Rolls Royce (O’Neale) cruising along Brooklyn Way

Mar 26, 2023 - 6:42 AM
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Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

When gauging the Nets trade of James Harden for Ben Simmons, the discussion often revolves around the seasons the two big pieces are having this year: Harden is playing well, Simmons isn’t ... at all.

But another piece of that deal is providing big benefits to the Nets: Royce O’Neale was acquired by the Nets with a first round pick and a big trade exception generated by the Harden-for-Simmons trade. No players went from Brooklyn to Salt Lake City, just the big and most of the trade exception. As we’ve noted before, the trade didn’t get much attention at the time, what with Brian Windhorst using the O’Neale to presage the Jazz rebuild in his famous soliloquy ... and of course, Kevin Durant’s requesting a trade minutes after the O’Neale deal broke.

Now, after all the sturm and drang this season, KD is gone, so is Kyrie but O’Neale remains and fulfilling all the potential the Nets saw him in the 6’6” wingman. As Alex Schiffer wrote this weekend, he’s “a textbook ‘glue guy.’”

O’Neale has been a constant. He’s played in 69 of 73 games and is averaging 8.9 points and 3.7 assists per game, both career-highs. In O’Neale’s six years in the NBA, he’s increased his scoring production every season. His 39.3 percent clip from 3 is another career-best.

When Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving played in Brooklyn, O’Neale was a starter, then after the trades and the wholesale changes in the roster. O’Neale moved to the bench ... willingly. He has played every position at one time or another.

“I feel like everything works out the way it’s supposed to,” O’Neale said. “Me not having that uncertainty but knowing it’s a new chapter, new opportunity and just taking advantage no matter who’s on the team and be myself and just keep going.”

O’Neale did not follow the traditional route to the NBA. Undrafted out of Baylor, he played the summer of 2016 with the Celtics, then headed to Germany to play for a coach, who Schiffer notes, had a system that featured a big man and four men out, interchangeable guards and wings, small ball. O’Neale thrived in the system and within two years, he was playing 69 games for the Jazz where he became good friends with Donovan Mitchell and integral to Quin Snyder’s system as Schiffer wrote.

Utah coach Quin Snyder used to tell O’Neale “just run and play defense,” and the result was consistently shooting around 38 percent from 3 while being a factor on one of the league’s best defenses.

When the big February trades took place, Jacque Vaughn took O’Neale aside to let him know, nothing had changed, at least between the coach and glue guy.

“Nothing has changed,” Vaughn told O’Neale, as recounted to Schiffer. “I still believe in you.”

“Just being able to adapt,” O’Neale said of the season’s challenges. “I mean been doing it my whole career even when I started playing. “… I think me just always being level-headed not thinking about anything but myself and how to help everyone around me be better and always bring my positivity and character.”

He thrived and he was rewarded in a number of ways, including this one:

O’Neale is the Nets fashion plate as he was at Baylor. Summing up, Schiffer quotes Scott Drew, O’Neale’s coach at Baylor, as saying “Royce always has some GQ to his game.”

Still true.

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