SALT LAKE CITY — Royce O’Neale waited two years to get the phone call.
Sitting in his hotel room in July, O’Neale was keeping up with all the unprecedented NBA chaos amid the unbearable summer heat. He checked his social media accounts, waiting for another shakeup as stars like Chris Paul, Paul George and Gordon Hayward departed from their original clubs. Then his agent called.
Having networked around the league, he knew that teams had “interest,” whatever that meant. The Utah Jazz, though, unlike the other teams O’Neale had worked out for, wanted more than just a cup of coffee, his agent told him. They wanted a three-year deal.
At 24, O’Neale has already done more traveling than most do in a lifetime. He visited Lithuania with a teammate from Baylor as part of a school program, which became a precursor for his eventual professional career.
After all 30 NBA teams passed on him in the 2015 draft, O’Neale found himself surrounded by unfamiliarity in Germany. O’Neale clung to basketball, as it was often the only recognizable aspect of his newfound basketball life overseas.
But after playing for three European teams, including Gran Canaria in Spain and most recently Ludwigsburg in Lithuania, O’Neale was ready to finally make the jump.
“At that moment, I felt like, ‘oh dang.’ I’m about to be in the NBA,’” said O’Neale about how he reacted to his agent’s news. “I’m finally getting the chance. It was a blessing, really. It still hasn’t sunk in. It’s taking a while. I can say I made it to the NBA, but I can’t officially say it until the season starts.”
How he got here
Baylor forward Royce O'Neale (00) drives past Georgia State guard Ryann Green (2) during the first half of an NCAA tournament second round college basketball game, Thursday, March 19, 2015, in Jacksonville, Fla. | Rick Wilson, Associated Press
O’Neale had more than 20 workouts during the predraft process, and although some expressed a desire in keeping him stateside, he had to take a different route in Europe. While some of his teammates had families or significant others for support in Europe, O’Neale was alone, entirely focused on earning an NBA contract.
“The traveling and working out was fun,” O’Neale said. “But not getting drafted sucked. It never stopped me from working out and didn’t keep me from improving my game. [Going overseas] was a change, but traveling and playing basketball was good for me.”
During the 2017 Las Vegas NBA Summer League, O’Neale had his fourth tryout in the circuit, this time with the New Orleans Pelicans. When the summer league campaigns with Boston, Golden State and Los Angeles didn’t result in a contract, O’Neale kept working, knowing that the phone would eventually ring.
Averaging just 4.6 points and 3.6 rebounds for the Pelicans, O’Neale didn’t seem to do enough to get an NBA contract, but the Jazz — known for finding hidden gems behind their use of advanced stats and thorough scouting — saw enough to offer him a deal.
Needing depth at the wing positions, Utah’s brass was impressed by O’Neale’s versatility and ability to mold his game to what the team needed on the floor.
“(The Jazz) just pretty much told me to keep improving and try not to do anything I don’t usually do,” O’Neale said. “I’ll keep working hard and do what got me here — by being an all-around player, playing offense and defense, passing and my versatility. I try to work on every aspect of my game.”
O’Neale had re-signed with Ludwigsburg this summer, but had an “NBA out” clause in his contract. He had gotten situated in Lithuania after moving from country to country, but wouldn’t pass on the opportunity to sign the three-year deal with Utah, even though only the first year is guaranteed.
Some of his teammates from Europe, like Bo McCalebb, who’s long been rumored to sign with an NBA team, had given O’Neale advice on what to do when the call finally came. Through seeing how people in the different parts of the world live, O’Neale didn’t feel much intense pressure to find an NBA contract. He felt like it would come, as long as he controlled what he could — his play on the court.
“I was going to do whatever I needed to do and take whatever route to make it to the NBA,” O’Neale said. “It’s all about timing the right opportunities.”
Utah currently has 16 players under guaranteed contracts — one of them being O’Neale. The NBA only allows 15 contracts and two additional ones designated for players in the NBA G-League.
O’Neale recognizes that signing an NBA contract isn’t comparable to finding a role on a team. But after years of travel, discussions with teams, getting turned down and having to go back overseas, he’s prepared to make Salt Lake City his new NBA home.
“I just trusted the process and stuck with it,” O’Neale said. “You never know when you’ll make it. Everyone has a different route.”