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What Phoenix Suns can expect from Royce O'Neale

Gerald Bourguet Avatar
February 9, 2024
Here's a look at what the Phoenix Suns can expect from Royce O'Neale after acquiring him at the 2024 NBA Trade Deadline

The 2024 NBA Trade Deadline has come and gone, and the Phoenix Suns emerged with Royce O’Neale and David Roddy. Roddy might struggle to carve out minutes for himself, but O’Neale is a playoff-tested veteran who addresses some specific Suns needs with his 3-and-D skill-set.

At 6-foot-6, the 30-year-old O’Neale spends most of his time at the 3-spot, but also dabbles at the 2 and the 4. His basic numbers this season — 7.4 points, 4.5 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game — won’t blow anyone away, but he brings a number of important traits to a team with title aspirations that could use a little help on the defensive side of the ball.

General manager James Jones mentioned his intelligence as a defender and his shooting in a statement, and when speaking to the media on Friday morning, he elaborated further, mentioning how the Suns “desperately” needed more physicality, defensive toughness, and as always, shooting. In those ways, O’Neale’s fit in Phoenix makes sense.

“It’ll be seamless,” Jones said. “You just have to look at his track record. He’s played with some really good players on some really good teams, and he’s been instrumental in their success. And he’s fearless. That’s what this is about. We’re going into a Western Conference playoff race that is daunting, but it’s fun. And if you’re a competitor, you look forward to it, and luckily for us, we’ve been able to add a guy in Royce who looks forward to that challenge.”

Kevin Durant, who played with O’Neale on the Brooklyn Nets last season, looks forward to reuniting with the two-way wing.

“I’m excited about him,” Durant said. “I love being around Royce, and can’t wait to keep building with him as a person first and then as a teammate.”

Even Bradley Beal, who had to say goodbye to his friend and former Washington Wizards teammate Jordan Goodwin in the deal, is eager to see how O’Neale can bolster the Suns’ rotation.

“I’m excited about it,” Beal said. “I’ve been a fan of Royce from afar. We have a lot of mutual friends together, and I’m definitely excited for what he’s able to bring to the team.”

We’ve already covered the overview of why O’Neale was an understated win at the deadline for Phoenix, but now it’s time to dive a little bit deeper into his game and what specific attributes he’ll bring to the table.

Law-of-Averages Shooting

O’Neale’s low field goal percentage this season (38.8 percent) shouldn’t scare anyone off; when 3-point shots constitute nearly 82 percent of your shot profile, that field goal percentage is naturally going to drop a bit.

Although he’s shooting 36.6 percent from downtown, O’Neale is a career 38.1 percent shooter from beyond the arc. This season, he’s made 43 percent of his corner 3s, 38.9 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3s and 41 percent of his open 3s — all traits that will hold value alongside a Big 3 of Durant, Beal and Devin Booker.

It’s easy to see how his range and his eagerness to pull the trigger will fit right in, and watching him relocate to the corners or leak out for open 3s whenever the main offensive hubs attract all the attention, one can envision where he’ll get high-quality looks with this team:

“He’s a high-level role player, has been a starter for the better part of the last five years or so, and on some good teams too, some really good teams, No. 1 seeded team in Utah a few years back,” Vogel said. “Just an exceptional defender, exceptional 3-point shooter and a winner.”

According to The BBall Index, O’Neale ranked in the 92nd percentile in openness rating, so don’t expect the Suns’ spacing and gravity to provide too many more wide-open looks. But O’Neale’s 3-point efficiency still stands to improve, since he was taking 1.4 pull-up 3s per game in Brooklyn — a shot he made only 28.8 percent of the time.

Eliminating that shot from his diet sounds pretty straightforward, but the truth is, that number is so high because a significant portion of those shots come from O’Neale’s love for pump-faking against defenders who are frantically closing out, taking one side dribble, and then launching the 3.

And look, it’s not a bad move! O’Neale has the basketball IQ to understand he’s going to be left open, which will lead to hasty closeouts. That pump-fake is a good weapon to utilize when defenders go flying by trying to contest his shot.

“That’s my little special talent,” O’Neale described it. “It gets me a lot of open 3s and drives for my teammates.”

That’s definitely true, but his accuracy on those shots can be hit-or-miss. When the defender closes out with some semblance of composure, O’Neale’s pump-fake and side dribble isn’t quick or fluid enough to create separation. He’s also prone to taking the occasional ill-advised pull-up in transition, which hurts his pull-up percentage as well:

O’Neale can be streaky at times with his 3-ball. In November, he canned 41.8 percent of his 3s before dipping to 34.3 percent in December. That was followed by 30.2 percent shooting in January, and through three games in February, he’s back up to 40.7 percent. In eight of his 49 appearances this season, he’s failed to hit a 3 at all.

But he probably won’t have as much free rein in Phoenix to take some of the more ambitious shots he saw in Brooklyn, especially when he’s sharing the floor with such a talented offensive group. It’s also worth noting that a good chunk of his 3-point attempts were late shot clock attempts or long-distance heaves at the end of quarters, which naturally brought his efficiency down.

