MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Will Hardy anticipated that his Utah Jazz would have issues adjusting to this season. The organization had already traded Mike Conley. The Jazz were inexperienced at point guard. The team was trying to integrate John Collins into the starting lineup. It wasn’t going to be easy, and Hardy knew that.
Starting 2-7, given how much the Jazz showed last season and how competitive they were, still served as an eye-opener. This was especially so given the loose turnovers, missed shots and how clunky the offense has looked. But Hardy and his staff kept going to the drawing board and kept watching film and speaking about lineups and combinations. On Wednesday before a loss to the Indiana Pacers, they made the major move of inserting rookie guard Keyonte George in with the starters. On Friday, the Jazz came up with perhaps their most satisfying win of the year.
What has to be noted in Utah’s 127-121 victory over the Memphis Grizzlies is just how smooth the offense has looked in two games. Yes, the Jazz fell apart in the fourth quarter against the Pacers. But the offense looked the best it had all season in moving the ball and finding open shooters. Utah earned its win Friday and not just the positives you take away from a defeat when you watch the film.
“I thought the guys showed a lot of composure in finding a way to get this win,” Hardy said. “Through the third quarter, our play was high level. And then the game got hectic when Jaren Jackson Jr. got ejected. So, it was a good learning moment for our young players that when the game gets hectic we have to maintain our composure. I think a lot of guys made big plays, and we stayed poised as a group, and that allowed us to pull out the win.”
Utah pushed its record to 3-7 and 1-0 in the NBA’s In-Season Tournament. In a big-picture sense, the Jazz may have figured some things out, not only with the way they are running offense but with their rotations.
— Utah Jazz (@utahjazz) November 11, 2023
Coming into the year, Hardy always knew there would be the potential to have to mix and match different lineups, just because of how many players the Jazz were integrating and the different skill sets that needed to mesh into the system. It’s why at some point, especially when you lose seven of nine games to start a season, changes needed to be made.
A lot has been made of George’s promotion into the starting lineup, and there’s no question his talent level partly forced that change. But let’s look at how much George being in the lineup has balanced the skill sets. This isn’t a diss to Talen Horton-Tucker — the previous starting point guard — at all. But he’s a score-first point guard, someone who’s best at being aggressive off the dribble and getting into the lane and trying to wreak havoc. The starting lineup features Lauri Markkanen, Jordan Clarkson and Collins. Those three create their shots just fine. The point guard skill set that lineup needs is one who is more of a facilitator.
George has had two eye-opening games in terms of playmaking. There were nine assists in his debut as a starter. There were another 11 assists on Friday night against Memphis. The most impressive stat: just three turnovers combined in the two games. To tally it up, that’s 20 assists to three turnovers. In the unwritten rulebook of hoops, a point guard with a 2-to-1 assists-to-turnover ratio is playing the position well. George’s ratio is over six assists to every turnover. For a team that misses the heck out of Conley, those are Conley numbers.
The rookie has been poised and measured well beyond his years in running the Jazz, and that was apparent before he took over the starting job. What he’s done is balance the Jazz. It’s no coincidence that Clarkson has had his two best games with George in the starting lineup, scoring 33 points on Wednesday night and another 26 on Friday night. It’s no coincidence that Markkanen’s 26 points against the Grizzlies came on 8-of-13 shooting from the field. The efficiency was there because George was on the floor facilitating easy looks for him.
It will be interesting to see what the Jazz do in a few weeks when Walker Kessler returns because the spacing and continuity of the new lineup is pretty apparent. George has given the team a real shot of energy, which you could see Friday all the way back to the morning shootaround, when he ran around with exuberance having a shooting contest with Jazz assistant and former NBA star Jason Terry.
Collins clearly looks more comfortable operating as a center in Utah’s offensive scheme, getting downhill off the dribble, catching lobs in the vertical passing game and hitting jumpers. And the Jazz look to have finally found a role for second-year forward Ochai Agbaji, who looked lost coming off the bench but now looks at home playing the role of spotting up on the perimeter and being tasked with guarding the best perimeter player for the opposition every night.
“I think some guys look a little more comfortable,” Hardy said. “And I think the second unit gets to lean into the dribble-drive game, which is a strength for Talen and Collin (Sexton). We like having Kelly Olynyk with that group because we like to have his playmaking. It does feel like things are a little more balanced.”
The Jazz put four of their five starters in double figures Friday night, with Sexton and Horton-Tucker combining for 23 points off the bench. They figured out a way to get defensive stops when they needed them most, especially in the fourth quarter when the Grizzlies came all the way back and erased a 21-point Utah lead. Most importantly, the Jazz didn’t get down on themselves while in dire straits. The noise around them has been loud. They had lost four consecutive games, including the first three of the road trip.
Utah never got down on itself. The players and coaches walked through film, and they improved over the course of the trip. They were in position Wednesday night to beat the Pacers. They got it done on Friday night in Memphis. Now, with a 1-0 record in West Group A of the In-Season Tournament, the Jazz get the Portland Trail Blazers and Phoenix Suns at the Delta Center next week, with both being group matchups. It will be an opportunity Tuesday against Portland to win consecutive games for the first time this season.
“I think we’re all starting to have a lot of fun as a team,” George said. “The ball is moving a lot more. The ball is having energy when it moves like that. It gives Jordan the rhythm to rock out, and it allows Lauri to be the great player that he is. If we get our first five rolling like that, we hope it gets hard to beat us. We just need to keep working on setting screens, and we need to keep trying to get Lauri involved in the offense.”
(Photo of Keyonte George driving against Memphis on Friday: Joe Murphy / NBAE via Getty Images)