How Royce O’Neale’s Contract Impacts The Jazz Now And In The Future

Jan 19, 2020, 7:10 PM | Updated: Jan 20, 2020, 1:10 am

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – On Sunday, the Utah Jazz announced that they’d extended the contract of third-year forward Royce O’Neale – the new deal is for four years at an average of $9 million per season. 

O’Neal is averaging career-highs in nearly every major statistical category, including 6.2 points, five rebounds, and 2.5 assists per game. The forward has also seen his three-point shooting percentage increase each year of his career, climbing to 44.3 percent this season. 

“We’ve been really pleased with Royce’s development over the past two-and-half seasons with us,” Jazz General Manager Justin Zanik said in a press release from the team, “His progress is a testament to the work ethic he has brought to our team since his first training camp. We’re excited to watch him grow even more in a Jazz uniform.”

The Jazz first signed O’Neale after two years of professional basketball in Germany and Spain and quickly moved the experienced rookie into the rotation, appearing in 69 games for the Jazz in his inaugural NBA season. The forward’s playing time climbed from 16 minutes per game to 20 as a sophomore, and have jumped to 29 minutes in his third season with the organization. 

The former Baylor Bear has carved out a niche on the team as the go-to wing defender against the opposing team’s primary perimeter scoring option, and a capable three-point shooter and slasher in space. 

O’Neale and the Jazz agreed to the deal on verge of a potential shakeup for the wing in the team’s rotation. With guard Mike Conley returning to the lineup after missing 14 games, O’Neale could find himself out of the starting lineup once Conley’s minute restriction is lifted. That could impact the amount of playing O’Neale will receive with the team and his impact on the floor. 

Agreeing to a contract before his role changes with the roster protects O’Neale’s value this summer when he would have been a free agent. 

For the Jazz, the O’Neale signing provides the team with a steady wing defender and complimentary floor spacer capable of major rotation minutes. With an average of $9 million per year, O’Neale could be a bargain for the team if he continues to stay in the top eight players in the team’s rotation. 

However, the deal doesn’t come without some risk for the organization. 

By the time the deal begins, O’Neale will be 27 years old, reasonably older than the average NBA player entering their fourth season, potentially limiting the steady forward’s upside. Despite entering what should be the prime of his career, and averaging career highs statistically, O’Neale’s production hasn’t seen tremendous growth on a per-minute basis. In some areas O’Neale has regressed since his career began. 

Looking at his per-36 minute averages, O’Neale has seen his scoring average, rebounding average, steals and blocks average, and free-throw rate drop since his rookie year. Meanwhile, his assist average has remained relatively stagnant. 

While this doesn’t mean O’Neale is getting worse, it doesn’t indicate that the former Baylor Bear is becoming a dramatically more diverse player, and may be closer to a final product than most players entering their second NBA contract.

Additionally, as O’Neale has developed a reputation as a defensive stopper, his defensive rating has dropped every year since entering the league. Logically, as his role has increased, and the defensive assignments have gotten more difficult, O’Neale has seen his defensive rating fall. 

Perhaps most perplexing with O’Neale, despite owning the sixth-best three-point shooting average in the NBA, he’s is averaging a career-low in three-point attempts per-36 minutes. Though he has seen his three-point average climb nearly 10 percentage points over his three-year career O’Neale averages fewer than three attempts per game. 

Despite those concerns, if O’Neale can keep up his current averages and prove worthy of playing 20-30 minutes per game, he’ll more than earn his contract on a per-season basis. 

However, the signing will inevitably have long-term implications due to the length of the contract. 

Going into the summer of 2020, with O’Neale in tow the Jazz will have north of $110 million in salary owed to just nine players. With a projected salary cap of $116 million in the 2020-21 season, the Jazz will be near the salary cap with six open roster spots. The Jazz can exceed the salary cap should the chose to resign Jordan Clarkson, a strong bet since they own the recently acquired guard’s Bird rights. 

O’Neale’s contract becomes trickier over the following seasons when both Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell are eligible for max contract extensions. 

Gobert will be eligible to sign the rare super-max contract valued at nearly $50 million per year over five years. Mitchell will be eligible for a standard max contract worth between 25 percent and 30 percent of the salary cap, or roughly $30 million per season.

If the Jazz were to sign both players to max salaries, the team would have more than $116 million in money owed to just Gobert, Mitchell, O’Neale, Bojan Bogdanovic, and Joe Ingles in the year 2021. That doesn’t include a potential extension for Clarkson, or the salary of the team’s first-round draft pick this season. 

At that point, every dollar the Jazz have on the books will be hyper criticized including O’Neale’s salary. As Ingles and Bogdanovic age and the team is forced to make a decision on whether to resign Conley after his current deal expires, O’Neale may be relied upon to fill a larger role, increasing the importance of his production-to-cost ratio. 

After a whirlwind offseason in 2019, the free-agent class in 2020 has significantly less depth than in previous seasons, and O’Neale could have gambled and hoped to receive a larger contract with another team or forced the Jazz to match a larger contract. For the Jazz, signing O’Neale before he got to that point likely saved them a few million dollars on average per season and should be looked at as a victory for the front office. 

If O’Neale can continue to produce at his current level while filling the majority of the team’s minutes at small forward he’ll far outearn his contract. However, as the Jazz on the horizon of paying both Gobert and Mitchell max contracts, O’Neale’s role and salary will grow in importance as the team’s room under the salary cap shrinks.

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How Royce O’Neale’s Contract Impacts The Jazz Now And In The Future