You have to work hard each day, go the extra mile, because there’s always somebody that’s coming in, trying to take your spot, so just looking at that and just not being comfortable at all. —Royce O'Neale
On May 7, 2017, Royce O’Neale went scoreless in 17 minutes off the bench in a regular-season game for Gran Canaria, a club team in Spain.
A year later, on May 6 and 8 of 2018, O’Neale found himself in the starting lineup for the Utah Jazz in Games 4 and 5 of the NBA's Western Conference semifinals against the Houston Rockets and averaged 12.5 points in 32.5 minutes per game while being tasked with defending likely NBA MVP James Harden.
Those contests marked the fourth and fifth consecutive in which O’Neale was in Utah head coach Quin Snyder’s starting five.
Perhaps it was appropriate that Game 5, in which O’Neale scored 17 points in 37 minutes, was in Houston, about 200 miles away from his boyhood home in Killeen, Texas, and about 4,700 miles away from Gran Canaria.
Yes, O’Neale seems to have proven that he has found a permanent home in the NBA.
Even just five months ago, however, that wasn’t the case. Signed by the Jazz to a nonguaranteed contract last July, O’Neale was the final player to make the roster in October after training camp (former Weber State Star Joel Bolomboy was waived).
As the 15th man on the team, the 6-foot-6, 226-pound O’Neale logged just 33 minutes over Utah’s first 15 games of the regular season. In the Jazz’s next five, however, he played 42 minutes.
By late December, O’Neale was receiving double-digit minutes in a bunch of games but playing very little or none in others. A real turning point came on Jan. 10 when the Baylor product scored 10 points in 14 minutes in a road win against Washington.
He played double-digit minutes in every single game the rest of the season except one.
In 69 regular-season games, O’Neale averaged 16.7 minutes per contest and became arguably Snyder’s best perimeter defender.
O’Neale’s production only increased during the playoffs, as he averaged 23.5 minutes over 11 games, and started the entire second round at shooting guard when Ricky Rubio got injured and Donovan Mitchell shifted to point guard.
“Dream come true, really,” O’Neale said of his season at the Jazz’s exit interviews after Game 5. “Just fighting for that last roster spot, not knowing what to expect coming into the season, being on a team and just working hard each day, growing as a person on and off the court and just taking advantage of the opportunity that Coach gave me.”
The 24-year-old (he’ll be 25 on June 5) said he internalized that he was good enough to be in the league once he made Utah’s roster in October, but only started to recognize his true potential as he was given more and more responsibility.
“Guarding top players in the NBA, getting that chance, then starting, and then being able to play in the playoffs, I think that’s when I was like, ‘OK, I have the chance (of) being great, and just how hard do I want it?’” he said. “How bad do I want it?’”
O’Neale, whose contract is now one of the better bargains in the NBA given his production, will earn $1.4 million next season assuming the contract becomes guaranteed (the deadline isn’t clear until Jan. 10 of next year).
He fully recognizes the need to continue to improve, though, and particularly wants to get better offensively after averaging exactly five points per game during the regular season and 7.1 during the postseason.
“At the end of the day it’s a business,” he said. “Getting in (the NBA) will probably be the hardest part, but you gotta do what you have to do to stay in. You have to work hard each day, go the extra mile, because there’s always somebody that’s coming in, trying to take your spot, so just looking at that and just not being comfortable at all.”