CHARLOTTE — Donovan Mitchell was all smiles when he finished showering and sat down to get dressed after his team’s 107-104 win over Washington Wednesday night. Part of it was the unexpected victory and part of it was that there wasn’t a big crowd of reporters waiting to talk to him as there has been for nearly every game this season.
But the main reason Mitchell was grinning from ear to ear was because of all the media folks talking to the guy at the locker next to him.
Royce O’Neale hasn’t received much attention this season after being the last man to make the roster after playing a year in Germany and one in Spain before being signed by the Jazz last summer. After playing sparingly all season, O’Neale played a key part in Utah’s big road victory when he played extra minutes down the stretch after Rodney Hood was ejected with two technical fouls and Alec Burks was benched because of ineffective play.
“It’s not surprising to be honest,” said Mitchell when asked about O’Neale’s performance Wednesday. “It may be surprising to everybody else who hasn’t really seen him much. But we know what he brings -- the extra rebounds and big rebounds. We make jokes that he steals everybody’s rebounds. He’s hitting shots and is always ready. That expression, ‘stay ready, that way you don’t have to get ready,’ is something he really takes to heart.”
The soft-spoken O’Neale isn’t as effusive as Mitchell and he pretty much spoke in clichés when asked about his contribution to Wednesday’s victory when he scored 10 points on 4-of-4 shooting, including a 3-pointer, grabbed four rebounds and played some tough defense on the Wizards.
“I try to be ready each and every day,” he said. “I practice hard and when my name is called just be ready to contribute in any way I can.”
O’Neale has played in 28 of Utah’s 41 games this year but had played more than the 14 minutes he played Wednesday just five times all season. Jazz coach Quin Snyder was happy to single O’Neale out for his fine play against Washington.
“He’s an easy guy to play with,” said Snyder. “Where he impacts play is on the defensive end with his toughness and competitiveness. That gets you on the court. If you defend and play hard then you get a chance to make some other things happen.”
Snyder also praised his offense, saying, “He’s an efficient offensive player. He’s worked hard shooting the ball and is confident shooting the open shot. We’ve always felt like he could pass.”
O’Neale showed off his passing ability with his lob to Mitchell for a dunk late in the third quarter, reminiscent of those Joe Ingles-to-Gordon Hayward lob and dunks of recent years.
“Coach drew it up, we executed it and it was a great play,” said O”Neale. “I knew he was going to catch it.”
Who knows if O’Neale will see increased minutes going forward, starting with the Charlotte Hornets Friday night (5 p.m. MT) at the Spectrum Center. It’s possible he may get the nod over veteran Alec Burks, who numbers have diminished lately.
Over the past 13 games since Dec. 15, Burks has struggled offensively, making just 30.8 percent of his field goals and 19.2 of his 3-pointers and just 6.5 points per game, after scoring more than 20 points in four of the seven games prior to that.
The Jazz continue to be short-handed with Rudy Gobert, Dante Exum and Raul Neto still out of action, but Derrick Favors is expected to play Friday after missing Wednesday’s game with a sprained ankle. Both Gobert and Neto have started participating in portions of practice, but will both sit out Friday.
After Friday’s game the Jazz return home to play Indiana Monday night.