“It’s only summer league!”
Ah the mantra of those coping with the underwhelming performance of the player they drafted. Yes, some players that don’t do well in summer league eventually figure it out and become great players. Karl-Anthony Towns, Deandre Jordan, and Aaron Gordon are examples of players that struggled in their summer league debuts and figured it out. Former Jazz great, Deron Williams averaged less than 10 points and 5 assists per game in summer league. Are there examples of players that played well that didn’t turn out as well as people thought? Sure. Did you know that Kris Dunn averaged 24 points, 7 rebounds, and 3 assists in his summer league debut? Another player that showed out in summer league was Michael Kidd-Gilchrist who debuted with 18 points, 8 rebounds, and 5 assists (although he only played one game).
Yes, there are cases of players playing well in summer league and not panning out, but those are the exceptions. The amount of players that were great in summer league and panning out in a big way are far more common. Basically, great players ball out in summer league because ... well ... they’re ballers. Damian Lillard averaged 26 in summer league, John Wall averaged 23.5 points and 7.8 assists, and Kevin Love averaged 13.5 rebounds. In his article from Bleacher Report which I’ve linked to here, Dan Favale mentioned one of the biggest indicators of success:
Perhaps the most accurate talent gauge is the MVP award. The last three Summer League MVPs consist of Blake Griffin (2009), Wall (2010) and Lillard (2012). Those three are stars and turned some heads as they made their first impressions.
Easily the biggest bummer for Jazz fans during summer league was watching Keyonte George go down with an injury. Had he not gotten injured, it’s safe to assume he would have gotten the summer league MVP award. Yes, Jazz fans, get excited.
The question for the Utah Jazz is, when will Keyonte George get on the floor? We’ve been told that Will Hardy hates to have players get on the floor solely because they’re highly touted rookies, he wants them to earn it. This is absolutely the right attitude and will set players up to play without entitlement to a starting position. It’s a core part of building a winning culture.
That said, the other thing to remember is that a coach is going to play the players that give them the best chance to win night-to-night, at least a coach that wants to win will. This aspect is also vital for Will Hardy to be successful. If players on the team see that they’re not getting play time even if they’ve been improving, or it’s obvious they’re the better option, that can be detrimental to a locker room and culture. Having watched Hardy one season already, he proved that he is not afraid to adjust a lineup to get players on the floor who give the Jazz the best chance to win and this shouldn’t be an issue. It doesn’t mean it won’t be hard, though.
This might be the biggest test for Hardy and the coaching staff this season. Last season, the Jazz traded away veteran players that paved the way for younger, more unproven prospects, a chance to get minutes. It proved to be highly successful as we saw the rise of Walker Kessler and Ochai Agbaji. But what happens when those players aren’t traded away? How will that go? This season the Jazz have a lot more options at guard, and they want to win. If Keyonte George is going to play, he’s going to have to prove himself to be the best option to start.
The question is, is he already the best option?
Here are the Jazz guards and how they may stack up against George.
Jordan Clarkson: He’s more seasoned and you know what you’re getting. Clarkson is a bucket-getter and the perfect fit as a sixth man. Although, last season Clarkson started a lot of the year and evolved as a passer. Clarkson is more of a shooting guard, and so it’s possible that he could play next to George, but then you have to wonder if the Jazz actually want Ochai Agbaji starting at the 2 for his defense, size, spot-up shooting, and athleticism at the shooting guard. George has already shown flashes that he’s a superior passer, so this may be a toss-up.
Collin Sexton: Like Clarkson, Sexton also improved as the season went on as a passer, and Sexton continued his efficiency scoring the ball. The deficiencies for Sexton come with his size, which hurts his defense, and the occasional blinders on offense. Sexton is willing to make the pass but sometimes his size, and mentality, seem to keep him from making all the right reads. George already has a size advantage as well as passing prowess over Sexton. The most likely starting unit for the Jazz is Sexton and Clarkson starting because of their experience, Hardy will know what he’s getting. But it’s going to be hard to keep Geroge off the floor with his passing and shooting. Because George has better size and length, he can also be a better defender. If the defense comes along quickly for George, it’s going to be an obvious decision for Hardy to start George at point guard.
Talen Horton-Tucker: THT had some breakout games last season and showed real flashes of being a potential option at guard. Of everyone on the Jazz last season, he was also one of the best at getting to the rim and kicking out to shooters. The issue with THT is consistency. He’s not always reliable shooting the ball or not turning the ball over. But THT is still young and continues to improve. If what George did in summer league is any indication, George is the superior option here already. George didn’t have a single game where he wasn’t efficient with his shooting and his assist/turnover ratio was much better than anyone expected.
Kris Dunn: Dunn was a big surprise for Utah last season and earned a well-deserved contract. Dunn has a chance to be an important part of the team, but there are limits to his offensive game. To his credit, he’s shown an ability to knock down shots, but he isn’t a high-level shooter. His defense is undoubtedly better than George right now, but George might just be so special that it doesn’t matter.
If I was betting on this, I think the starting back court on opening night is going to be Collin Sexton and Jordan Clarkson.
I would not be surprised if Keyonte George earns the starting role soon, maybe even in training camp, even though that’s a long shot. What we saw in Summer League from Keyonte George was special, and if the Jazz are playing him, it means that they have a future star. The Jazz also don’t have a clear-cut answer at the point guard position, and so the opening is there for George to take.
You also have to consider that it only benefits the Jazz to get George starting sooner than later. Wouldn’t you want George building as much chemistry as possible with Lauri Markkanen/John Collins/Walker Kessler? The more chemistry he builds, the more chemical reactions we’ll see come playoff time.