Utah Jazz rookie Keyonte George gets ‘the best birthday present you could ever ask for’

On the day he turned 20, George got his first NBA start. How did he react to the moment?

(Stacy Bengs | AP) Utah Jazz guard Keyonte George (3) handles the ball. Wednesday, on his 20th birthday, George got his first NBA start.

Rookie Keyonte George was finishing his film session on Tuesday in preparation for the Utah Jazz’s game against Indiana, when head coach Will Hardy asked him a question.

“How you feeling, Keyonte?”

“I’m feeling good, coach,” George dutifully answered.

“Good. You’re starting tomorrow.”

That was how George learned of his move into the starting lineup. In just Game 9 of his NBA career, and on his 20th birthday, George stepped into perhaps the most important role on any NBA team: starting point guard.

The surprise announcement also triggered a litany of phone calls. He called his girlfriend first, then his best friend — who, George said, shed “a couple of tears” when he was told. Then came a conversation with his mom, Kristen, who also attended his first start. She, though, was mainly worried about his birthday.

“It’s the best birthday present you could ever ask for,” George said about the start.

It felt like the beginning of a new era for the Jazz in the backcourt. 18 years ago, another Jazz rookie point guard also moved into the starting lineup in his ninth-ever NBA game: Deron Williams. While the two are substantially different players — Williams played a physical style at the position, while George is lighter and almost floats in his movement — both displayed a key characteristic earlier than they were supposed to.


It’s a word we hear over and over again when teammates talk about George. Some of that, to be sure, is in comparison to the Jazz’s other point guards this season, who have shown an unfortunate tendency of putting themselves in bad spots, then throwing the ball away. But most of it is within George himself, who has, from the word go, looked like the calmest player on the court.

Think about what the Jazz’s five- (Talen Horton-Tucker) or six-year (Collin Sexton) veteran point guards would do on this play. They like to attack the rim, which would find themselves up against one of the league’s premier shot blockers, Myles Turner.

George is different. He drives by, forces the help, and finds a cutting Kelly Olynyk, who does the goofy stuff Olynyk usually does before finishing. George even sprints back out to the 3-point line, respacing the floor as an open shooter and a potential transition defender. It’s simple, but smart and effective.

Wednesday, the box score showed the fruits of George’s style: nine assists, while making just one turnover. Time and time again, George got the ball out of his own hands early in a possession, finding teammates coming off of screens with on-time and on-target passes.

Where does that poise come from?

“I mean, it sounds cliche, but I watch so much basketball. I think my whole life is basketball. I’m going to leave here, get on the plane, and watch more basketball. You see all these lead guards and how they’re not sped up,” George said. “I trust my work. I work on my handle. I watch basketball. I know my reads. So I carry a pride within myself and I’m real confident in my game.”

Utah Jazz's Keyonte George (3) shoots against Indiana Pacers' Andrew Nembhard, left, and Buddy Hield (7) during the second half of an NBA basketball game, Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2023, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

It’s a trait that will serve the Jazz well as they enter this new era. To be sure, the rest of the Jazz have not looked poised during this season — anything but. More troubling than the 2-7 record this year has been the way that the team is playing — discombobulated basketball on both ends of the floor.

On offense, the team has far too many turnovers. They lead the league in that category this season, with a whopping 18.6 per game; they had another 22 Wednesday. But the Jazz were significantly better with George in the game than when he sat, a trend that seems likely to continue. Jordan Clarkson (six turnovers on Wednesday) and Horton-Tucker (four) were the key sinners who need to significantly improve.

“You really hurt yourself just from a mathematical standpoint when you have that many turnovers,” Hardy said postgame.

The defense remains a problem — and could get worse. Starting center Walker Kessler is out for at least two weeks with an elbow sprain he first suffered in the opening minutes of the season-opening game against Sacramento; he had played through the injury but the pain became too much in recent days. So the team moved John Collins to the five, slid Lauri Markkanen to the four, and inserted second-year player Ochai Agbaji at the small forward spot.

Early returns on the defensive end were pretty ugly. The Pacers had a whopping 74 paint points. Hardy, postgame, emphasized to the team how much their defense will need to be a five-man affair in Kessler’s absence: The Jazz plan to shift help aggressively over to teams’ most dangerous ballhandlers to try to stop dribble penetration. Wednesday, that help was slow in coming, and the results were a cascade of successful Indiana drives to the basket.

When the Jazz weren’t allowing drives, they were fouling to put the Pacers in the bonus. Both Collins and Olynyk put themselves in foul trouble, pushing Markkanen to play out of position at the center spot at times. He can do it in spot time, but it’s certainly not ideal.

Regardless, there is significant optimism for the team moving forward that their issues are repairable — in large part because of George’s insertion into the starting lineup.

“We dig ourselves in a hole and it’s hard to get out of,” Clarkson said. “But today was a really good showing in terms of Keyonte at the point, running the show, playing his role. He’ll have big games scoring points, big games getting assists, it was our first time having him out there, and it was really big time for him.”

“I’m truly blessed and thankful that the staff and organization is willing to trust me this early in the season,” George said. “I was truly thankful for what happened today.”