Utah Jazz should start Royce O’Neale at the four spot

SALT LAKE CITY, UT - APRIL 22: Royce O'Neale #23 of the Utah Jazz is fouled by Clint Capela #15 of the Houston Rockets in the first half of Game Four during the first round of the 2019 NBA Western Conference Playoffs at Vivint Smart Home Arena on April 22, 2019 in Salt Lake City, Utah. (Photo by Gene Sweeney Jr./Getty Images)
SALT LAKE CITY, UT - APRIL 22: Royce O'Neale #23 of the Utah Jazz is fouled by Clint Capela #15 of the Houston Rockets in the first half of Game Four during the first round of the 2019 NBA Western Conference Playoffs at Vivint Smart Home Arena on April 22, 2019 in Salt Lake City, Utah. (Photo by Gene Sweeney Jr./Getty Images) /

The Utah Jazz have a tough decision to make regarding who to start at power forward. But it would appear they’re leaning towards an intriguing choice – Royce O’Neale.

When the Utah Jazz traded away Derrick Favors in order to create the necessary space to sign free agent Bojan Bogdanovic, it marked a notable shift in the construction of the team. For the past few years, they’ve been one of the few squads in the league to start the game with two traditional bigs at both the four and the five spot, but with Favors out and Bogey in, the Jazz are now looking at quite a change in their starting lineup.

Originally, many presumed that Bogey, who is six-foot-eight, 216 pounds after all, could slide to the four-spot in place of Favors with Joe Ingles retaining his spot at the small forward position. This could very well be what the Jazz roll with as their starting five on opening night. It would in essence be, as far as we know now, their best five players which is typically what you’d like to see in your starting group.

However, there’s some question about whether it would be best to start Bogey at the four when his natural position is far and above the three. Yes, he can play the power forward spot and has done so with reasonable success throughout his career. Some might even argue that doing so would cause a mismatch in most situations offensively whereas most opposing fours couldn’t take as much advantage of his lack of quickness as opposing threes can.

So if Utah decides to continue to start Ingles then slide Bogey to the four, it would be absolutely understandable and perhaps even the most sensible move. But, as reported in a recent article (subscription required) from The Athletic’s Tony Jones, the Utah Jazz are actually contemplating a different option entirely. Namely, they’re considering starting Royce O’Neale at the four.

Now, I know this may be confusing to some. After all, Royce has spent a decent amount of time in the league playing at the two spot. Why would he – at two inches shorter than Bojan, no less – drop all the way to the four just so Bogdanovic could remain at the three?

Well, there are a few answers to that. One is that O’Neale has proven capable of defending all types of players out to the perimeter with his excellent athleticism and lock-down prowess. Not only that, but while he’s two inches shorter than Bojan, he’s actually about 10 pounds heavier. Along that vein, he’s the same height as Jae Crowder, Utah’s most recent main power forward option (despite starting behind Favors, he averaged more minutes), and he’s nearly as heavy.

That bodes well for the odds that Royce could fill that Crowder-esque role and thrive at the four spot. Of course, O’Neale is also a much better three-point shooter, which could cause massive problems for opposing defenses. Not to mention, even if Bogdanovic is technically slotted at the three-spot and O’Neale at the four, that doesn’t mean that they couldn’t be versatile in terms of who defends who. Despite their starting position, depending on the matchup Royce could still easily mark the opponents’ small forward or power forward based on need.

The question isn’t so much about who starts at what position, but about who the fifth starter will actually be for the Jazz alongside Mike Conley, Donovan Mitchell, Bojan Bogdanovic and Rudy Gobert. The Jazz clearly have high hopes for Royce and expect him to take a big leap this upcoming season. If he does so as well as rounds out his game to extend his defense to also shutting down opposing power forwards, he could very well be the logical choice.

He’d add incredible perimeter defense to the team from the game’s onset, and another perk would be that Joe Ingles could be left to effectively run the second unit. Although he will no longer have Favors to run his legendary pick-and-roll with, the Jazz will still have good options in that regard and Joe has proven himself as an excellent ball handler.

Moving out of the starting role and to the bench could pay dividends for Ingles throughout the course of the season as well. After all, he will turn 32 just before the start of the 2019-20 campaign, and he looked quite gassed by the time the postseason rolled around last year. It might be nice for Ingles to be able to lighten his minutes load somewhat next season by coming off the bench (though still finishing games in the closing lineup) so that he can be more fresh come playoff time.

So between allowing Utah’s newcomer and third scoring option in Bogdanovic to play in his most comfortable small forward spot, inserting lock-down defense and an excellent stretch-four into the starting group in Royce O’Neale (assuming he can indeed adjust to the position), and permitting Ingles to come off the bench to help run the second unit while preserving some of his energy throughout the year, starting O’Neale feels like it would be an optimal choice.

Sure, there’s some risk involved as it would be relatively new to Royce and playing an unfamiliar position is never easy. Certain matchups probably wouldn’t work out so well, and occasionally the Jazz would likely have to turn to Jeff Green and/or Ed Davis for additional support.

But in a league that’s going ever smaller and focusing on placing four shooters on the court including a perimeter threat power forward, Royce O’Neale could very well be just the ticket. He played well last season in limited minutes at the four spot, so perhaps he’ll be a key to unlock Utah’s highest potential this season as well.

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Whether Utah ultimately opts to go with Royce at the four or not, one thing is certain. Having seven to eight starting-caliber players and trying to figure who to go with is a great problem to have. This Jazz team is deep, well-rounded and versatile. Regardless of who gets their name called at the beginning of the game versus off the bench, they’ll be a daunting matchup and tough for any opponent to topple.