‘Best birthday present you could ever ask for’: Jazz rookie Keyonte George made his first NBA start as he turns 20
Though the game didn’t end the way George would have liked — the Jazz lost their fourth straight game, falling 134-118 to the Pacers — George had exactly the type of game this Jazz team was hoping he would
INDIANAPOLIS — After a team film session on Tuesday, Jazz head coach Will Hardy grabbed Keyonte George just before getting on an elevator.
“Hey, Keyonte,” Hardy said. “How you feeling?”
“I’m feeling good, coach,” George responded.
“Good,” Hardy said. “You’re starting tomorrow.”
A smile spread across the rookie’s face. He’d been patiently waiting and trying not to expect too much in the early days of his first NBA season. When his best friend would ask, George would tell him that starting wasn’t what he was concerned with right now.
But once he was presented with the opportunity, George couldn’t help but be overwhelmed with emotion on Tuesday. He first called his girlfriend, Yahaira Owens. Then he called his best friend. Tears were shed.
What Hardy didn’t realize when he told George he’d be starting on Wednesday night against the Indiana Pacers, was that Wednesday, Nov. 8, was George’s 20th birthday. Making things even more special, George’s mom was at the game in Indiana.
“Best birthday present you could ever ask for,” George said. “I’m truly blessed and thankful that this staff and organization are willing to trust me this early in the season to go out and try to get guys organized and, you know, run a team.”
Though the game didn’t end the way George would have liked — the Jazz lost their fourth straight game, falling 134-118 to the Pacers — George had exactly the type of game this Jazz team was hoping he would.
He finished the night with seven points, nine assists, two rebounds and just one turnover.
“He’s playing good basketball,” Lauri Markkanen said after the game. “He’s got some things that he can get better at but I’m really proud of him and how he’s been coming in every day working and I think he’s gonna do a good job.”
Those sentiments were echoed by the rest of the starting unit and every player kept mentioning how poised George is and how impressed they’ve been with his maturity this early on.
The Jazz are going to be willing to give George a fair shot at taking over as the lead guard on this team. They know that he is going to make some mistakes and that there will be some growing pains that are different from the ones that they’re already dealing with.
As the Jazz contend with allowing the rookie to find his way, the team is also trying to navigate playing without Walker Kessler, who will be missing at least two weeks with an elbow sprain. Even so, they’re willing to go through those mistakes with George so long as he puts in the right kind of effort.
And there are certainly things George can do better. He can try to put more pressure on the rim, use his body and find ways to get to the line (he didn’t make it to the free throw line on Wednesday), take shots when he’s open, turn up his on-ball defense, recognize mismatches a little earlier in the shot clock.
“He’s still learning how to pick his spots when to shoot, I think he turned down probably five or six shots off the bounce that we would like to see him take,” Hardy said. “But I think overall his poise and communication tonight was fantastic.”
As George said — for his first NBA start, he couldn’t have asked for anything more.