Krysten Peek

SALT LAKE CITY — On draft night last June, Keyonte George sat in the green room with his family waiting for his name to be called and anticipating where his career in the NBA would start. Victor Wembanyama, of course, was the first player to walk across the stage and shake NBA commissioner Adam Silver’s hand, and it was 15 picks after that when George heard his name. He was headed to the Utah Jazz, a team in rebuild mode after trading away star players Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert a year prior.

George didn’t waste any time and started watching games from the Jazz’s 2022-23 season. It was head coach Will Hardy’s first year and the Jazz finished with a 37-45 record. The 6-foot-4 guard out of Baylor watched all 82 games over the summer, something not a lot of first-year players do coming into the league.

“I watched as much film as I could just so I knew what my role was going to be coming in,” George told Yahoo Sports. “I knew Mike [Conley] was gone so I just had to go into a new situation, trying to be a lead guard, and I was trying to speed up the process. My main goal was to be effective as soon as possible so I wanted to put myself in a position to be knowledgeable and not think about what I was doing in a new system and just play.”

Throughout his high school career and his one year in college, George was known as a scoring guard. He could get a shot off from anywhere on the court and could score at all three levels, something that most likely drew the Jazz organization to him as a promising young prospect. Early on in the season, it was his passing and facilitating that earned him early minutes on the court and it continues to be a big part of his game during his rookie season. In a stretch of five games, George averaged 8.8 assists and currently leads all rookies in assists with 220.

“When I was watching games from last season, I just wanted to see how Mike [Conley] was setting things up for Walker [Kessler], Lauri [Markkanen] and Jordan [Clarkson],” George said. “Those are the guys that we need in rhythm when it comes to winning ball games and I wanted to know how to get them the ball and their movements off-ball.”

All the hours spent watching film hasn’t gone unnoticed and helped George earn the respect from his teammates early on.

“I feel like a lot of young guys don’t really watch a lot of the game anymore,” Jordan Clarkson told Yahoo Sports. “He’s really a student and he talks to me about a lot of stuff and what I’m seeing. I try to pull him aside and show him stuff in practice and just show him little insights to the game. That’s just going to speed up the process for him and get us to where we want to be.”

The Jazz played the Warriors right before the All-Star Break on Feb. 15 and anytime Stephen Curry steps onto the court, he has the ability to put on a shooting clinic and hit 3s from everywhere. That night, Curry had a quiet night scoring 16 points and going 2-for-8 from 3-point range. And while the Warriors edged out the Jazz for the 140-137 win, it was George who got hot that night. He hit nine 3-pointers (finishing with 33 points), tying the NBA record for most 3s scored by a rookie, and setting the Jazz franchise record for most 3s in a game by a rookie (a record previously held by Mitchell).

“As the year has gone on, I’ve felt way more comfortable and my shot is starting to fall,” George added. “Definitely the game is slowing down for me. I’ve been watching games around the league and seeing how other guards get to their spots and just trying to figure out my spots and my shot selection.”

SALT LAKE CITY, UTAH - FEBRUARY 15: Keyonte George #3 of the Utah Jazz shoots over Stephen Curry #30 of the Golden State Warriors during the second half of a game at Delta Center on February 15, 2024 in Salt Lake City, Utah. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Images)

Keyonte George put up a career-high 33 points against the Warriors right before the All-Star break. (Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Images)

In the Jazz’s first game back from the All-Star break Thursday night, George got his 20th start of the season against the Charlotte Hornets. Also in the starting lineup was fellow rookie Taylor Hendricks getting the first start of his career. The Hornets made 20 3s and turned the ball over only nine times, securing the win 115-107. George finished with 16 points and five assists in 31 minutes. It’s clear that Hardy’s focus for these last 25 games is development and reps for his younger players.

“Like any young player, he makes mistakes, but he’s shown the ability to learn from those things and not compound those mistakes and not let bad trends stick around for a long period of time,” Hardy told Yahoo Sports. “I think that quality is going to serve him well moving forward.”

Wembanyama is the runaway favorite for Rookie of the Year and Chet Holmgren, the No. 2 pick in the 2022 NBA Draft, is the likely runner-up with the season he’s having in Oklahoma City. George might have had to be patient on draft night, waiting for his name to be called, and might even feel a little bit snubbed falling out of the lottery. Through all the hours of film and hard work this year, it has paid off in a huge way and George has been one of the most impactful rookies in his class.

“There were 15 other guys drafted before me and, nothing but love and respect to those guys, but I’m a competitor and it all stays between the lines,” George said. “Each and every night, I’m thinking of, not necessarily how can I prove myself, but I hope people understand and recognize now that I’m definitely capable of the things that I’m doing and I belong in this league.”

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