Utah Jazz rookie Keyonte George was opening night’s brightest spot — but there are reasons why he’s not the starting point guard

Jazz coach Will Hardy explains why Talen Horton-Tucker is the team’s starter and what George will have to do to earn more minutes.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz guard Ochai Agbaji (30), Utah Jazz guard Kris Dunn (11) and Utah Jazz guard Keyonte George (3) as the Utah Jazz host the Sacramento Kings, during NBA basketball in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2023.

Before the season, Utah Jazz coach Will Hardy considered his point guard battle akin to “The Hunger Games” — all would enter, but only one could win the starting job.

On Wednesday night, 22-year-old Talen Horton-Tucker was the final player to hear his name announced in front of a sellout crowd of 18,206 — a distinction the Jazz, since the days of John Stockton, have traditionally reserved for the team’s starting point guard.

But in a 130-114 opening-night defeat to the Sacramento Kings, it was another guard who looked like the team’s long-term answer at the point.

The starter decision

To start Horton-Tucker wasn’t a surprise. He had been in that role in the Jazz’s preseason games, even while veteran journeyman Kris Dunn, frankly, had played better during that stretch.

So why did Hardy go with THT? He explained it as the result of a domino decision.

“Talen pairs well with Jordan (Clarkson). Jordan is very much a good pairing with Lauri (Markkanen), because he provides a second threat offensively, a second ball-handler, a second playmaker, a second focal point of the offense,” Hardy said. “When we made the determination that Jordan was going to play with Lauri, Talen was the best fit to play with Jordan.”

OK, so let’s evaluate those claims.

A) Is Clarkson a good pairing with Markkanen? The evidence says yes. Clarkson and Markkanen were actually the Jazz’s pairing with the most minutes last season, and the team had a +5.7 net rating with those two on the court — much higher than the Jazz’s overall net rating, and higher than most of the team’s other top pairings.

When both players were asked about it, they said they liked playing with each other. Now, I’m not sure if they’d admit it if they felt otherwise, but still, the vibes seemed good there.

B) Is THT a good pairing with Clarkson? The evidence also says yes. The Jazz were a +9.5 net rating last season with those two together, albeit in limited minutes (394). Theoretically, there’s some decent overlap there, as both are ball-in-hand players primarily, but I think there might be a mitigating effect there too. In other words, Clarkson’s presence eliminates some bad THT possessions, and probably even vice versa.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz guard Ochai Agbaji (30) tries to regain control of the ball as Sacramento Kings forward Sasha Vezenkov (7) puts on the pressure as the Utah Jazz host the Sacramento Kings, during NBA basketball in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2023.

The thinking here is sound ... but the starting lineup didn’t work well on Wednesday. They were outscored by 10 in the 8.3 minutes they played together. That they played so few minutes together as a unit over the course of a 48-minute game isn’t exactly a vote of confidence, either.

The second group

Hardy also went on to explain the knock-on effect that he hoped Horton-Tucker would provide:

“That also impacts the second group, where we have now Collin (Sexton) and Kris (Dunn), who we think are a good pair, and they’re playing with Keyonte (George). I think Kris is really beneficial for Keyonte and Collin. So it’s a bunch of things. It’s not that Talen is better than the other guys. It’s more about how he fits with that first group, and then ultimately what that does to the second group.”

Again, that makes sense. George is a rookie, and Sexton often still plays like one. Having the biggest adult-in-the-room point guard paired with those guys might provide teaching moments. We don’t have lineup data for them, but I think the theory makes sense.

And again, theory didn’t match reality. Funnily enough, the pairing of George and Dunn was outscored by 10 in 12 minutes Wednesday. Dunn and Sexton were also outscored by 10 points in 7.8 minutes. (I’m not making up all the 10s, by the way. They’re all the actual numbers.)

Obviously, it would be folly to predict long-term failure for a group based on seven to 12 minutes of play — we just don’t have enough data here. But given that we now think the pairing philosophy is Hardy’s rationale for minutes, it’s worth paying attention to.

