He saw almost 20 minutes per game after that and took on an even a larger role in the 2018 playoffs when the Jazz fell to a tough Houston Rockets team in the second round.
Now in his third season, O’Neale has earned himself a starting role on a Jazz team that many expect to contend for a championship. He is up to 48 percent from three and has improved his passing. His defense remains stout as he guards any position 1-4.
Basketball Insiders asked Jazz head coach Quin Snyder which of O’Neale’s abilities he was most impressed by.
“He’s trying to make the right play,” Snyder said. “He’s been able to drive the ball quickly and get to the rim. The opportunities he has right now are catch-and-shoot threes. Those are good shots. He’s taking big shots like that in the clutch, and if he had an 0-10 night I’d be okay it.”
The comment on driving to the rim is a key point here. O’Neale has been a great three-and-D player, but adding that extra ability to punish a sloppy closeout could make him even more dangerous offensively. He has shown flashes of this ability, as he does here on a dribble hand-off against the Philadelphia 76ers.
Even with those offensive improvements though, defense remains O’Neale’s calling card. He has been asked to mirror guards and wings alike, doing so at an elite level on the season. Just a few games ago, he welcomed Ja Morant to the NBA by smothering him early in the first quarter.
The Jazz defense is holding opponents to 6 fewer points per 100 possessions with O’Neale on the court compared to him on the bench, per Cleaning the Glass. When he and Gobert share the court, they allow only 98.7 points per 100 possessions, a stingy number.
Basketball Insiders spoke to Royce O’Neale briefly before his game against the Philadelphia 76ers on Monday night.
O’Neale credits his role-filling ability to a tendency to play almost every position at a young age.
“I was allowed to make plays for myself while still making plays for others,” O’Neale told Basketball Insiders.
Basketball Insiders also asked O’Neale about what he picked up playing in Europe before he made his way to Utah. “Physicality” was the immediate word that came to mind. He also noted the importance of team basketball that is stressed overseas as something that allowed him to step into an NBA role so seamlessly.
Finally, O’Neale avoided any specificity when asked how he would like to further improve his game.
“Just becoming a better offensive and defensive player. And a better shooter,” O’Neale told Basketball Insiders. As mentioned, the work O’Neale has done on is shot has been clear. If the work ethic is consistent, the rest of his game should follow suit.
O’Neale’s rise from undrafted free agent to a valuable starter on a contender leads to questions about player scouting. Are players with the skills and malleability of O’Neale flying under the radar due to the lack of statistical production?
Take a player of a similar profile like Draymond Green. Green went to a larger school than O’Neale in Michigan State and had more of a national audience, but he still fell to the second round due to what many in the NBA considered a low ceiling. Seven years later, Green is a three-time All-Star and NBA Champion.
Of course, this is not to say that more Draymond Greens are busting their butts in Spain. But valuable contributors are likely waiting to fill an NBA role thanks to their versatility and the team-first fundamentalism being stressed overseas.
O’Neale will be up for a new contract at the end of this season. After being undervalued for most of his career, he may finally get his just due.
Whether it is the Jazz or another team on the hunt for glory, there is always a need for the perfect glue guy.
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