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Underappreciated O’Neale Shouldn’t Be Overlooked In New Nets Rotation
Brooklyn's Schedule Is About To Get Hellish
With all the much-deserved praise thrown in Mikal Bridges’ direction these days, not to mention the attention given to the three other new Nets starters since the team blew up their roster by dealing superstars Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in advance of last month’s trade deadline, one holdover, in my opinion, has been getting lost in the shuffle.
So, after a pair of relatively easy victories over bottom-feeding Charlotte and Houston following last Friday’s miracle comeback win in Boston, there’s no better time to write up a Royce O’Neale appreciation post.
Though more of a sidebar to the Bridges lead story of a third consecutive game with at least 30 points, O’Neale came off the bench to post his third double-double (11 points and 11 rebounds) of the season to help Brooklyn to a 118-96 rout in Houston on Tuesday night. The victory pushed the Nets (37-28) within a game of fifth-place New York in the Eastern Conference standings.
O’Neale, who had started 52 games this season, was suddenly demoted following the trades that brought back similar “3-and-D” wings like Bridges, Cam Johnson, and Dorian Finney-Smith. Nets Head Coach Jacque Vaughn decided that the best way for him to quickly evaluate his new pieces was to play them together—a lot.
Hence, in the first five games following Bridges’ arrival, the four new Nets led the team in minutes while O’Neale averaged just 21.5 minutes per game, about 12.5 minutes less than what he had been getting beforehand.
The transition hasn’t been easy for O’Neale, who had some rough shooting outings over the last 10 games. However, as Nets radio broadcaster Tim Capstraw likes to say, not everything that counts can be counted, and when it comes to the Nets, no one embodies such a sentiment as O’Neale, the quintessential glue guy.
When the Nets acquired O’Neale last offseason in a trade with Utah for a first-round pick, he was mostly known as an above-average stand-still perimeter shooter and wing defender. In Brooklyn, he has maintained his three-point efficiency (39.1%) while also expanding his game to the point where I feel a sense of calmness when he has the ball in his hands as a facilitator.
Back in November, I wrote about his underrated playmaking skills (O’Neale’s Playmaking A Welcome Development For Nets (substack.com))—his assists per game has since dropped to 3.8, but that would still mark a career high. What’s been more impressive to me is how often he makes the correct reads—his 2.53 assists-to-turnovers ratio trails only Ben Simmons among Nets who have played in at least 15 games this season.
He just has a knack for making winning plays, whether it’s a clutch bucket—per NBA.com, only KD and Kyrie have scored more points than O’Neale in one-score games in the final minute this season—a rebound, or a simple swipe with those excellent hands to eradicate what should have been a sure opponent basket.
In short, O’Neale has been an absolute pro in Brooklyn, and I thought his underutilization was a contributing factor in Brooklyn’s rough 1-6 patch following the trades. Though he hasn’t lit the world on fire during this three-game winning streak, the Nets have outscored their opposition by a cumulative 60 points in the 86 minutes he’s been on the floor.
It’s been easy to overlook what O’Neale has brought to the court this season. And sometimes you can count Vaughn among those folks.
Good thing the Nets took care of business against tankers these last two games. They don’t have too many left (four, by my count) over their remaining 17 contests.
With Brooklyn about to embark on a hellish ten-game gauntlet over 18 days, fans should be more concerned about the team falling below seventh-place Miami and into the play-in round more than about whether they can catch the Knicks or Cavaliers.
The Nets begin a four-game road swing with a back-to-back in Milwaukee on Thursday and Minnesota on Friday before travelling to Western Conference leader Denver on Sunday. The trip ends with a game at sprightly Oklahoma City, one of two opponents in this slog who is currently under .500. Then comes four consecutive games versus top four seeds at Barclays Center and a Florida back-to-back, where the March 25 game at Miami could have massive postseason implications.
By my guess, the Nets will need 45 or 46 wins to maintain at least a six seed. Their final seven games aren’t so awful, with only one on the road and that’s at Detroit, so if they can get three of these next ten, reaching their near-term goal is possible.
Of course, there’s the other side of the coin—Brooklyn’s cushion can easily evaporate down the stretch to the point where they slide into the 9/10 pairing. With this team, where they finish is a toss-up.