Royce O’Neale: The 3 and D Conundrum

Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert are the usual show stoppers for the Utah Jazz, but the subliminal play of swingman Royce O’Neale routinely captivates me. O’Neale finished game two with a 9 points, 7 boards, 8 assists, 3 stocks stat line with four total shots all from three. His stat line is equally tantalizing and quirky.

When Royce O’Neale is brought up in NBA discussion, it’s normally in regards to him as a “3 and D Wing.” You know what that’s fair! That’s not a knock on him; he’s an above league average distance shooter (38.9%) and capable stopper on the perimeter. However, so much of the nuance that makes O’Neale a special player is lost in translation by pigeonholing him in that role. Game two was a fantastic showcase of his abilities.

O’Neale’s Defensive Impact

O’Neale’s true value as a defender comes from his court awareness and unwillingness to give up on a play. He rarely dies on a screen or is caught sleeping off-ball, which can’t be said for many. Royce can occasionally be a lockdown guy on the perimeter, but lacks the high-end athleticism or length to be a truly elite point of attack defender. That is not a knock on his abilities, more of an important point to note when regarding how he plays.

O’Neale does a solid job fighting over the screen. Even though he gets shook off at the POA, he chases Murray and stays attached to his hip, forcing Murray to drive right at Gobert without the opportunity to pull-up. Jokic finishes the possession off with a three, but that’s a result of Utah’s scheme, not a player mistake.

While many players might pursue Murray’s cut with their arms at their sides, O’Neale maximizes his length and gets his arms out once he turns his hips to prevent a pocket pass from Jokic. Subtle, simple, yet significant; you’d only notice that play during the first watch if Royce doesn’t actively muck up the passing lanes.

The Jazz have steadily downsized their roster the past few seasons, shedding some of their bigger wings and forwards, the dam bursting with Derrick Favors trade over the off-season. This has led to O’Neale turning into Utah’s ShamWow defender, cleaning up any and everything, absorbing what Utah’s other perimeter players can’t (or don’t).

According to Basketball Index, O’Neale is in the 98th percentile among wings in position versatility; he spent 20%+ of his time on the court guarding 1-4 showing his ability to guard both up and down, taking on all defensive assignments. Royce also grades out with the 2nd highest match-up difficulty among wings who played 500+ minutes this season, just behind Dorian Finney-Smith. Considering O’Neale finished the regular season with a +1.8 Defensive PIPM, the numbers along with film paint him as one of the most effective defenders in the league.

Secondary Playmaking Savvy

O’Neale averages 2.5 assists per game, a mark that far underplays his value as a playmaker. Royce is the master of the extra pass and is phenomenal at turning good looks for himself into great looks for a teammate. The way he makes plays is what I find so extraordinary. It’s rarely off the bounce or his own initiation. O’Neale routinely gets the ball off the first or second action from one of Utah’s creators. He reads the floor incredibly well and has great awareness of his own gravity and he makes immediate decisions once the ball reaches him.

That decisiveness was a work of art.

O’Neale’s secondary passing and quick-decision making is the lubricant of Utah’s offense. He won’t be the offense himself, but it’s more fluid, synchronous, and effective when he’s part of it. The wing swing passes and kicks he routinely makes are mesmerizing. When you saw those open corner threes during the regular season, so often Royce had the hockey assist or a hand in the ball movement.

Royce is one of the lowest usage starters in basketball, with just a 9% usage rating per Basketball Index. While he doesn’t touch the ball much, he’s in the 96th percentile in assist to usage among wings! That’s insane! Watch this possession and try not to smirk.

O’Neale could quick-trigger a contested three. Instead, he pump fakes Gobert, causing VanVleet to tag and then run out to contest the now wide open Conley. If he passes to Gobert, that’s still a plus and maybe a basket or foul, but the skip pass to Conley is what makes O’Neale a special playmaker in his role. The average player can find Gobert under the basket from the wing. Contorting the defense and causing an even more open shot is what seperates O’Neale.

Per Basketball Index, Royce is in the Top 12% among wings in both passing efficiency and passing creation quality; TLDR, Royce is an efficient passer, but also creates genuine looks, not just gimmes.

I’m not laughing, you’re laughing. Actually, we’re both laughing. I mean come on, that pass is gorgeous

The Problem With “3 and D”

Royce O’Neale plays great defense.

He is a very good 3-point shooter.

But, he is so much more than a “3 and D” wing.

It’s simple to try and box guys into roles or ideals that make it easier to sort an entire league. However, it’s important to take in all the context and recognize the nuance that individuals bring to the table. No one player is the same and while there may be comparisons you can draw, don’t forget to point out the tree from the forest.

When you tune into game three of Jazz v. Nuggets tonight, keep an eye on Royce O’Neale. Especially because you may just witness something you weren’t anticipating!

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