If O’Neale can remain solid on his catch-and-shoots, corner 3s and the wide-open looks he’ll get in this offense, he’ll automatically be an improvement over Yuta Watanabe (32 percent), Keita Bates-Diop (31.3 percent), Nassir Little (30.4 percent) and Chimezie Metu (29.4 percent) in that respect.

“He can really shoot the ball, put it on the floor too and create and get in the paint, little touch shots and little kick-outs,” Beal said. “So he just fits the mold for what we’re building, and we’re excited to have him for this push.”

Royce O’Neale’s underrated passing

When asked to describe Royce O’Neale’s game, Durant touched on one element that’s flown under the radar.

“IQ, can play with guys that can score the ball, almost his whole career, and an underrated passer,” Durant said. “Can shoot the basketball — just a basketball player, to be honest. A position-less basketball player that’s gonna help us out and fit in.”

No one will mistake O’Neale for Steve Nash, but that “underrated passer” description couldn’t be more accurate. As ESPN’s Kevin Pelton pointed out, O’Neale has averaged more than 4.0 assists per 36 minutes in each of the last two seasons, and according to The BBall Index, he ranks in the 74th percentile in assist points per 75 possessions, as well as the 91st percentile in passing creation quality.

“I’d rather get an assist than a bucket, to be honest,” O’Neale said. “We got a lot of guys on this team that can score. So, I mean, score myself, but just being a playmaker whenever I’m needed, getting these guys involved and winning as many games as we can.”

What does that look like on the court? There are times — especially in transition — where he throws some truly nifty passes. O’Neale has a knack for hitting his targets in stride, whether it’s with two-handed overhead bullet passes on a wire, or lobs over the top of the defense that would make most quarterbacks blush. He’s capable of driving and dumping it off in the half-court as well, making for some fun highlights:

“Being able to initiate and be a connective, small-ball 4, 3, a guy you could throw the ball to and have him initiate the offense to get guys going, could play in the pocket a little bit and make those passes as well,” Durant described.

O’Neale doesn’t drive much, ranking in the 38th percentile in drives per 75 possessions, but he passes out on a lot of those drives, making him a valuable drive-and-kick guy when he does.

This is where utilizing that patented pump-fake comes in handy. But even when he’s not probing the paint, O’Neale has value as a connector who knows where the ball needs to move and has no problem zipping it there with the type of two-handed chest passes that deserve their own clinic:

“That team that Utah had a few years back, where they set records for the No. 1 offense in the league and they were the No. 1 seed, the blender that they were playing with, the drive-and-kick and getting guys open and slip-outs and all those types of things, he’s a really good offensive player,” Vogel explained. “He’s not just a shooter, and Kev mentioned his passing. I think he’s gonna elevate everything we do on that side of the ball as well as what he does defensively.”

Royce O’Neale’s defense at this stage

At 30 years old, O’Neale’s most mobile, athletic, laterally quick days in Utah are behind him. But he’s certainly still a tenacious and dedicated defender, which should hold true as he transitions to a legitimate contender.

“That’s where I started my career, playing defense,” O’Neale said. “Just every year, taking the challenge of guarding the best player on the other team, learning. I like playing defense, and I thrive off that.”

Listed at 6-foot-6, O’Neale often looks undersized, but whatever he lacks in height, he makes up for in basketball IQ, quick hands and sheer strength. It’s the reason he’s able to guard up a position as an undersized 4, and his tendency to stonewall bigger and stronger players before swiping the ball out of their hands or swatting them from behind is noteworthy.

Just watch these 108 seconds of pure defensive intent, as O’Neale purely imposes his will on the defensive end:

That’s Paolo Banchero, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Julius Randle, Jimmy Butler, Giannis Antetokounmpo, John Collins and plenty more that he’s holding up against one-on-one!

“He’s a big defender, he can guard multiple positions, which is somebody that we need right now,” Beal summed up.

That talent is something O’Neale’s spent years developing, and he takes pride in it.

“Knowing guys’ tendencies, trying to beat ‘em to spots, react quicker than them,” O’Neale said. “So I think I use that to my advantage, and then try to get as many steals and blocks as I can.”

According to The BBall Index, O’Neale ranks in the 67th percentile in steals per 75 possessions and the 72nd percentile in blocks per 75 possessions. He’s also clever when it comes to reading passing lanes and jumping the routes like a free safety, ranking in the 75th percentile in deflections per 75 possessions and the 67th percentile in passing lane defense.

It’s questionable whether O’Neale will start, since the Suns’ current starting five with the Big 3, Grayson Allen and Jusuf Nurkic has been statistically dominant. Vogel said he’s not going to hold back defensive assignments from Durant either, since he believes KD is playing at an All-Defensive level.

But O’Neale can undoubtedly lighten that burden as a primary wing stopper, and his experience with guarding opposing teams’ best players will help.

“Royce is somebody that can come in and share the load,” Vogel said. “We’ll talk about his role, and his role will play out as the season goes along, but he’s definitely someone that is — I mean, his role over the last five years as a starter has been going and guarding the other team’s best 3, 4. So he can definitely share some of the load with that, and it’s really gonna help us.”

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