One question stood out over all the rest for the new-look Brooklyn Nets after trading Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving: who would step up and produce in crunch time?
Mikal Bridges and Spencer Dinwiddie have taken the reins as late-game ball handlers for Brooklyn. However, it has been Royce O'Neale, the Nets' offseason acquisition from Utah, who has stepped up to put them over the top down the stretch of multiple games.
The veteran has continued to close games despite a move to the bench amid the acquisitions of Mikal Bridges, Cam Johnson, and Dorian-Finney Smith. O'Neale has made the most of those opportunities, converting on four of five threes in crunch time (final five minutes of games within five points) over the last 21 games. Two of those came in Brooklyn's win over the Houston Rockets Wednesday.
O'Neale has shot 10-0f-22 from three in fourth quarters with the new-look Nets. The 29-year-old is no stranger to pressure shotmaking this season, shooting 8-of-15 from three in crunch time overall, the third-best percentage among 104 players to attempt 10 or more. O'Neale has three game-winners on the year, including a go-ahead three in Golden State and last-second tip-ins against Portland and Miami:
Nets head coach Jacque Vaughn raved about his confidence in O'Neale in pressure moments, something that has also extended to his teammates:
“He’s a guy that is comfortable at the end of the games,” Vaughn said before Friday's matchup with Atlanta. “You watched him in the Utah days, he was a guy that inbounded at the end of the game or was in at the end of the game. So he does that for us. The majority of the time if there’s an inbound play at the end of the game, Royce will be delivering.”
“There’s an extreme amount of trust and comfort that I have in him as a coach that I think the players have grown. The confidence that he exudes that he’s going to make the right decision, call a timeout, he’s gonna shoot the basketball when it becomes available. So give him a lot of credit for garnering the confidence of his teammates and the coaching staff.”
Newly-hired Hawks head coach Quin Snyder worked with O'Neale during the wing's first five NBA seasons in Utah. Snyder pointed to O'Neale's versatility on both ends, as well as his high basketball IQ, as attributes that allow him to excel:
“His versatility is something that makes him unique,” Snyder said. “I can remember him guarding Jokic for a few possessions, it’s been a while since that’s happened. Also seeing him bring the ball up now. He’s always been smart, so you put him in those positions and he’s able to make the right play.”
“Versatility on both sides of the ball is something that can get you on the floor, and that’s what he’s able to do. You can see a lot of his character comes out when he plays with how he plays.”
O'Neale is proving his worth in a crowded Nets wing rotation that includes Bridges, Johnson, Finney-Smith, Joe Harris, and Yuta Watanabe. The first-year Net has turned in the best season of his career after Brooklyn traded a first-round pick for him this summer, averaging career-highs in points (8.9) and assists (3.6) while shooting a career-best 39.6 percent from three on 5.5 attempts per game.