Weighing the options

The truth is that Hardy’s thinking on pairings wouldn’t rule the day if there was a clear answer at the point guard position. Instead, the Jazz would just play their best point guard at point guard — you know, like most teams do.

But the Jazz don’t have a clear No. 1 option. While it’s going to be relatively uncommon for all three of Horton-Tucker, Sexton, and Dunn to have bad games at once, all three are problematic as all get-out for a functioning offense built around ball movement, player movement, and efficient buckets from Markkanen and Walker Kessler.

Horton-Tucker, Sexton, and Dunn all tend to play a lot of isolation basketball. Interestingly, they have different styles here: THT likes rejecting screens or attacking switches to try to beat an opponent that way, Sexton likes to try to beat his defender with speed, and Dunn likes to methodically make his way into the paint to get to a fadeaway floater push shot.

Regardless, when those three are playing in isolation, it limits what happens for the rest of the offense. Here, THT isos the switch — NBA newcomer Sasha Vezenkov — but doesn’t find the right pass out when the defense collapses on him.

The Jazz were at their best last season Mike Conley, Kelly Olynyk and Markkanen when they were running split-action, mind-meld offense. Isolation basketball is the antithesis of that. With better players (think Luka Doncic, James Harden, etc.), it’s fine, but the efficiency isn’t there from the Jazz’s current point guard trio to make it worth it.

Furthermore, Horton-Tucker and Sexton simply have very high turnover rates, much higher than the average point guards. Turnovers not only end the offensive possession with no chance of scoring, but they mean the other team gets to run.

Both are also prone to throwing up shots that might as well be turnovers. Here is Sexton getting blocked by Domantas Sabonis (not known as a rim protector) twice, in pretty obvious “you’re going to get blocked” situations.

Dunn has been a high turnover guard during his career, but wasn’t last year with the Jazz. Wednesday, though, he had four in 15 minutes. That’s way, way too many.

The long-term solution

The elephant in the room here is: George is the team’s point guard of the future.

Hardy knows that. The team’s front office knows that. Heck, they’ve even told George himself that.

So why are they waiting? Well, they believe it’s going to be better for George’s development if that opportunity comes along slowly. They want George to learn how to apply his game in limited minutes before he’s given the full keys to the offense — even if he’s the best option on the floor.

The rationale is that in the meantime, and only before they fully guarantee him 30 minutes per night, the coaching staff can use minutes as a teaching tool to help him learn the difference between being an insanely talented guard and an insanely-impactful-toward-winning guard.

That makes sense. Truthfully, George’s development this year might be as important as the team’s win-loss record overall. For this season, it might be worth sacrificing playing the best guard for a while if it helps George in the long term — though obviously, many would quibble with that, and just think that playing George as many minutes as possible is what’s best.

It’s worth having this conversation, though, because George was the best guard Wednesday.

That wasn’t the case in the preseason, and it’s just one game. But George was a real bright spot — and it earned him more minutes against the Kings.

“Keyonte stayed on the floor because I thought he was playing well,” Hardy said.

He continued: “I think that Keyonte is a good player. I think we have high expectations for Keyonte and his future. But in no way are we going into these games just saying ‘Hey, we’re going to play Keyonte to play Keyonte.’ I thought he was reading the game well, he made some really good decisions. He made some great passes to shots that didn’t go in. But, I thought that in the flow of the game, he had a good thing going.”

More of that style of play will mean naturally growing minutes for George. And the good news is that George won’t lose confidence in the meantime — he might be the most confident rookie I’ve ever met. For example, he was asked tonight what his NBA debut felt like. Most rookies will admit that they’re nervous, or excited, or thankful for the moment. George, though?

“To be completely honest with you? I feel like I belong,” he said.

He does. He may belong in the starting lineup, too. But it will take patience — both from him, and from Jazz fans — until that day arrives.