As he’d done so many times over the series’ five games, Royce O’Neale saw James Harden coming at him. This time, with the Utah Jazz’s season at its end, the two competitors embraced, and Harden gave the man who’d shadowed him a message.
“I won’t say his exact words,” O’Neale said. “Words of encouragement and motivation. You know, going into the summer and next season, just earning that respect from him as an MVP and a great player, that’s a big moment for me.”
If O’Neale had been unnoticed or underappreciated by casual observers, the Jazz wing won’t be going forward.
“Just goes to show all the hard work that I’ve put in isn’t taken for granted,” O’Neale said. “A lot of people are showing respect when it’s due. Earning that respect from him was one of the good moments. It made me feel like I’m becoming somebody in this league.”
O’Neale played in all 82 games during his sophomore campaign, averaging 5.2 points and 3.5 rebounds while improving his 3-point percentage to 38.6. The 25-year-old wing capped off his second NBA season with some of his best performances of the year, including an 18-point night while being tasked with guarding Harden in Game 5 of Utah’s first-round playoff series with Houston.
“The playoffs, it shows who you are,” Jazz veteran Kyle Korver said. “Royce was great last year in the playoffs, too, but I think he’s taken his game to another level. He was arguably our most consistent player in this whole series.”
“It wasn’t just one game. It was a lot of games,” Jazz forward Joe Ingles added. “I was unbelievably proud of him. He works his ass off and he was getting rewarded for that.”
O’Neale’s professional basketball journey started with disappointment on draft night, followed by stints in Germany and Spain. Now the Baylor product is poised for even bigger things in the NBA.
“He’s going to be a huge piece for us going forward,” Ingles said. “He’s going to keep getting better. He’s still young. He has a lot of upside.”
O’Neale will take pride in the strides he made during his sophomore campaign, proving his offensive prowess in addition to being one of the team’s best perimeter defenders. He upped his scoring in the postseason, averaging 10.6 points in five playoff games. He was also one of the team’s most effective means of slowing down Harden, which is why the league’s MVP sought him out on the court in Houston.
“It’s a special moment, just embracing the challenge,” O’Neale said. “Just making things tough for him. Just having that moment.”
And as he heads into the offseason, O’Neale has his sights set on more.
“I’m just trying to take that step to the next level,” he said.