• Adam Bushman

The Riddle, Wrapped Inside a Mystery that is Royce O'Neale

Royce O'Neale has found success with a truly unique formula. Makes us wonder, "How good can he be?" We look to the careers of Kawhi Leonard, Nicolas Batum, and Shane Battier for help.

Royce O’Neale paid many dues throughout his journey to the NBA.

Splitting his collegiate eligibility between the University of Denver and the University of Baylor, O’Neale did his best to prepare for the NBA draft.

He would spend the 2015 draft night waiting for his name to be called, only to end the night disappointed with his name uncalled. Spending the next two years in Europe playing professionally, he worked to hone the skills necessary for him to succeed in the NBA.

Year 1

He finally signed a non-guaranteed, three year contract with the Utah Jazz after impressing the front office and coaching staff during the 2017-18 training camp.

Royce only saw the floor in six of Utah’s first 15 games that season, playing an average of just 5.4 minutes. It was clear he had work to do and improvements to make...and that he did.

O’Neale would play in 65 of the next 68 games, averaging just over 17 minutes per game.

His skills began to reveal themselves.

Royce was an elite rebounding wing, snagging over 11% of all available rebounds while he was on the floor. He could shoot from the outside, launching 118 threes his rookie year and making nearly 36%.

His best skill was defense, recording a 1.7 Defensive Box Plus-Minus (7th among qualified rookies) and a 1.97 Defensive Real Plus-Minus (a top 50 mark for the entire NBA).

Royce would go onto improve both his shooting and defensive numbers in the playoffs, matching up against the league’s best in Paul George, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden.

Year 2

The Utah Jazz were quick to pick up Royce O’Neale’s option and guarantee his salary for the 2018-19 season. They would not be disappointed.

After a slow start to the season, Royce O’Neale flipped the switch at the quarter mark of the season. Over his last 35 games, O’Neale has been playing 20+ minutes, taking 2.4 threes a game, making 47% of his threes, and scoring nearly six points a game.

His defense has continued to take strides. He improved both his BLK% and STL% from his rookie year, and his Defensive Box Plus-Minus has drastically risen. He’s already matched the offensive win shares from his rookie year with nearly a third of the season left to play.

Two consecutive, stellar seasons to start the career of an undrafted NBA player got us thinking. How good can Royce O’Neale be?

Royce O'Neale Player Comps

We set out to find comparisons for Royce in NBA history. We designed our criteria to best represent the unique skills and profile of O’Neale.

Comps had to measure between 6’5” and 6’8”; they were required to shoot better than 38% from 3; their usage had to be under 13%; and their Defensive Box Plus-Minus had to be over 1.5.

The results were astounding. No one in NBA history had put together a start to their career similar to Royce O’Neale. This was the first sign as to how unique a player he truly is.

Unsatisfied, we loosened the criteria. The 3P% threshold dropped to 35%; usage raised to include up to 18% of possessions; Defensive Box Plus-Minus dropped to 1.0; and games played during the first two years of above 50 sharpened the results.

Only seven players in NBA history fit the criteria specifically designed for Royce. They are: Daniel Theis (active), Kawhi Leonard (active), Nicolas Batum (active), James SIngleton (retired), Scott Burrell (retired), and Shane Battier (retired).

In order to project the future career of one Royce O’Neale, we took the most interesting comps from this list, those being Leonard, Batum, and Battier.

Kawhi Leonard

Hailing from southern California and entering the NBA after two seasons at San Diego State, Leonard was drafted 15th to the Indiana Pacers, and subsequently traded on draft night to the San Antonio Spurs.

He was profiled as a long, athletic defensive specialist. He was a great rebounder and an efficient, although limited, offensive prospect.

Like Royce, his first two seasons displayed incredible defensive skills, notching a 2.4 DRPM compared to Royce’s 2.0. Despite a higher usage than Royce, Kawhi bested O’Neale in shooting percentages with the exception of 3P%. O’Neale’s 38.9% exceeded Kawhi’s 37.5% mark.

The biggest difference, and what would set Leonard apart from many of these comps, are the offensive box score numbers. Leonard would go on to score nearly 13 points per 36 minutes while Royce barely notched over 10.

Following those first two seasons, Leonard developed into an offensive superstar. Posting career offensive numbers of over 20 points on 23.3% USG with an eFG% of 54.7%, Kawhi turned into a player no one could have imagined. It’s fairly safe to say Royce has little to no chance of developing into this player.

Kawhi also retained his defensive skills. His career Defensive Box Plus-Minus of 2.5 qualifies him as one of only four active forwards to have a career DBPM greater than 2.5. Although a lofty goal, Royce O’Neale may be able to approximate Kawhi’s defensive numbers over his career.

Leonard co-led the Spurs to back-to-back Finals appearances and secured a Championship in the second appearance. He will appear in his fourth All-Star game this weekend and has won two Defensive Player of the Year awards.

O’Neale will never have the career profile of Leonard. This speaks to the incredible development Kawhi underwent. There was clearly a reason why Leonard was picked just outside the lottery and why O’Neale went undrafted.

Nicolas Batum

Coming out of France, Batum was selected with the 25th pick of the 2008 NBA Draft by Portland. Like Leonard, he was also long and athletic, although noticeably thinner. His strengths were versatility on offense and defense. Many saw his upside akin to Scottie Pippen.

