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How is Keyonte George pushing through the rookie wall? By looking up to Kris Dunn

The NBA takes a toll — both physically and mentally — but the Jazz rookie is learning how to deal with the grind and be a pro

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Utah’s Keyonte George (3) looks at the replay against the Sacramento Kings in Salt Lake City, Oct. 25, 2023.

Utah’s Keyonte George (3) looks at the replay against the Sacramento Kings in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2023. The Jazz guard has looked to teammate Kris Dunn for mentorship during his rookie season.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

NEW ORLEANS — The other day rookie Keyonte George was talking with Utah Jazz assistant coach Jason Terry.

They came to the realization that if you combined the number of games George played in his senior year of high school and the number he played in his lone season at Baylor, it probably wouldn’t equal the number of NBA games he’s played in the first few months of his young professional career.

“Mentally, I’m still trying to get over the hump of basketball everyday. Practice or shootarounds every other day and the traveling aspect of it.” — Jazz rookie Keyonte George on the NBA grind

And we’re only at the midway point of the 2023-24 NBA season.

Every player has heard of the “rookie wall.” It’s the proverbial time when the realities — both physical and mental — of being in the NBA catch up with young players.

Some people believe in it and some don’t. But most NBA players will say that even if they don’t feel like they hit a wall, there was a point where things got harder.

“Mentally, I’m still trying to get over the hump of basketball everyday,” George said. “Practice or shootarounds every other day and the traveling aspect of it.”

Physically, George feels like he’s doing fine. In mid-December, when he was sidelined because of a left foot injury, he was able to kind of rethink how his body was feeling. He said the time allowed him to work on his body even more and reach another level.

Additionally, George has a great mentor when it comes to recovery, treatment and how to make sure he’s physically going to be able to stay ready no matter the circumstances. That mentor is Kris Dunn.

“I see him everyday take care of his body,” George said of his teammate. “Steam room, ice baths, needles, lasers, anything that you can think of. He isn’t necessarily using his words but using his actions. I see him being a pro each and every day. That’s the main thing I’m learning from him is being professional.”

Mentally is where things are a little more difficult, which is, according to Jazz coach Will Hardy, where he sees the rookie wall present more prominently.

“I think the wall is far more mental and emotional than it is physical,” Hardy said. “The adrenaline of the first part of the season wears off and you naturally sort of relax. … I’ve been proud of the way he’s handled himself with the coaching staff and his teammates. He knows he still has a lot to learn.”

To some, it might seem that George has had a bit of an up-and-down rookie season. Eight games in, he earned the starting point guard job and he was playing really well. After the injury kept him out of the game for a couple weeks, he came back to the bench.

Dunn and Collin Sexton had found a groove with the starting unit and Hardy didn’t want to disrupt what was working. Additionally, in Hardy’s attempts to play the hot hand and be more precise about matchups, George has sometimes been one of the players that has seen his time reduced in certain situations. 

But George doesn’t feel slighted, nor has he gotten down on himself in those situations, because he knows it isn’t just about him.

On Saturday in Houston, Hardy moved John Collins to the bench to start the second half, choosing to bring in Walker Kessler for some more size and defense at the rim. George didn’t play in the second half, but the fact that he wasn’t really singled out was helpful.

“That group came in, started Walk, started getting stops, started running, John came off the bench and that was his role at the time,” George said. “My role at the time was, be on the bench, be a good teammate and try to help in ways where I can use my voice. That’s where growth happens. It’s early in my career and I’ve still got a long way to go. That was just another moment for me to try to get better.”

Dunn has unwittingly become an emotional mentor for George as well. George sees how he stays even-keeled and positive and how hard work and preparation has paid off for Dunn.

“No matter what you’re going through you’ve got to be a pro, that’s what you’re here for,” George said. “If you’re playing, not playing — he’s been through it all. He’s been in the G League; been on 10 days. So, if I’m gonna talk to anybody, that’s gonna be the guy that I try to get the most knowledge from when it comes to carrying yourself in a way where the organization sees that you’re the same person, no matter what.”

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Utah Jazz guard Keyonte George dunks as Toronto Raptors’ Dennis Schroder (17) and Pascal Siakam (43) look on during a game Friday, Jan. 12, 2024, in Salt Lake City.

Rick Bowmer, Associated Press