KILLEEN, Texas — Royce O’Neale and Jae Crowder entered the press conference room at Zions Bank Basketball Campus side by side for the Utah Jazz’s annual media day as part of a group pairing on Monday, Sept. 24.
Once Jazz Vice President of Communications Frank Zang opened the room for questions, a local reporter fired off one quickly.
“Royce, it’s kind of been Donovan mania all offseason, he’s been everywhere and you’ve been right at his side, so I have a two-part question for ya…” the guy asked. “I was wondering what that experience has been like for you and I’ve also been curious if you feel like you’ve gone a little unnoticed at his side sometimes?”
Before O’Neale could spill out a word, Crowder interrupted.
“What kind of question is that, bro?” Crowder shot back.
“I mean not really,” O’Neale responded. “I mean usually when people say it’s Donovan, it’s Royce but I mean… yeah…”
Although the moment felt awkward, situations like those weren’t totally uncommon.
Sometimes when they attended local Utah college games together, especially during that rookie season, O’Neale’s name was often left off during television captioning while Mitchell’s got plastered all over the screen.
But O’Neale could honestly care less about public perception from those who aren’t impacting his life or following his footsteps.
Because nearly 1,300 miles away from Salt Lake City, at Harker Heights High School in Harker Heights, Texas, O’Neale’s unique path as an undrafted free agent to NBA contributor is being used to motivate a new generation of ballers.
“Very inspirational,” said Jalen Brown, a 16-year-old varsity player at Harker Heights. “He put in a lot of work to become better.”
“The NBA game is perfect for Royce,” added Jejuan Plair, O’Neale’s former Texas trainer. “Anybody that becomes a better defender, that’s a choice, so to that speaks a lot about somebody when they can get on the NBA court and guard James Harden as a primary defender. That’s one of the things, I’m really proud of.”
The second-year Jazz swingman went from being the last player to make the roster last season to averaging 10.4 points and 4.0 rebounds in a five-game postseason series against the Houston Rockets to signing a two-year deal with Nike this offseason.
“It’s like he won the lottery,” said Celneque Bobbit, O’Neale’s Harker Heights High School coach and longtime friend of the family. “He did and it’s worth more than that $1.1 billion because that was luck, Royce was work.
“It’s easy to get lucky, but it’s real hard to work for what you want; he’s a self-made millionaire.”
A trip to O’Neale’s hometown of Killeen, Texas, will tell you all you need to know about him. It was there where he honed his skills in open gyms at the Fort Hood U.S. military post against grown men, developed lifelong bonds with guys like Phelan “Phelo” Curry and watched his fellow Killeen native Cory Jefferson get selected with the final pick in the 2014 NBA Draft by the San Antonio Spurs. Memphis Grizzlies two-way player D. J. Stephens is another Killeen-born talent.
Bobbit even developed "The Cory Jefferson Rule” defensively for his teams that O’Neale was a part of.
“We’re going to pick them up (defensively) when they get off the bus,” Bobbit said. “All they get when they come in this gym is a head nod. Players are too friendly now. If you don’t play at Harker Heights High School, I don’t know you.”
O’Neale still comes home from time to time and plans to host a summer camp of his own possibly this offseason.
In fact, his family ended up in Killeen after his grandfather retired from the military and his mother, Deborah Kingwood, started working at the United States Department of Veterans Affairs.
“We’ve got older athletes that came out that paved the way for us younger guys,” O’Neale told the Deseret News after playing 17 minutes in a 100-89 win against Houston on Wednesday. “A lot of them didn’t make it, they played college or overseas, but Killeen is a small area that’s getting bigger so it’s kind of tough for athletes there to get more exposure so being one of the ones that made it, I try to pave the way for the younger guys looking up to me.”
Way before he touched the court as a Jazzman, Bobbit dubbed O’Neale “PBDB” — short for Pillsbury Doughboy — after beginning his prep career as a chubby 6-foot-1, nearly 200-pound freshman.
By the time he graduated in 2011, he had stretched to 6-foot-6 and set school records in single-game scoring (39) and rebounding (21) while averaging 16.7 points and a single-season school best 10.4 rebounds a game to go along with a pair of triple-doubles.
O’Neale then headed to the University of Denver for two seasons before transferring to Baylor for his junior and senior campaigns. However, he didn’t have to miss a year, like most college transfers, after being granted medical hardship by the NCAA to be closer to his grandfather who was dealing with heart problems as a result of diabetes.
Even after back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances at Baylor, O’Neale went undrafted in 2015 so he signed overseas deals in Spain and Germany before ultimately inking with the Jazz in 2017.
After a solid rookie season, his teammates now respect him for his defensive prowess and for being a selfless team guy in the process. His stats won’t likely jump out at you, but he isn’t afraid to guard the likes of Kevin Durant or James Harden on any given night.
“He’s just a lockdown defender,” said Jazz guard Dante Exum. “He’s hustling every possession to make sure he does what he can for the team.”
His approach to defense is trying to make it tough for guys like Harden and Durant.
Raised in a single parent home by Kingwood, she always preached defense since she purchased his first Fisher-Price hoop at 2 years old. He didn’t start playing organized club ball until he was 8, though. The rest is history.
“He’s always been one to play smart basketball,” said Kingwood, who now lives in Houston. “He’s got a really high basketball IQ. I used to go to basketball games, I’d watch basketball on TV and I’d have Royce studying players and one thing I always preached first is that you’ve got to play defense in order to (play) basketball and sometimes he’s a little too unselfish.”
That’s why fame, attention and press clippings don’t bother O’Neale one way or another during Year 2.
“I’m just staying positive,” O’Neale said. “Whether I play one minute, two minutes, 10, 20… bringing that energy, being competitive on defense and making plays for other people.”
What matters is that his No. 00 Baylor uniform is framed and mounted in his high school coach’s office. It also matters that he’s an inspiration to athletes in Killeen while fulfilling a key role in Utah.1 comment on this story
So, yes the Texas games in San Antonio and Houston are always special for O’Neale because he represents something bigger than himself. It also gives Kingwood a chance to hook up meals for her son and his Jazz teammates such as Mitchell, Alec Burks and Ekpe Udoh like she did after the latest victory over the Rockets.
He doesn’t have to say too much about it, either, because if you know, you know. That’s why he could laugh when hit with questions like the one during media day.
“It’s just a success story,” Bobbit said. “Nobody would believe where he came from.”