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Stephen’s Study: Royce O’Neale is a Phoenix Sun

O’Neale will be a very welcomed addition and a plus to the two-way process of the Suns.

NBA: Brooklyn Nets at Phoenix Suns Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The Phoenix Suns traded for Royce O’Neale prior to Thursday's trade deadline. They parted with nearly the entire haul of ancillary, minimum contracts they compiled in free agency, signaling a soft reset of sorts, and also open competition in the 8th-10th man realm.

As part of a three-team deal with the Brooklyn Nets and Memphis Grizzlies, the Suns were able to acquire both Royce O’Neale and David Roddy. No longer with the team: Keira Bates-Diop (Nets), Jordan Goodwin (Neta), Yuta Watanabe (Grizzlies), Chimezie Metu (Grizzlies - waived).

The move itself is a gamble of sorts given the volume of pieces being parted with, but O’Neale (and Roddy) should provide more consistency on the margins in the fashions the Suns will need them to. The context change for O’Neale should help to better optimize what he’s good with, while also doubling for him to serve multiple purposes for the Suns.

The Suns will be slightly more in need of his defense to hit than I’d like, but it remains to be seen if this recent stretch of team defense can sustain — which, if so, lessens the demand on him and makes his addition a more optimal fit.

Here are a few quick things I feel O’Neale will bring:

1.) Shot Profile Hit

O’Neale is a more viable three-point shooter, especially in playoff or high-stakes moments than the pieces both traded for him and that preceded him in that slot on the roster.

He’s also a better piece to either attack closeouts if not shoot to beat them, but also to play in 0.5 and not have it stick in his hands for too long.

2.) Small-Small Screening, Inverting Screening, and Movement

O’Neale is a quick processor of space and positioning, which is a non-tangible skill mandatory to optimize play in today’s pace and space NBA, and especially in the Suns' offensive process.

I’ve mentioned a handful of times that he provides plenty of what Grayson Allen brings — in a non-redundant manner — that should add another layer to the Suns attack.

He’s a capable screener, as well as a capable driver, and playmaker on the short-roll.

The synergy he has with Durant should lend itself also to play with Booker, to create the same reaction advantages generated above, or to manipulate matchups and bring Suns deemed “Waldo’s” into the mix — to attack directly.

3.) Defensive Activity/Versatility

His 84 deflections this season would rank third on the Suns, indicative of the ramp-up in physicality and activity provided — also falling in line with the Suns' desires to play with more tempo and flow from offense to defense.

In terms of time spent, he’s in the 96th percentile for defending in the post, with a 72nd percentile mark in defensive PPP (0.854). He concedes a PPS of just 0.87, which, of the players having defended so in 37+ possessions, ties for 9th best, speaking to his effectiveness in guarding up. Opponents also turn it over 13.5% of the time guarded by him there, which ranks 5th among the aforementioned group of 34 players.

He’s not the best in isolation this season, ranking 91st in PPS allowed of 96 players defending as many iso possessions as he has — leaving plenty to be desired. However, a caveat I’ll keep in mind is how much switching the Nets do, some of the most in the league, and the context of help defense relative to Vaughn’s system, in comparison to Vogel’s.

His quick hands and anticipatory skills arm him with activity in his pressure on-ball, which helps him to make up for some of his deficiencies in screen navigation at times.

He’s not the best in terms of navigation of screens off-ball, but he is good with physicality in top-locking or locking and trailing, to buy himself time in navigation.

As a helper, he truly excels — think of him at the nail in help, to cut off middle drives, sink into cutters, and recover out to shooters. He’s also active with size as a lowman, which this team greatly needs, and is a high-level communicator. He’ll provide more accountability on the defensive end, to help aid the defensive process of this team, as well as balance out the offensive-minded attack.

He’s also good with doing his work early in help rotations, then rotation out of that in closeouts, closeout and recover, and closeout, recover and contain scenarios. Also is keen on the secondary switches to help keep matchups solid, as well as aiding defenders on-ball with peel switches to keep the ball out of the paint.

I worry slightly about how much of a demand will be placed on him solely at times for defensive effectiveness, but he’ll get the job done surely — just a matter of to what extent, and if the pieces surrounding him continue to put forth effort in detail there too.

He’s also very competitive in loose-ball scenarios.

Of note:

  • vs guards (36.6% of his time on the floor) — they shoot 43.5% on 216 field goal attempts, including just 36% on 97 three-point attempts, with 30 turnovers
  • vs forwards (54.5% of his time on the floor) — they shoot 46.8% on 233 field goal attempts, including 38.7% on 75 three-point attempts
  • vs centers (8.9% of his time on the floor) — they shoot 43.3% on 30 field goal attempts,

Helping to unlock lineups, as well as scheme and positional versatility for Vogel, O’Neale can toggle numerous roles, as a helper (mentioned), wing stopper, and at the point-of-attack.

