As Keyonte George goes out with an injury, fellow rookie Taylor Hendricks makes a big impact

The guard suffered an ankle injury early in Wednesday’s game, and will skip the Portland trip to have an MRI. Meanwhile, the forward’s length and athleticism made him a big weapon in the Jazz’s zone.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz guard Keyonte George (3) limps off the court as the Utah Jazz host the New York Knicks, NBA basketball on Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2023.

Keyonte George clearly has been the most productive of the Utah Jazz’s trio of rookies thus far this season, with his 30-point outburst on Monday night in Oklahoma City just the latest example of his impressive progress.

So when he stumbled on the floor just 3.5 minutes into Wednesday’s game, and committed a foul so that he could limp off the court and hobble to the Jazz’s locker room, it seemed like the cruelest bit of fate.

One of the few bright spots in a season of pain was now … well, in pain.

George would soon be ruled out for the remainder of the game with what the team generically referred to as a “left foot” injury, though Hardy referenced the guard’s ankle in his postgame media session. The rookie had an X-ray at the arena Wednesday night, and was kept from traveling with the team hours later for its flight to Portland for Thursday’s game vs. the Blazers, so that he could have an MRI in Salt Lake City.

Disaster, right?

George’s status is to be determined. But the night wasn’t all doom and gloom.

Utah picked up its eighth victory of the season, 117-113 against the Knicks. And Taylor Hendricks, the forward the Jazz selected with the first of their three 2023 selections, at No. 9 overall, played a significant role in the outcome, registering a game-high plus-25 plus/minus.

And this despite his traditional box score stats not being particularly noteworthy — five points (on 2-for-7 shooting), four rebounds, two steals, one block, and one assist.

The blocked shot was a highlight reel-worthy moment, as he took on a 2-on-1 break and shut down Knicks wing R.J. Barrett at the rim.

But it was far more than that.

Hendricks was instrumental in the team’s newly-redeployed zone defense, which contributed to the Knicks going only 9 of 39 (23.1%) from 3-point range.

“Taylor’s athleticism shows up. He’s playing really hard. He’s still learning the detail part of it all,” said Jazz coach Will Hardy. “… His activity is great. All I’m asking of Taylor right now is that he just plays as hard as he can. Because he has an ability to block in transition, gets his hand on a couple of passes with his length — his athleticism really shows up. While he’s trying to refine all the technical things, the best thing he can do for us is play hard. And I think his impact is showing up on the defensive end for sure right now.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz guard Collin Sexton (2) drives to the basket ahead of New York Knicks guard RJ Barrett (9) as the Utah Jazz host the New York Knicks, NBA basketball on Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2023.

After spending much of the early part of the season in the G League, Hendricks said Wednesday night that he feels his knowledge of the Jazz’s schemes, and his ability to think and adjust on the fly have all grown exponentially, which contributed to a high comfort level in the zone deployed Wednesday.

He described his responsibility within it as, “Just being in the lanes — slicing to the corner and making sure there’s no corner passes. Just being active.”

His teammates have definitely witnessed substantial progress from him between training camp and now, while conceding that there’s plenty of room yet for him to improve more.

“He just understands the system [better]. Obviously he has the physical tools and defensive instincts to make plays on and off the ball. We’ve just got to get it down to, sometimes it’s not your turn to help because you have to hold the corner, or guard a shooter,” said Lauri Markkanen, who had 23 points and eight rebounds in his return from a left hamstring strain that kept him out the prior eight games. “He’s making big progress on understanding the system and when to be in certain spots. Physically, he has all the tools in the world.”

George, on the other hand, figures to be limited physically for at least a while.

Fellow guard Collin Sexton proffered a hopeful tone postgame, claiming that George, “got some good results earlier, so he’ll definitely be fine.”

Still, he noted that the rookie from Baylor was definitely taking the injury hard, and the other players were doing what they could to keep his spirits up.

“We told him this is part of it, [and] ‘We want you back, but you’ve got to get yourself healthy beforehand.’ We let him know that we’re rooting for him and we’re gonna try to continue to win for him,” said Sexton. “I know it’s tough when you’re watching — I did a whole year of that. Him watching from the sideline, I told him just to be patient; be patient and watch more film, just let your body get back to 100%.”

Hardy, meanwhile, conceded that his heart sank when he saw George get hurt and limp off the court.

It was made all the worse knowing there was exactly zero he could do for him.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Will Hardy as the Utah Jazz host the New York Knicks, NBA basketball on Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2023.

“Yeah, those moments are awful. Because there’s a part of you that wants to go down the tunnel with him and make sure he’s OK — and that’s with any player on the team. I have real human relationships with these guys, and you never want to see anybody get hurt,” said Hardy. “But in that moment, I have to trust our medical staff to do their job, and I have to stay present for the people that are in the game. It’s not easy to do — you want to make sure that he’s OK.

“And then it’s not fun when the trainer comes and tells you he’s done for the night, because then you want to ask a bunch of follow-up questions, but you don’t really have that time. So it’s hard,” he added. “… At halftime, I got to check in with Keyonte a little bit, and then after the game. But yeah, it takes a second to regain your focus because you are worried about him.”

An NBA head coach has perhaps never been more relatable to a fanbase.