On a team full of established players, Royce O’Neale knew he wasn’t going to transfer to Baylor and put up a double-double every game.
His role is more like a troubleshooter.
If the Bears need a key rebound, he’ll throw his body into a crowd and wrestle for it. If teams are focusing on forwards Cory Jefferson and Isaiah Austin or guards Kenny Chery and Brady Heslip, O’Neale is willing to take the open shot.
“He doesn’t get the real attention,” Texas Tech coach Tubby Smith said. “But he’s kind of the glue guy.”
After providing a spark off the bench in the first month of the season, O’Neale has made important contributions as a starter as the Bears have won seven of their last eight games to move into position for an NCAA tournament bid.
When the Bears pulled off an 88-75 road win over West Virginia, O’Neale delivered a flawless game as he hit all eight field goals and two free throws, including four 3-pointers. The 6-6 swingman also dished out six assists and grabbed six rebounds.
In a 59-49 win over Texas Tech, O’Neale recorded his first double-double at Baylor with 16 points and 12 rebounds. In last week’s key 74-61 win over then-No. 16 Iowa State, O’Neale grabbed a game-high 11 rebounds while collecting three steals.
“We say he’s a jack of all trades, and he really does a lot of good things,” Baylor coach Scott Drew said. “I think every team has somebody who puts everything together. Defensively, he can guard a lot of positions, and he brings rebounding and toughness. Royce’s passing has been outstanding in conference play. He’s someone we’ve had confidence in all year taking shots, but sometimes he chooses to defer.”
O’Neale’s numbers aren’t staggering: He’s averaging 6.8 points and 4.7 rebounds while shooting a team-high 52.1 percent from the field. He’s the kind of player fans have to see to appreciate, but his teammates know his value.
“Royce doesn’t score a lot for us, but he does all the little things,” Chery said. “He’ll rebound for you, get a couple of steals, do all the hustle plays, and you need those at the end of the game.”
A graduate of Harker Heights High School, O’Neale is glad to be back in Central Texas to play college basketball. He enjoyed his two seasons at the University of Denver where he averaged 11.2 points and 5.5 rebounds as a sophomore to help his team share the Western Athletic Conference championship.
But with grandfather Willie Kingwood suffering health problems, O’Neale wanted to get closer to home. Instead of having to redshirt this season under NCAA transfer rules, O’Neale was granted a waiver to play immediately at Baylor because of his grandfather’s condition.
“My grandfather had cardiovascular problems caused by diabetes,” O’Neale said. “He had been in and out of the hospital. But he’s doing better now and trying to stay healthy. He gets to a lot of games when he can.”
O’Neale enjoyed playing at Denver and liked head coach Joe Scott and his teammates, so it was difficult to tell them he was transferring.
“I had a meeting with my coach one-on-one, and I kind of broke down crying when I started talking to him,” O’Neale said. “I sat down and talked to a couple of players and they said they supported me.”
O’Neale has known Jefferson for many years since they both grew up in Killeen. He was excited when Jefferson announced that he was coming back for his senior year instead of declaring for the NBA draft last spring, and that was even more incentive for O’Neale to transfer to Baylor.
“Baylor is close and treated me the best, and Cory is from my hometown,” O’Neale said. “Cory is two years older than me and was real good friends with my cousin. We still hang out and play some video games.”
Unlike Jefferson, O’Neale didn’t get a lot of attention from major conference schools out of high school. Though O’Neale averaged 16.7 points and 10.4 rebounds per game as a Harker Heights senior, he fell under the radar of most college recruiters.
“I didn’t have that many offers because I broke my left ankle during midseason of my junior year,” O’Neale said. “So I didn’t play most of my junior season and missed most of AAU basketball until the last month of the summer. I got offers from Denver, Duquesne, Mount St. Mary’s, and a couple of D-II and D-III schools. I wanted to get out of state, and I liked the atmosphere out there at Denver.”
After coming off the bench during his freshman year at Denver, O’Neale started all 32 games as a sophomore. When he arrived at Baylor, he came off the bench before moving into a permanent starting role against Hardin-Simmons on Dec. 1.
“It was an honor to start for this team, and made me work even harder,” O’Neale said. “I do what I have to do. If I have to score I’ll do that. I’m having more confidence in my game and doing what I can to the best of my ability to help my team. That’s how I play basketball.”
Jefferson is glad to have his old buddy on his team after playing against him in high school. Jefferson starred as a senior for Killeen in 2008-09 when O’Neale was a sophomore starting to make a name for himself at Harker Heights.
When the Baylor coaches asked about O’Neale, Jefferson was quick to give him a great recommendation.
“I knew everything he could bring to the team,” Jefferson said. “He’s an added weapon for us offensively and defensively. He crashes the boards and now he’s shooting a lot more. We wanted him to do that because more often than not it will go through the net.”