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LAIE, Hawaii — Keyonte George thought he knew his teammates’ games. He’s watched some of them for years playing in the NBA, and then played with most during some runs leading up to training camp.
He got a dose of reality Tuesday.
“I knew Laurie (Markkanen) was really good, but he’s really good,” George said.
Then there was Walker Kessler’s defensive presence, John Collins’ offensive game, and Kris Dunn had a ball on an absolute string. There’s something about seeing something up close. Welcome to the NBA, rook.
The good news for the Jazz is the young rookie received similar praise. Jordan Clarkson said George was “very skilled” and Kessler told George that his passing ability was better than expected.
As George was answering questions following his first official practice as a pro, Markkanen walked by him and yelled, “rookie of the year.” George’s already wide smile brightened.
The 19-year-old guard doesn’t know what’s in store for him this season; heck, no one does. Jazz president of basketball operations Danny Ainge told him to come into the season with no expectations but ready for all scenarios.
George could be a starter or he could be a fringe rotation player. He could be the Jazz’s sixth man or be on the end of the bench. It’s all a possibility. Ainge wanted to make sure that the rookie prepared himself the same regardless of how many minutes he plays or what his role ends up being on the team.
That’s the mindset George had this summer as he prepped for the season; however, not having any expectations doesn’t mean not having any aspirations. After all, Markkanen isn’t the only one thinking rookie of the year. At media day Monday, George didn’t mince words: His goal is to be named the league’s top newcomer.
“I feel like every rookie should have that goal for themselves,” George said Tuesday when asked about the lofty ambition. “At the end of the day, we made it to the highest level of basketball, but we also want to continue to accomplish great things.
“For myself, I put that goal out there. It wasn’t in an arrogant way. I’m trying to come out here and win basketball games and make the guys happy as being a distributor — that’s my main focus,” he continued. “End of the day, team success then individual success comes with it. Of course, I’ve got the expectation of being rookie of the year, but at the same time, coming in here and just working hard each and every day and we’ll see where things fall.”
The Jazz see George as a key part of their future, and he could very well play a major role immediately, as well. Right now, though, he’s got a long way to go. He impressed during open gym time in September, but his game, in some ways, is tailored for those pick-up game type runs.
The next step is picking up plays, terminology, schemes and figuring out how to play against grown men.
“I don’t care how good you are in college or what level of college you play in, there aren’t 27-year-olds, 28-year-olds, 30-year-olds that you’re playing against,” coach Will Hardy said. “So the physicality can take a minute to adjust to.
“It’s good for them. It’s good to see them struggle a little bit,” he continued. “I think anybody that wants to get a little bit better, they’ve got to go through that moment of, ‘Oh man, I’ve got to tighten up a little bit.’ Nobody really comes in and just bullies the NBA; it doesn’t work that way.”
So some patience is needed. But, in time, George could be really good himself.