Keyonte George is really, really fun.
At one of his first Utah Jazz practices, competing in shooting drills with his new teammate Ochai Agbaji, George missed a shot and fell to the floor, mock-devastated at his loss and laughing about something Agbaji said. He’s got a wide smile, and is clearly enjoying his time as a new draftee in the NBA.
That joy comes out in his play on the basketball court, too — especially on the offensive end. George is a classic modern scoring guard with a silky-smooth jump shot that he can get off after a variety of fancy dribble moves. Especially when he gets revved up, it’s fun to watch.
By all accounts, the Jazz love him: general manager Justin Zanik said that the team had him rated as the No. 10 best prospect in the draft, and that the team “debated” taking George even with the No. 9 pick. They eventually nabbed him with the 16th overall selection.
“I think he has probably the most diversified and developed offensive skill set maybe in the draft,” Zanik said. “Keyonte has been doing it for a long time at a very, very high level, (including) in high school competition. And he has all the shots, shots that some people can’t ever learn.”
It’s true. George can get into his shots in so many ways. In isolation, he has the dribble moves to create separation pretty darn reliably. In pick and roll, he’s got that hesitation dribble and body wiggle to keep his defenders off balance. He disguises whether he’s going to attack the rim or pull up, so, so well.
Most of the time, the result of that is a 3-point shot. Among first-round draft picks, only UConn’s Jordan Hawkins took more of his shots from deep; 55% of George’s shots were threes. He’s good at keeping his feet behind the 3-point line, even stepping back to get the extra point — big for analytics junkies like me.
That ability to get his defender off balance is super useful in another way: getting to the free-throw line. He’s got that foul-drawing lean-in down, attacking the rim with his full body and very frequently making his defender make a mistake. There aren’t too many players who can shoot a ton of 3s and get to the free-throw line a lot at the college level, but George was one of them — and that’s very promising for him being a useful player in the NBA, if not a star.
But as much as George stood out for those scoring reasons to the Jazz, other evaluators were a little lower on him, though, seeing him as a late teens pick. The Athletic’s Sam Vecenie considered him the No. 26 best player in the draft.
As with a lot of scoring combo guards, the questions come with the other elements of the game. Is he efficient? Can he pass well enough if and when defenses collapse on him? Can he defend well enough for his scoring to stay on the floor?
Last year, honestly, the results were mostly disappointing.
The efficiency questions are real. As much as we like his ability to shoot 3s and get to the free-throw line, George ended up being an overall inefficient player anyway last year because he shot just 42% from inside the arc and turned the ball over three times per game. It’s just too many iffy midrange shots — he shot only 29% from midrange pull-ups — and when he drove the lane all the way to the rim and wasn’t fouled, he wasn’t a great finisher at the rim.
George used 31% of Baylor’s possessions when he was on the floor last year, a super high number; only 11 players did that in the NBA last season, and it’s the best of the best — Giannis, Steph, LeBron, Luka, Embiid, and so on. George will use fewer possessions in the NBA than he did in college. The question is: will he be able to cut out the bad shots as he decreases his shot profile? If he does, then he’ll be really good. If he plays like fellow Butler alum Jared Butler, it’s going to be less promising.
As a passer, George showed both impressive plays and then just made way too many mistakes. He can make the simple play, but harder plays are tougher — he’s not great at skip passes, for example. They tend to be pretty loopy, and NBA defenses are just going to pounce on those for “pick-six” runout dunks the other way. And his passes sometimes aren’t quite on target. He’s only 19, and so I hope he figures this out with reps.
You also hope a lower offensive usage improves his defense. At times, George can really get after it, getting up on his opponent and causing some havoc.
And then sometimes, he’s so, so disappointing on the defensive end. Check out the 11:35 mark at the Box and One scouting report video above. In closeouts, he’s so off balance, giving up very easy drives around him. And then in isolation, sometimes George will just take two steps towards trying at good defense, find he can’t keep in front, and then kind of give up.
The hope is that he can improve on his worst defensive moments. He was playing through an ankle injury at times last year, and told media at Friday’s practice that he hopes to slim down before playing next year: he said he was playing at about 210 lbs at Baylor, but hopes to be closer to 190 in the NBA. That being said, he also said he wants to get stronger as well; it’ll be a little difficult to accomplish both goals at once.
I think he has a few different ways to succeed in the NBA. At the top level, if everything hits, he could become a Jamal Murray-esque scorer, thanks to his wide repertoire. If it doesn’t quite work out, he could be out of the NBA relatively quickly, just as Butler was. Not being efficient on offense while not contributing defensively is a death knell.
In the middle? He can contribute with his 3-point shooting volume, while developing to be good enough on defense. Sort of a Gary Harris or Austin Rivers-esque role player, is what I envision.
The high-level potential here is what excited the Jazz, and it’ll be a real task for their player development team to get George there. If they can make it work, they’ll have a steal at No. 16.
Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.