SAN ANTONIO — A sellout crowd of 18,418 fans were on their feet in the AT&T Center Saturday as the streaking San Antonio Spurs were in the midst of a late comeback against the Utah Jazz.
Trailing 112-109, Spurs guard Patty Mills penetrated then looked to kick out to Manu Ginobili on the wing for a three, but Utah Jazz rookie Royce O’Neale quickly disrupted that.
O’Neale deflected the pass for a steal, which led to a transition dunk with 1:29 remaining and ultimately the fifth straight win for the Jazz, 120-111.
With at least 15 family members and friends in attendance, the Killeen, Texas, native tallied a career-best 18 points, five rebounds and five assists, with one of his three steals coming at a critical moment. He also went 4 for 4 from behind the 3-point line and 6 for 7 from the field.
His mother, Deborah Kingwood, and longtime friend, Phelan “Phelo” Curry, were among those within his circle attending.
“Coming back to Texas and playing for his mom is the most important thing, not even for his friends,” Curry said. “Texas is home. Texas and his mom were what really fueled the fire for him to do that.”
Jazz rookie Royce O’Neale talks about his finest pro performance Saturday against the San Antonio Spurs where he posted a career-best 18 points, five rebounds and five assists in a 120-111 win. “Each day I play to get better,” he said. pic.twitter.com/qjLKK5hNn6— Eric Woodyard (@E_Woodyard) February 4, 2018
The 2017 NBA rookie class is a loaded one, with rising stars like Donovan Mitchell, Ben Simmons and Kyle Kuzma at the forefront, but O’Neale is starting to find his niche as well.
The Baylor product averages 4.5 points, 2.7 rebounds and 1.2 assists on the season but is making the most of his opportunity of late, especially with veteran Thabo Sefolosha out with a right knee injury.
He’s clocking 23.1 minutes per game while posting 8.4 points, 3.4 rebounds and 2.4 assists on 46.9 percent shooting during the Jazz’s five-game win streak.
“I’m knocking down shots, handling the ball a little bit, getting guys open, getting them easier shots,” O’Neale said. “I’m just trying to make the team better, then also help them make me better.”
It’s crazy how times have changed for the 24-year-old. This time last year, he wasn’t even in the NBA. O’Neale was overseas in Spain playing for Gran Canaria before signing a three-year deal in Utah this offseason.
Excelling at the little things is what helped the 6-foot-6, 226-pound wing earn a spot in Jazz coach Quin Snyder’s rotation.
“I think Royce is a good example of someone who has got on the floor by defending, and he’s worked at it,” Snyder said. “He’s grown more and more confident in his jump shot and picking the spots about when to attack.
“One of the things that he’s done really in the last couple weeks better than anybody on our team is when he’s had the ball in the open floor, he’s attacked the rim.”
Mitchell, O’Neale’s closest teammate, isn’t surprised by his production.
They’re literally always together, even staying in the same building.
Whether it’s sitting courtside together at local college games, sharing Instagram stories, studying film, working out, playing video games or attending autograph sessions, Mitchell is able to witness the grind behind the shine firsthand.
“It’s something that I seen him do every day in practice and training camp and just for him to be able to do that in the game, it’s just skill meets opportunity,” Mitchell said. “I think that’s been the biggest thing with him is just being ready all the time, that way he doesn’t have to get ready.”
O’Neale is often overlooked, though.
At one University of Utah hoops game, he was even cropped out of the Twitter photo that spotlighted Mitchell being in attendance. However, with the way O’Neale’s been playing, if he keeps it up, he shouldn’t have to worry about that happening again.
It doesn’t bother him either way.
“I let (Donovan) get all attention,” O’Neale said, smiling. “I’m cool with that. I let him be in the spotlight. It doesn’t bother me at all.”
What matters to him is motivating his close friends and family, inspiring folks from his hometown of Killeen and actually lasting in the NBA. Fame is irrelevant.
That was certainly on display in his best game as a pro against San Antonio on Saturday as his support system drove two hours just to watch the Texas boy shine in the league.
He was showing out just like the old days when he would drain jumpers at the High Chaparral Youth Center.
“All of his friends, he makes sure we’re on our stuff,” said Curry, a barber at Fade Masterz Barbershop in Killeen. “He lets us know, y’all can have fun, but we’ve got to get this school thing.
“It won’t look good if one of us just makes it and the other one struggles, so that was his role growing up was making sure everybody handled their business in the right way. That’s the type of friend he is.”