clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Royce O’Neale goes from afterthought to fan favorite

New York Knicks v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Literally moments before news broke on June 30 that Kevin Durant had requested a trade (and that the Nets were willing to accommodate him!), Adrian Wojnarowski tweeted that the Nets had sent the worse of their two picks in the 2023 Draft to Utah for Royce O’Neale, a 6’7” 3-and-D candidate, using most of a trade exception generated by the James Harden trade.

And (other than Brian Windhorst,) no one cared. KD was gone. Kyrie probably too. O’Neale, who went by the nickname Rolls, was a nice player and all that, but so what? An ugly rebuild was staring us down.

Fast forward a few months and Durant and Irving are still on the roster and now everyone cares about Rolls Royce and his clutch gene. He is now a fan favorite of the first order. And why not? As Brian Lewis writes Sunday...

There was a clutch 3-pointer to help beat Toronto on Oct. 21, a game-winning tip Nov. 17 at Portland, and his huge plays Jan. 8 in Miami. After Durant went down in that night, O’Neale not only hit the go-ahead floater but went vertical to help force Jimmy Butler into a game-sealing miss with 0.5 seconds left.

And all that just a prelude to what he did against the Warriors last week. As Nic Claxton said post-game, “He’s got big balls. He steps up in crunch time.”

The Nets leader in minutes — 1,563 minutes in 45 games — O’Neale is having a career year. His scoring, his shooting, his rebounding and his durability are emblematic of the Nets season: do what you have to do to win. Screw the noise, screw the distractions. Just win.

“[He’s] a guy that you trust at the end of the game, who’ll take the right shot, who’ll make the right decision at the end of the game, who doesn’t mind playing on both ends of the floor,” Jacque Vaughn said. “He has the trust of his coaching staff, his teammates and he’s in the right spot.”

That “right spot” includes Brooklyn, New York. The rowdy denizens of Barclays Center have a love affair with O’Neale. The big shots are part of it, but so is the work ethic, that enticing Brooklyn grit. It’s no surprise that Vaughn recounted how he saw two of players, O’Neale and Claxton, in cold tubs after the hard loss to the 76ers getting ready for the Pistons game the next night.

“He just comes in every day, just works, plays his role, doesn’t have a huge ego,” Claxton said. “He just wants to come out and play basketball at a high level and win basketball games. It’s always good to have glue guys like that on the roster who can bring that every single night.”

Every single night indeed. As Lewis recounts...

Since the start of the 2017-18 campaign, he’s missed just 23 games, only three with the Nets this season. For a Brooklyn team that has been hamstrung and undercut by injuries and absences the past few years, and entered the season with five players coming off surgeries of some kind, the value of that can’t be overstated.

“Yeah, just every day, every game, taking care of myself, making sure I’m able to compete and just accepting [Vaughn] having the trust and leaving me out there and playing me as much as I can, as long as he wants,” O’Neale told The Post of his approach. “Longevity and being healthy is a big key, so just doing whatever I have to do for this team...

“If I can walk and run, I can play,” O’Neale added. “If I need to take care of myself and sit, I will; but I’m trying to be one of those reliable guys and doing whatever I’ve got to for this team, whether it’s offense or defense and just being out there.”

O’Neale has lived a bit on the edge since he went undrafted in 2015. He played a season in Germany with Riesen Ludwigsburg, then after a summer league appearance with the Warriors, another season in Spain with Gran Canaria before finally signing an NBA contract with the Jazz.

He’s still on the edge. His $9.5 million deal next season is only partially guaranteed at $2.5 million. Deciding on that team option should be easy for Sean Marks and Joe Tsai who, as it turns out, actually had a pretty good day on June 30.