Moments after Royce O’Neale hit another game-winning shot, this time against the defending champion Warriors in San Francisco, Nic Claxton was asked about his teammate. His answer was unintentionally comical, but everyone who heard it understood implicitly.
“He’s got big balls,” Claxton said of a teammate who has made a number of clutch plays for the Nets this season. “It rises in the hour of crisis.”
The praise was more for O’Neale’s clutch gene than any other body part. It’s a winning DNA and central to the play with the tight ends the Nets traded for last offseason. It turned out to be one of the smartest deals of the summer.
If availability is one of the most important skills, O’Neale brought underrated gifts to Brooklyn. He has logged the most total minutes on the team by far — and behind only Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving per game — having become too invaluable for Jacque Vaughn to take off the floor.
“It’s the sheer confidence he gives you, the effort and the care factor he has on a nightly basis … looking at the scouting report and looking to see who he could guard that night,” Vaughn said. “His teammates get a chance to see him be extremely professional. Whether it’s the conversations I have with him on an off day about how our team is, what’s important, how we can get better.
“To see the concern he has for his role as a teammate, that’s very important when there have been nights where maybe he hasn’t had a great shooting night, but he’s still finished the game for us. Or he’s in a position where he can shoot a critical 3 because he’s in the game. At the end of the day, the trust he has earned from the coaching staff, his teammates, [is] because it appears every day.”
Every day, every practice and every game. And almost every minute of these games.
O’Neale — though visibly tired at times — enters Saturday’s tilt against the Knicks having played 1,563 minutes in 45 games. No other clean sheet comes within 150 minutes of that total, with Durant next closest at 1,402.
“[He’s] a guy you trust at the end of the game, that’s going to make the right shot, that’s going to make the right decision at the end of the game, that doesn’t mind playing both ends of the floor,” Vaughn said. . “He has the confidence of his coaching staff, his teammates and he’s in the right place.”
While O’Neale’s arrival in an offseason trade may have flown under the radar for many but the keenest NBA watchers, his reliability was no surprise. A three-dimensional guy who shows up every night, he made 69 appearances as a rookie and has played at least 70 games in the four years since. He is well on his way to it again.
“He just comes in every day, just works, plays his role, doesn’t have a huge ego,” Claxton said. “He just wants to go out and play basketball at a high level and win basketball games. It’s always good to have guys like that on the roster who can bring that every night.”
Since the start of the 2017-18 season, he has missed just 23 games, just three with the Nets this season. For a Brooklyn team that has been plagued by injuries and absences in recent years, and entered the season with five players coming off surgeries of some kind, the value of this cannot be overstated.
“Yeah, every day, every game, taking care of myself, making sure I’m able to compete and just accepting [Vaughn] to have the confidence and let me out there and play me as much as I can, as much as he wants,” O’Neale told The Post of his approach. “Longevity and being healthy is a big key, so to do what I have to do for this team.”
Which was a bit of everything. His defense may not live up to his early days in Utah, but he’s solid and in good position, traits the Nets need on that end of the court. And he’s shooting a career-best .398 from 3-point range.
That the Nets were able to pencil in this nightly presence is a testament to O’Neal’s willingness to play through multiple injuries, the same way he did last year in Utah when he stoically dealt with knee and thumb issues that hampered production of. downwards.
“If I can walk and run, I can play,” O’Neal said with a shrug. “If I need to take care of myself and sit down, I will. but I try to be one of those dependable guys and do whatever I can for this team, whether it’s offense or defense and just being out there.”
The assumption was that playing alongside Durant and Irving (when both are healthy and available) would require O’Neale to put the ball on the floor less. But was he allowed—or was he asked? — to do more than many expected.
“Royce has been huge for us, not just on the floor, in the locker room, the consistency he brings every day, the joy he brings in the gym every day,” Vaughan said. “A guy I enjoy coaching, enjoy being around, rely on. He’s played a lot of minutes for us, different roles, sometimes half point guard, sometimes four. So little of everything and appreciate it all.”
The gravity of the stars allows O’Neale to attack close spots and get open looks from deep. And on nights when either (or Ben Simmons) was shut out, he was asked to be a secondary playmaker, resulting in a career average of four assists. His 0.7 blocks are also a career best.
It’s a role he prepared long before training.
“Just the way I trained in the offseason, getting in the best shape I can and … just being ready to do whatever,” O’Neale said. “I think I’m that versatile guy, that I can play different positions, even though it’s completely different situations, and I just play hard.”
That offseason saw O’Neale inadvertently go viral when Jazz general manager Danny Ainge traded him to Brooklyn on June 30 for a first-round pick (acquired from Philadelphia in the James Harden deal).
At the time, ESPN’s Brian Windhorst cautioned asking the question “why would the Jazz do this?” became a meme. But Brooklyn’s first-round sweep at the hands of Boston last season made it obvious why the Nets would do it. They had a glaring need for a bigger 3-and-D guy on the wing, and they banked on O’Neale to fill that gaping hole.
“It felt good,” O’Neill said. “I could always play more with the ball. Just reading different situations and becoming more comfortable with it, confident.
“But it’s just me not limiting myself and putting myself in situations where I can succeed and trade a new opportunity and take advantage of it. I can just do what I have to do.”
Despite coming off a subpar outing — he fouled out Thursday against Detroit with just three points on 1-of-7 shooting — O’Neale has made a string of game-winning plays for Brooklyn.
It was a clutch three-pointer to beat Toronto in October. 21, a game-winning tip on Nov. 17 in Portland, and his huge games on Jan. 8 in Miami. After Durant went down that night, O’Neale not only hit the go-ahead floater, but went vertical to force Jimmy Butler into a game-clinching miss with 0.5 seconds left.
“The biggest thing in this possession is Royce covers for his teammate, and that’s how it comes … Royce is vertical at the rim and we live with the results, which were in our favor,” Vaughn said. “You just rely on him to do the right thing and be in the right place. He’s just earned the trust of his teammates and the trust of his teammates.”
That confidence only grew during the first half of the season. Like Irving passing a shot to kick the ball to O’Neal with 28.5 seconds to play last weekend in Golden State, and the latter draining a 3-pointer to beat the defending champs.
“That was the best shot for our team,” Irving said. “So I gave up the ball and trusted him to make it work.”