SALT LAKE CITY — Sounds of balls bouncing and sneakers squeaking echoed throughout West High on Monday morning as 140 kids were engaged in basketball drills when Royce O’Neale casually strolled into the gymnasium.
Fresh off celebrating his 26th birthday not even two weeks earlier on June 5, the Utah Jazz wing was excited to be back in Utah for an appearance at the Jazz Youth Camps and Clinics' Rookie Camp session before hitting the road for the annual Junior Jazz Summer Road Trip.
“Just to put a smile on their face is good,” O’Neale said, while surveying action in the gym.
For him, this trip marks the second consecutive summer where he’s committed to traveling across the state — nearly 1,000 miles total — to reach kids through his favorite pastime at Junior Jazz clinics in 13 cities.
On July 27, he’ll also return to his home state of Texas for his inaugural free summer basketball camp at his alma mater, Harker Heights High, for kids in grades 3-12.
“It’s really important because when I was growing up, I wish I had things like this to go to,” O’Neale said of giving back.
But as much as he’s giving back to, he’s also seizing his current opportunity as a Jazzman.
Since Utah’s first-round playoff exit to Houston in April, O’Neale has trained with teammates Donovan Mitchell and Jae Crowder in Los Angeles and Miami. Getting in better shape, improving his ball handling and sharpening his defensive tactics are all points of emphasis this summer after helping the Jazz finish 50-32 this past season.
“Yeah, definitely,” O’Neale said of a possible expanded role. “Just taking it one day at a time, don’t think about it too much and put a lot of pressure on myself. Just be myself, really.”
O’Neale’s path from Killeen, Texas, to Utah has become somewhat legendary within the organization as he went from an undrafted free agent at Baylor University to a reliable NBA playoff contributor within a two-year span.
He’s one of the reasons that the front office — particularly Bart Taylor, Utah’s director of scouting — takes the yearly free agent mini-camp so seriously. That’s where O’Neale was first discovered in the summer of 2016.
“Royce, in particular, stood out a couple years ago and that’s why he’s on the roster now,” Taylor recalled during this year’s Jazz mini-camp June 5.
Behind the scenes, Jazz forward Joe Ingles was happy to see O’Neale get rewarded with extended minutes late in the year because “he works his (expletive) off.” Every morning, O’Neale would join Ingles and others for their Breakfast Club shootarounds and over time the work began to pay off with consistent playing time.
“He’s going to be a huge piece for us going forward,” Ingles said of O’Neale during his April exit interview. “He’s going to keep getting better, he’s still young and has a lot of upside. So, it was awesome to see and I’m proud to be a teammate of his.”
O’Neale shot 47.5 percent from the field and 38.6 percent from three this past season, then boosted his averages from 5.2 points and 3.5 rebounds in the regular season to 10.6 points and 4.6 rebounds in the postseason while defending reigning MVP James Harden. He appeared in all 82 games, starting 16.Comment on this story
With the NBA draft set for Thursday before free agency begins on June 30, the Jazz front office is looking to shake things up, but O’Neale’s focus is on the summer road trip this week.
Even as busy as he'll be putting smiles on kids’ faces, the clinics won’t take away time from his daily routine to come back into Year 3 as a much-improved player, no matter what the 2019-20 roster looks like.
“I make it an important thing to work out during the week every day just for me to get better,” O’Neale said. “I love being in the gym and I just find the time for it with the travel.”