Oklahoma City • Unknowingly, Royce O’Neale’s road to becoming an NBA defensive stopper began before he hit middle school.
On Wednesday night, the man who was playing overseas last season will once again be given the large task of containing Oklahoma City star Paul George when the Jazz face the Thunder in Game 2 of a Western Conference first-round series.
But, 16 years ago, O’Neale was an 8-year-old who had never played organized basketball. On the day his life changed, he had just played hoops with friends in gym class at school and couldn’t wait for the ride home with his mother, Deborah, to talk about it. For much of the drive, however, he remained quiet, containing his thoughts.
Suddenly, Royce O’Neale set his path.
“I want to join a club team. I want to play basketball,” O’Neale said.
Deborah Kingwood was a single mother who was a three-sport star in high school. Basketball was her favorite and she wanted her son to participate, though she didn’t want to force him into it. But Kingwood did want her son to be active, to be a part of something. She was raising a young man in Killeen, Texas. Every decision would be critical.
“His father wasn’t around,” Kingwood said. “I was raising him by myself, and I wasn’t going to lose him to the streets.”
So, she challenged him. She’d let him play, but only if he played defense. Scoring was easy, she told her son. Anyone could score. Defense was unique, and defense was what would set players apart.
“I can play defense!” 8-year-old Royce O’Neale said.
So, Kingwood tested him the only way she knew how. When mother and son got home, they laced up the sneakers and played an impromptu game of one-on-one in the family driveway.
“I scored on him,” Kingwood recalled with a laugh. “But he did play good defense.”
ROYCE O’NEALE UPDATE
• His favorite player growing up was Kevin Durant. He once received an autograph from Durant and wanted to play at Texas because Durant starred for the Longhorns.
• Played collegiately at Denver and Baylor
• Signed a three-year deal with the Jazz last summer. The first year of the deal is guaranteed, with team options on the final two seasons.
Recently switched representation, signing with Donovan Mitchell’s agent.
O’Neale is now 24 years old. He now stands 6-foot-6 with springy legs, excellent anticipation and the toughness of a wrestler. In his first and only season with the Jazz, his defense has earned him a permanent spot in coach Quin Snyder’s rotation.
Technically speaking, his NBA future isn’t clear. His contract for the next two seasons is contingent on the Jazz exercising team options. But O’Neale has emerged as perhaps Utah’s best perimeter defender. He can switch through four positions. He’s adept at stopping guys on the perimeter and in the post. He’s pretty clearly Utah’s best hope at slowing down George, even if he’s not a starter.
“Royce is huge for us,” Jazz star rookie Donovan Mitchell said. “When we played Houston, he gave James Harden trouble. He played big against the [San Antonio] Spurs. He’s a huge part of what we do. He’s got to play well for us going forward. He’s important.”
O’Neale’s defensive success this season, his meteoric rise from 15th man to first wing off the bench, all of his previous years of locking opponents up, none of that mattered against George on Sunday night.
To put it mildly, PG gave O’Neale, and anyone else who guarded him on that evening, the business. He put up 36 points and hit eight 3-pointers, many of those makes with O’Neale draped all over him. He put O’Neale on “SportsCenter” with a crossover that sent him stumbling to the floor. George then stepped back and hit a three. It didn’t matter that O’Neale contested many of those shots, George hit them anyway.
That was frustrating to O’Neale. It also served as a basketball lesson, much in the way that Utah’s regular-season finale loss to the Portland Trail Blazers served as a lesson to Mitchell. With every rung he leaps on the basketball ladder, the challenges get stiffer. On Sunday, O’Neale ran into “Playoff P.”
How will he respond in Game 2 on Wednesday?
“Growing up, playing ball in the Houston area, you have to be tough,” O’Neale said. “So, I have to take the challenge. I have to watch film, see what I did wrong. I have to limit his touches and try and take away some of the shots he was getting.”
O’Neale said it was frustrating to defend George well and see him make shots regardless, but acknowledged that’s what great players do. After Game 1, he and his mother had their usual postgame conversation.
When watching her son, Kingwood is reminded of everything it took for O’Neale to get to this level. How he was lightly recruited out of high school. How he asked out of his scholarship at the University of Denver to transfer close to home to be near his ailing grandfather.
How he once lost a tooth during a competitive workout, grabbed the tooth, tossed it to the side and kept playing. How he had signed with a team in Lithuania for this season when the Jazz called.
“I don’t like the cold,” Kingwood said. “When I Googled it, I realized it got real cold out there.”
All of the hardship, the uncertainty, both Kingwood and O’Neale believe it will help on Wednesday. O’Neale got knocked down in Game 1, and when he’s been knocked down before, on or off the court, he has always found a way to get up.
For Utah, the hope is O’Neale can find a way to get up once again.
“I just have to make him take tough shots,” O’Neale said of slowing George. “A lot of his scores were on good basketball plays. I just have to keep my head and not let anything get to me. If he scores on me, or if he doesn’t, I have to keep my confidence and keep playing.”
JAZZ AT THUNDER
At Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City
Tipoff • Wednesday, 6 p.m. MDT
TV • NBATV
Radio • 1280 AM, 97.5 FM
Series • Thunder lead, 1-0
Last meeting • Thunder 116, Jazz 108 (April 15)
About the Jazz • Rookie Donovan Mitchell is officially questionable for Game 2 with a foot contusion, but is expected to play. … The Jazz placed seven players in double figures in Game 1. … Alec Burks scored in double figures for the first time since a win over the Los Angeles Clippers on April 5. … The Jazz are looking to beat the Thunder for the first time since October.
About the Thunder • OKC has won four straight, including the end of the regular season. … Carmelo Anthony scored his 1,700th playoff point in Game 1. … The Thunder are looking to open a 2-0 lead, before the series shifts to Utah. … OKC shooting guard Corey Brewer said his sprained knee was at 80 percent after Game 1.