O’Neale’s Playmaking A Welcome Development For Nets
Coming into the season, Royce O’Neale’s five-year career high for assists in one game was seven, which occurred 11 months ago while with Utah.
Since joining Brooklyn via an offseason trade, O’Neale has already bettered that mark four times.
More specifically, all of those instances have come during Jacque Vaughn’s tenure as head coach. In the 10 games after Vaughn replaced Steve Nash on November 1, O’Neale has averaged 5.6 assists per game, second on the team behind Kevin Durant and more than double his previous best of 2.5 assists for a season.
Over the Nets’ last two games, a solid 109-107 victory in Portland to conclude a four-game West Coast road trip and a 127-115 win over injury-depleted Memphis on Sunday at Barclays Center, O’Neale dropped 19 dimes. Oh, and his heads-up tip-in of a KD miss with 0.7 seconds remaining put the cherry on top of his triple-double performance against the Blazers.
It seems too much of a coincidence to not give Vaughn credit for unlocking O’Neale’s playmaking that few thought he possessed. Known as a guy who typically stood in the corner on offense, waiting his turn to receive a pass that could allow him to shoot a three-pointer, he is now often seen bringing the ball upcourt, running pick-and-rolls, and driving closeouts to draw help defenders who leave his teammates open for quality looks.
Some of that might have been out of necessity, as it coincided with superstar guard Kyrie Irving’s suspension for promoting hateful and antisemitic content on his social media. No Irving meant fewer isolation possessions and more ball movement. Even in Irving’s return to action on Sunday, though, the Nets made 302 passes, a 9% increase over their Nash days, according to NBA.com, and dished out a season-high 33 assists.
O’Neale quietly contributed eight of them in 31 minutes. Six came during the third quarter that saw Brooklyn drop 39 points on a Memphis squad that was missing their star backcourt of Ja Morant and Desmond Bane. O’Neale ran for the entire frame that ended with the Nets holding a 96-93 lead they would never relinquish.
Not that this new responsibility has diminished O’Neale’s “3-and-D” credentials one bit—O’Neale is shooting 40.8% from deep, which would mark the first time he’s ever topped 40% if he can maintain it for a full season. On defense, he is the jack-of-all-trades, capable of guarding both lead ballhandlers and bigs on switches. He might have the quickest hands on the team, trailing only Irving in steals per game and center Nic Claxton for most deflections this season.
Despite poor second half efficiencies (28/29/75 shooting split versus 45/53/70 in first halves), O’Neale has been fairly clutch. In addition to the Portland game-winner, he knocked down a huge three-pointer with 15 seconds remaining to help Brooklyn secure a victory over Toronto in Game 2. Only Durant has made more buckets for Brooklyn than O’Neale in games that were within a 5-point margin in the last five minutes of games, per NBA.com.
Not too shabby for a player who was expected to be a fourth-or-fifth wheel. The Nets dealt a 2023 first-round (the lesser of Houston, Philadelphia, or Brooklyn) using a trade exception to accommodate O’Neale’s $9.2 million salary (he’s signed through the 2023-24 season) mainly for his positional value. The roster was woefully thin with wing defenders—especially those who could also shoot from distance—forcing Durant to expend extra energy guarding other top stars. Anything else from O’Neale was always going to be icing on the cake.
With O’Neale’s playmaking, the Nets are eating well.