He can also provide switch-anchorship, by way of his versatility in position — defending a wide variety of player types, and communication.

4.) Playmaking

His usage with the Suns will certainly shift some, of the demands he had in playmaking with the Nets. However, those reps should play to his favor in a scenario where there is much less demand for him, and also help in the secondary playmaking roles he’ll be in.

As a Net this season, he has his 3rd highest usage percentage, at 15.1% — in tandem with the 2nd highest assist% of his career, at 15.1% (79th percentile). This follows his first season with the Nets, where he set a career-high at 15.6.

It is a dynamic where the Suns can lean into it as a complementary skill, which will optimize it far more than when he is depended upon heavily to do so. Again, his quick processing and “get off it quick” nature — a contrast to a few of the pieces that pre-existed in Phoenix, and some of which still do — will be a breath of fresh air in eliminating the catch-and-hold scenarios that allow a defense to reset its shell and positioning.

His abilities as a connector both off secondary drives, screening and popping or short-rolling, and being the handoff hub and handler in Delay play in small ball, all will be a major plus to their process.


Lineups I Desire to See Most

Booker, Beal, O’Neale, Durant, Nurkic

Having O’Neale to help unlock activity and add more defensive balance to the heavy offensive attack of the main unit. O’Neale also helping to shoulder more of the defensive load with Durant, helping flip matchups effectively, and adding more point-of-attack chops to that unit is relevant.

Also, for a unit that has struggled on the defensive glass, some of which stemmed from a lack of size in matchups — O’Neale has a 14.0 defensive rebound percentage mark this season, which ranks 92nd percentile for wings.

Additionally, having him make a ton of the rotations Vogel’s schemes demand, and having him as a chess piece to use in that defensively, should help to make that unit’s defensive impact feel different.

This lineup is one I do not see that is out of the realm of potential starting possibility. Honestly, functionality-wise, it makes more sense — but you do NOT touch that starting lineup at this present juncture. Down the line, I could certainly see him being there, enabling balance and size to that unit — where most teams do have size and defensive versatility — while enabling a new scoring punch layer to the reserve units, with Gordon and Allen as the subs there.

This lineup also, and even more so than starting, feels like a more reliable defensive-minded unit to close with.

Booker, Beal, Allen, O’Neale, Durant

We’ve seen some of the proverbial air seep out of the “Death” lineup, but it still has a net of +13.20 in 35 minutes, and an offensive rating of 131.5.

Nonetheless, having the O’Neale piece gives optionality to that unit, enabling Vogel the opportunity to mix and match, but also to dictate with — need stops? You can go with O’Neale in place of Gordon. Need the scoring punch? Can go with O’Neale in for [insert piece of your choice here] and rock out.

He’s spent 19% of his minutes at the four this season, the highest percentage share of his career at the moment. In said minutes, the Nets were +9.8 (a 98th percentile equivalent) with a defensive rating of 106.1 (the equivalent of a top-end defense), as well as an eFG% conceded of 50.4% (equivalent of the top of the top, type of elite) and a 90th percentile turnovers forced percentage, of 15.7.

The Suns are a team in need of upping the volume of turnovers forced and more dictating defensively. O’Neale is a piece that provides that, potentially plenty.

In 1052 minutes (2112 non-garbage time possessions) sharing the frontcourt with Durant last season, O’Neale and Durant were +6.48 in Net, with an offensive rating of 118.33 and a defensive rating of 111.85 (the equivalent of the 5th best defense last season).

Beal, Gordon, O’Neale, Durant, Eubanks

The much-maligned Beal and Durant-led lineups, sans Booker to open second and fourth quarters, could use an infusion of defensive activity that O’Neale would bring.

He’s solid enough in handling to initiate, can take on the point of attack defensively, and the emphasis on the boards doesn’t lose any steam either.


Final Asides

O’Neale, in addition to being a capable release valve as an initiator as well as doing all of the connecting entities, can enter the ball into the post efficiently and effectively — which naturally netted (no pun intended) him plenty of opportunity from a pass away, which always results in high shot quality next to Durant post ups.

O’Neales quick trigger and quick processing optimizes that specific spot, especially in the non-Booker minutes.

He’s shot 34% from deep on 47 attempts stemming from Durant passes, and shot 46.6% overall on passes from Durant in 2022-23 — he had the most attempts both from deep and in general (163) from Durant passes last season, 15 more attempts than anyone else (Nets and Suns), which says plenty about their synergy, in addition to all else noted of their partnership above.

His league comparisons, per Synergy:

  • Grant Williams
  • Quentin Grimes
  • Buddy Hield
  • Taurean Prince

He also has a mesmerizing pump fake:

With abilities to convert off of side dribbles to evade and create space — a perfect counterpunch to the long closeouts he often garners.

***All stats and info used are accurate prior to play on 2.9.24***

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