Unsurprisingly, Batum would fall short of the Pippen comparison, but has still put together a successful career.

Batum’s shooting through his first two seasons was spectacular. With a 15% USG, he shot 38.7% from distance. He would go on to score over 12 points per game. Although Batum’s 3P% matches that of O’Neale throughout their first two seasons, TS% and eFG% proved Batum to be a much more natural shooter.

Regardless, O’Neale bests Batum in other areas. Batum’s DBPM is half of what O’Neale posted to start their careers. Batum’s rebounding and assist numbers don’t come close to that of O’Neale. Overall, the comp is very interesting.

Batum would prove to be a natural scorer despite never reaching the heights some had hoped for him. Averaging 13.5 points, 6.0 rebounds, and 4.3 assists per 36 minutes, Batum rounded out his game and largely kept his efficiency.

His defense, however, would remain largely the same. STL%, BLK%, and DBPM would remain very similar the following nine years. It’s fairly safe to say O’Neale could likely match each in his sleep year after year.

Batum secured an incredibly lucrative contract from Charlotte in 2015 which he has never quite measured up to. Still, his career length, success, and financial achievement would make Royce a very happy man.

Shane Battier

The Duke University product was selected by the Memphis Grizzlies with the 6th overall pick in the 2001 NBA Draft. Battier was seen as a polished offensive role player with an incredible jump shot. He was also known for his defense skills, IQ, and awareness.

His first two years in the league showed flashes of this potential. Posting a 38.4% mark from 3 on 16% usage, Battier lived up to the effective role player on offense. He scored 12.4 points per 36 minutes over his first two years.

His defense took a bit to come around since he only posted a 1.1 BPM over his first two seasons and comparable STL% and BLK%’s to Royce.

Royce may never be the pure shooter Battier was, but the modern game helps make up for Royce’s offensive limitations. O’Neale’s defense through the first two years suggests an ability to approximate Battier’s future defensive career.

Battier’s offensive production never exceeded the 13.1 points per 36 he scored in his rookie year. Although he would refine his skills in other areas, his career 10.1 points, 4.9 rebounds, and 2.1 assists per 36 remain realistic offensive thresholds for O’Neale.

Over a 13 year career, Battier would shoot 38.4% from 3, attempting over 3,000 from distance. The eye test gives you the indication that both career marks are likely out of reach for O’Neale.

Shane would blossom defensively, posting a career 1.9 DBPM. He would go on to make the All-Defensive Team twice in his career. He’d be one of 69 players in NBA history to have over 35 Defensive Wins Shares and is ranked 21st of the 69 in DBPM.

Shane would become a two time NBA Champion with the Miami Heat. During their first championship run, he was instrumental in guarding a young Kevin Durant. He was also a sniper on offense, drilling threes off of passes from LeBron James and Dwayne Wade.

Again, O’Neale may never have the career achievements of a Shane Battier but his production comp may be the exact model on offense and defense for Royce.

How Good Can Royce O’Neale Be?

Of these three comparisons, the most outlandish is Kawhi Leonard. Regardless, O’Neale can match several of the things Leonard does/did well: 3 point shooting, rebounding, and defense.

The most likely comparison has to be Shane Battier. Battier’s box stats should be easily attainable over an entire career. The advanced numbers a slightly more daunting (particularly in offensive efficiency) but Royce has a good chance to sustain a mix of his own stats and those of Shane’s over the length of his career.

The comparison to Nicolas Batum, at least offensively, is probably the best case scenario for O’Neale. Nic is a natural scorer and has offensive skills Royce may never develop. However, Batum’s box score production may very well be attainable, and some of the advanced stats fall perfectly in line with Royce’s current abilities.

O’Neale’s Career Trajectory

Assuming good health throughout his career, Royce should have an above average career length. His defensive abilities and long range shooting improvement is the prototypical 3-and-D wing that’s, at worst, a career “gun for hire”.

If we use PTS/36 of Battier/Batum, the 3P% of Battier/Batum/Leonard, the 3PArate of Battier/Batum, the FTArate of Battier/Batum, the USG% of Battier/Batum, the TRB% of Battier/Batum/Leonard, the DBPM of Battier/Batum/Leonard, and the WS/48 of Battier/Batum, we’d settle on the below mix of career stats for O’Neale.

11.8 PTS/36 - 37.5% 3PT - 0.470 3PArate - 0.230 FTArate

15.4% USG - 10.0 TRB% - 1.8 DBPM - 0.115 WS/48

This would be incredible production from a truly unique skill set and usage combination. Despite the uniqueness of this profile, the statistical thresholds above seem well within the possibility for a full length career based on what we’ve seen from O’Neale thus far.

The Utah Jazz brass and fans alike would be ecstatic for a several year career of production like this. We can see Royce being a key role player for the Jazz throughout many seasons and during many future playoff runs.

Could O’Neale be this Utah Jazz’s iteration of the famous Bryon Russell for the late 90’s Utah Jazz? By our estimation, it’s entire possible.

While we may have identified a plausible career outline for Royce O’Neale, one thing is made clear by his path to the NBA. He has constantly beat the odds and outperformed expectations.

Can he continue such a feat? We can’t wait to find out!

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