The biggest improvement in Keyonte George’s game? His growing confidence

While he and the Utah Jazz continue to work on his ability to orchestrate an attack and pick up on defensive nuances, Saturday’s win vs. Miami was largely attributable to him just letting some 3s fly.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz guard Keyonte George (3) celebrates a three-pointer in the final minutes as the Utah Jazz host the Miami Heat, NBA basketball in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Dec. 30, 2023.

With 4:35 remaining in Saturday’s game against Eastern Conference power Miami, Utah Jazz coach Will Hardy called a timeout and had a big choice to make: Who to play in the backcourt down the stretch.

Collin Sexton, who was having his latest highly efficient game, was a clear choice for one spot. But would the other entail leaving in Jordan Clarkson, who was having a rough shooting night but brings a veteran presence? Or would he keep rolling with rookie Keyonte George, whose white-hot fourth quarter against the Heat stood in stark contrast to the bulk of his up-and-down season and first half Saturday?

George was, in that moment, too good to sit. And the rookie made the coach’s decision look brilliant.

The Jazz held on for a 117-109 victory, thanks in big part to the play of George, who scored 12 of his 21 points in the fourth quarter, making 6 of 10 shots overall in the game, and going 5 of 8 from deep. He also contributed six assists against just two turnovers.

“Keyonte obviously was in — ‘funk’ is the wrong word, but he was in a little bit of a funk there early in the game, couldn’t quite find the rhythm, had a couple uncharacteristic turnovers,” Hardy said. “[But he] kept his head, continued to play hard, and made a bunch of big plays for us down the stretch.”

There are plenty of technical adjustments taking place within the guard’s game, of course.

The coach specifically pointed out George’s increasing proclivity at firing away on off-the-bounce 3s, and the impact that had in stretching a sinking defense. George, meanwhile, referenced the tablet he was carrying in the locker room. He noted that it had Miami’s past five games on it, and that he was making it a point to watch each of those games — but then also to rewatch the fourth quarters exclusively just to get a sense for how the team behaves in crunch time.

“Things that they do to help them win, and also the things that they do in losses, simple mistakes that they’re making,” he said, when asked what he was watching.

He was particularly invested in what he needed to expect while playing defense.

“If Duncan Robinson is opposite of the ball, I know a back screen is coming, or something pindown-related,” George said.

His knowledge and his acumen are growing.

Perhaps more important Saturday, though, was his growing confidence.

Coaches and teammates have been on him to play through mistakes, to forget about them and just keep going.

“It’s understandable because he’s a rookie — you want to play really well, you don’t want to make no mistakes, but that’s not the reality of life, right?” said Kris Dunn, the veteran guard whose locker is right next to George’s. “So I think the best thing is just having the next-play mentality, be calm, and just keep believing in your game.”

They finally saw that mentality take hold late vs. Miami.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz guard Keyonte George (3) high-fives team owner Ryan Smith as the Utah Jazz host the Miami Heat, NBA basketball in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Dec. 30, 2023.

“Yeah, it’s impressive. Very impressive, especially — now I’m gonna say ‘especially for a rookie,’ like I’m a seven-year vet,” said second-year center Walker Kessler. “For him to not have the best first half with turnovers and whatnot and then to come in the second half and have some really clutch buckets and good defensive possessions, he had his head on his shoulders and he was confident, and it says a lot about kind of person he is and the confidence he has on the floor.”

George acknowledged that it can be tough to let mistakes go, that he has a tendency to let them live on in his head.

He credited not only Hardy and his fellow players for hammering the message home, but also elite athlete performance consultant Phil Beckner, who works with the likes of Damian Lillard and Anfernee Simons.

George said Beckner started sending him quick little clips of his body language on the court, with the message being: “‘Your body definitely speaks louder than words on the court.’

“So [it’s about] just staying stone cold,” George added. “Really high or really low, I don’t want the other team to tell.”

No one had any confusion, of course, about how his fourth quarter went.

That’s partly attributable to the message sinking in that nothing good comes from fixating on an error while the game is still going.

“You’re not gonna go a whole season making no mistakes — that’s what Will told me. You’re gonna make mistakes throughout the whole game, it’s just about how you respond,” said George. “So I took it upon myself, whether it’s a missed free throw, a turnover, keep a straight face and move on to the next. You let it linger on, you’re bound to make another mistake and not be confident in your shot.”

He certainly appeared confident enough in the final period. He played the full 12 minutes, and made 4 of 5 shots, including 3 of 4 from deep.

“I got some easy ones at the beginning of the fourth, and then you see a couple go through and the rim looks humongous,” said George.

Hardy praised George’s communication with his teammates, his ability to get players organized, and then just stepping into those open 3s and letting them rip.

“He was massive for us, especially in the fourth quarter,” said Hardy.