Before the Jazz had played a game that counted towards their record, Utah head coach Will Hardy had already grown weary of the questions surrounding his three rookies: Taylor Hendricks, Keyonte George, and Brice Sensabaugh.
It’s not that Hardy didn’t want to talk about his rookies – he just wanted expectations for the trio to be tempered. It’s not easy being a rookie in the NBA, let alone being expected to play serious minutes from the opening tip.
“I think there is a world where each of them could play themselves into minutes, but that shouldn’t be the expectation,” Hardy said during training camp. “It’s about earning the trust of their teammates. … If their teammates think that they can help them win, they’ll be all about it.”
As it turns out, that’s precisely what one of the rookies has done.
After starting the season in the rotation and slowly seeing his minutes and role expanded, George got the first start of his NBA career on Wednesday night against Indiana. Although the Jazz fell to the Pacers, it was a debut worthy of being proud of.
“I think it went well,” he said. “We didn’t come out with the outcome that we wanted, but overall, I think I brought a little pace to the game. I think I did a great job kind of finding our guys and trying to get them in rhythm. I think defensively, I competed. … But at the same time, I know I can give more.”
George finished with seven points, nine assists (with just one turnover), and two rebounds in a season-high 31 minutes. He shot 3-of-8 from the floor and 1-of-3 from deep.
“I thought Keyonte did a good job. … Nine assists and one turnover is good,” Hardy added. “I think in general, he’s still learning how to pick his spots on when to shoot. … I think he turned down five or six shots off the bounce that we would like to see him take. Overall, his poise and communication tonight was fantastic.”
While some of Jazz Nation have been clamoring for Hardy to give George the reins of the offense since his dazzling debut at Summer League, Hardy had remained steadfast about not rushing the process for his rookie.
George’s talent has been apparent for quite some time, with his name coming up multiple times when his teammates were asked who had impressed them during open runs in the summer. But dominating in open runs and running an NBA offense as a starting point guard are vastly different scenarios.
That’s why George had one simple goal – or wish – entering this season.
“Just continuing to be unselfish and have an unselfish mind. … At some point, I’ll be able to gain that trust and be able to lead this team in a way,” George said during the preseason.
Nine games in, and it appears he’s done just that.
“I think all of the guys on the team recognize Keyonte’s ability,” Hardy said. “I think everybody on the team has been really impressed with his maturity at his age, his understanding at his age. I think the team has received him well. … They’ve been very supportive of him all season.”
Make no mistake, Hardy and the Jazz know there will be growing pains. But sometimes, you can’t see the forest for the trees unless you are willing to take a chance – and that’s what Utah is doing.
“There’s a lot of belief within our organization in Keyonte, and the players are included in that,” Hardy said.
What began 24 hours prior with three simple words from Hardy, “You’re starting tomorrow,” to then starting his first NBA game on his 20th birthday – and in front of his mom nonetheless.
“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.”
“When he told me, I kind of had a big smile on my face,” he added. “That’s kind of something I’ve been waiting for. … I’m always talking about waiting my time, waiting for the opportunity, and it came.”