Utah Jazz saw a promising sign in second half of win over Philadelphia 76ers

Since returning to the bench, rookie guard Keyonte George has been a bit passive, tending to fade into the background. Saturday’s second half vs. the Sixers, though, showed off some needed aggression.

(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.

Philadelphia • For the first eight games of the Utah Jazz’s season, heralded rookie Keyonte George came off the bench, but showed some real flashes of potential.

For the next 16 games that George was in the starting lineup, he was an inconsistent but sporadically impressive contributor.

Then he hurt his ankle in the first few minutes against the Knicks and missed six games. And in the seven games he’s played since, including Saturday’s 120-109 victory over the 76ers, he’s mostly been … well, drifting.

Relegated to a bench role upon his return to action, he had a strong showing late in his third game back, against Miami, but otherwise has struggled to find any kind of groove.

“Yeah, to be honest, a little difficult for sure. I mean, I’m human,” George said Saturday night after totaling six points, three assists, and two rebounds in 16:01 of court time against the Sixers. “It’s gonna take some time to get back to where I was and try to figure out times be aggressive and times where you’re trying to get people involved.”

His performance vs. Philly was a microcosm of his play since his return.

It was assumed upon George being cleared for action that his bench role was temporary, a protective measure enacted as he navigated training staff-imposed minutes restrictions and regained his game conditioning and timing.

Teammate Collin Sexton’s recent explosion of efficient productivity, though, threw a wrench into those plans. While Sexton has impressed with his energy and newfound equilibrium, the rookie George often has struggled to impact games.

“Keyonte found a rhythm as a starter in terms of his aggressiveness on the offensive end. … I feel like since he’s come back, he’s probably been a little bit careful with the ball,” head coach Will Hardy said before facing Philadelphia. “He’s been a little bit passive in terms of looking for his own shot, especially if he misses a few. And we’re trying to break him of that habit.”

The coach elaborated that a 50% shooter in the league typically doesn’t follow a miss one/make one/miss one/make one pattern. Players sometimes brick in bunches, but they need to maintain the mindset that the next one will go in if they are to remain effective.

“Keyonte will have moments where he’ll miss a few shots in a row and then he sort of backs off,” Hardy added. “That comes from a good place. He’s a good player, he has a good concept of being a part of the team, he likes to move the ball. [But] when he doesn’t see a few go in, I think he starts to overcompensate a little bit.”

In Saturday’s first half, George was on the court for all of 6 minutes and 27 seconds, and frankly was mostly invisible during that time, garnering two defensive rebounds, committing two turnovers, and attempting zero field goals.

His Jazz teammates know he is trying to navigate how best to help the team without trying to force the action. And they are making it a point to be encouraging.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz guard Keyonte George (3) guards Detroit Pistons guard Alec Burks (14), in NBA action between the Detroit Pistons and the Utah Jazz, at the Delta Center, on Wednesday, January 3, 2024.

“It’s an adjustment mentally. Obviously, you’re coming into this league, you’re playing against the best 400 players in the world,” said John Collins, who had 19 points on 9-for-10 shooting Saturday. “… Key obviously belongs in this league and belongs on the court. Really, it’s the mental grind for him.”

Sexton is making it a point to repeat the same message ad nauseum: Don’t compound mistakes with piled-on self-doubt, just trust in yourself and your teammates.

“That’s something that I keep telling him: ‘Yo, on to the next play. Continue to fight. We believe in you,’” said Sexton. “… The more you play, the more possessions, the more minutes you have, you’re going to start seeing your game elevate.”

Hardy knows that George is thinking entirely too much sometimes of late, rather than playing instinctually.

And he knows precisely why, too.

“I’ve said to him a lot: ‘You have a hard job as a lead guard, because I want you to shoot and pass on every play,’” Hardy said. “That’s just the way it goes.”

“He’s got it spot-on,” George conceded with a chagrined smile when told of the comment.

But that’s something he needs to get used to, his coach continued. Being in the second unit with noted gunner Jordan Clarkson can’t become an excuse to be deferential. Neither can being in the starting lineup alongside All-Star Lauri Markkanen, for that matter.

“He’s playing with good players. There’s no excuse,” said Hardy. “If you want to be on a good team, you’re going to play alongside other good players, and so he’s learning that now.”

And George is, indeed, learning.

Following that ineffectual stint before the break Saturday, something seemed to flip when he checked in with 4:29 left in the third quarter.

“I think today was, in the second half, one of my more aggressive games as far as getting downhill,” said George. “Everything’s starting to come back together.”

It began with a jab-step against Sixers star Tyrese Maxey on the perimeter, then utilizing a screen to fly down a wide-open lane. The ensuing slam at the 2:50 mark of the third was George’s first field-goal attempt of the game.

About a minute and a half later, he fired away from 3 and missed, but didn’t get any less aggressive.

A subsequent possession saw him swiftly move the ball, and he wound up with a hockey assist, as his pass to Ochai Agbaji was forwarded on to Kelly Olynyk for a made 3-pointer.

In the fourth quarter, he nicely executed the two-man game with Walker Kessler, taking a screen from the big man, occupying both Maxey and center Paul Reed, and then feeding Kessler for a slam.

Later on, George got yet another screen from Kessler, this time on noted defender Patrick Beverley, and as he went around, he attacked the space between Nic Batum and Reed and didn’t hesitate to put up a midrange runner that dropped in.

Not quite 4 minutes into the fourth, another screen set him up to beat Maxey off dribble going left, after which he charged down the lane, drew multiple defenders, and flung a well-placed pass to Agbaji in the far corner for a 3-point try.

And a half-minute after that, he took a pass from Kessler and quickly moved it on to Markkanen in the other corner, this time for a made triple that put Utah up 105-91.

On this occasion, George said, it wasn’t a pep talk from any teammate or coach that got him to dial up the aggression.

“That was a conversation with myself, to be honest,” he said.

Hardy thought the timing was perfect considering the opponent, as he views Maxey’s progress as a blueprint for what’s possible with George.

A combo guard drafted in the middle of the first round, Maxey had to learn that same balance between when to defer to talented teammates such as Joel Embiid and James Harden, and when to exploit the scoring opportunities being presented to him.

And now, Maxey is having a transcendent breakthrough, averaging 25.9 points and 6.6 assists while shooting 37.4% from 3 as Philly’s No. 2 option behind the reigning MVP.

George is clearly a bit away from that right now.

But stringing together more and more moments like the ones he had in the second half against the Sixers could potentially get him there.

“We’re trying to just regain that aggressiveness when he’s on the floor that he had before he got injured. Right now I’m seeing a little bit of what we saw at the beginning of the year with him, where he has flashes of aggression but can also kind of fade back into the background a little bit. So it’s going to be a little bit of a work in progress,” said Hardy. “… He’s in a spot that I would anticipate — there’s nights where the balance is good, and there’s nights where he defers to the veteran guys. We’re trying to help him work through that, help him see the film and recognize that it’s OK to be aggressive when the game tells you to be aggressive.”