Why Jacque Vaughn and Sean Marks both owe Royce O’Neale a steak dinner – The Denver Post


Nets head coach Jacque Vaughn joked that he needs to take veteran forward Royce O’Neale out to dinner for playing him so many minutes through the first leg and a half of the regular season.

Make that two steak dinners headed his way — and both of them had better be steak.

O’Neale’s minutes load alone is a testament to how important the former Utah Jazz wing is on both ends of the floor for a Nets team whose 19-7 run under Vaughn’s leadership has legitimized their status as NBA championship contenders.

O’Neale has become one of the more reliable players on a deep Nets’ roster with competition at every position. He won the starting wing job while Joe Harris was out with a sore foot and never gave it back — with Harris, Brooklyn’s longtime starting shooter, now Vaughn’s “first option off the bench” while O’Neale starts alongside Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Ben Simmons and Nic Claxton.

O’Neale won that job for two reasons, chief among them being his reliability. The veteran forward has remained healthy and available while Harris continues to work through the ramifications of the two left ankle surgeries he underwent last season.

O’Neale is averaging career-highs across the board. He’s shooting 42.4% from downtown and ranks fifth in three-point percentage among qualifying players in the NBA averaging at least 5.5 attempts from three per game. He’s also averaging a career-high 4.3 assists per game and the highest scoring mark in his career a tick under double figures at 9.5 points per game.

Opposing players also shoot 1.9% worse on an average of 15 shot attempts per game when guarded by the former Baylor Bear.

For reference, only Durant averages more defended field goal attempts per game for the Nets. Opponents shoot 4% worse when guarded by the superstar forward, 6% worse when defended by starting center Claxton, 4% worse when guarded by Markieff Morris and 2.6% worse when defended by Harris, who has categorically improved as a defender this season.

With O’Neale’s two-way production, of course, comes heavy minutes. He averaging a career-high 35 minutes per game and has appeared in 31 of the Nets’ 33 games. Only Durant (32 games) has played in more.

Durant now ranks sixth in the NBA in total minutes at 1,164 entering Monday’s matchup against the Cleveland Cavaliers. O’Neale, after missing two games, ranks 20th at 1,090 minutes. Durant, O’Neale and Irving each average more than 35 minutes per game.

”Yeah, I should continue to apologize to him, take him out to dinner. That was on me, playing him too many minutes, but it was because I love what he does,” Vaughn said two days before Christmas, noting the Nets had three off days before playing again after O’Neale missed his second game. “I think [the time off] really got him in position where mentally and physically, he was able to reload. Now you see the value that he brings to us on both ends of the floor, so I take the blame for running him into the ground for the first couple of weeks for sure.”

As for that second steak dinner? Thanks to O’Neale’s play, general manager Sean Marks suddenly looks like the smartest man in the room for meeting the Utah Jazz’s asking price before another team could pounce.

With so much off-season controversy — mainly whether or not Durant would be in a Nets jersey this season — some were confused by the timing of the O’Neale deal. The Jazz were clearly resetting the franchise and positioning to trade Donovan Mitchell when Brooklyn came into play.

Here were the Nets, ostensibly at the brink of trading Durant and detonating their own title hopes, moving a valuable first-round pick to absorb O’Neale’s contract into their trade exception.

Marks never dealt Durant, signed Edmond Sumner, TJ Warren, Morris and Yuta Watanabe — each of whom have played integral parts in Brooklyn’s early success — and added O’Neale to the lineup. After moving on from Steve Nash as head coach, the Nets are now the hottest team in basketball.

O’Neale’s consistency is a reason why, and it’s why both Marks and Vaughn owe O’Neale a nice porterhouse steak.

Then again, O’Neale — who is under contract through the end of the 2023-24 season — should be able to afford to pick up the tab with the deal he’s sure to get if he keeps playing like this.



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