Paul George growing into Indy's star
The rapid rise of the Pacers' 22-year-old swingman has the team thinking big again
Sam Forencich/NBAE/Getty Images
The sky's the limit for Indiana's Paul George, who was named the league's Most Improved Player.
INDIANAPOLIS -- Teiosha George is no Cheryl Miller. She was never lauded as the greatest women's basketball player ever. There were no stories of epic triple-figure scoring games in high school.
She was, though, one of Pepperdine University's best basketball players from 2004 to 2008. And the 6-foot-4 California native certainly did treat her little brother, Paul, the same way Cheryl treated a young Reggie Miller.
"I would beat him so bad sometimes, he would cry," Teiosha said.
That tough love lasted only until baby brother turned 15. That's when Paul and his mother visited Teiosha at Pepperdine during her sophomore season. Brother and sister hadn't seen much of each other over the previous year-plus, so she was in for a sizable shock.
"I'm walking out of my locker room, and I had my head down and was walking toward them, and I see him standing next to my mom," she said. "I hardly recognized him. He was just so tall.
"I just said, 'What the heck have you been doing while I was in college?'"
That seems to be a pattern with the now 6-9 Paul George: If you look away for a while, you'll be stunned by what you've missed.
It happened in high school, when Tom Hegre, the coach at Pete Knight High in Palmdale, Calif., handed George the leading role his senior season, and he catapulted from a 14-point, eight-rebound-a-game role player to the team's clear star who averaged 24 and nine.
It happened at Fresno State, where he went from an intriguing freshman with crazy hops (you can still find video of his poster-worthy dunk over Saint Mary's Mickey McConnell with a simple Google search) to a legitimate NBA lottery prospect in two years.
And it's happening again now.
Paul George has filled the void left by Danny Granger, lifting the Pacers to the East's No. 3 seed.
In less than three full seasons, George has gone from a promising rookie who occasionally found himself on the inactive list, to a second-year starter whose coach called him "an afterthought" offensively in the postseason, to an All-Star and the Most Improved Player of the Year who's quickly becoming the most critical piece for his Pacers in these playoffs.
George is everything the Pacers need: a potentially explosive scorer at the wing position, where the Eastern Conference is littered with stars such as LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Luol Deng, Paul Pierce and Josh Smith.
But he's also everything the Pacers already are: defensive-minded, unselfish and intimidated by no one.
You could even say he has a connection to the Pacers' past, given the similarities to Reggie Miller (toughened up by an older sister, surprisingly high draft pick, breakout season in his third season with vastly improving perimeter skills).
This is where George finds himself today, at the stage of his personal growth spurt that requires him to take command.
He recognizes it's his improvement that would make the Pacers more than the Eastern Conference semifinalists they were last year. And he's intent on embracing this new position.
As a player who normally eased in to newer roles -- it's partially why he chose Fresno as opposed to a more established program -- George wants badly to test himself as Indiana's leading man.
No matter the result, it's the experience he first requires.
"That's the pressure I want," said George, who averaged a team-best 17.4 points along with 7.6 rebounds and 4.1 assists in 79 games. "I would say David West is the leader of this team right now. But moving forward, I would want that pressure, I want to be that go-to guy. When something's not going well offensively, I want to be able to say, 'I want the ball.'
"This playoffs, I've got the extra mile to show that I am ready to take that step. Whether I succeed or fail, at least I know I've been in that situation before. So next time it won't be new to me."
George remains relatively new to the league.
His ascent happened quicker than expected, in part because this self-starter was determined to get the attention of then-Pacers coach Jim O'Brien.
It took a brief bout with self-doubt before he realized how to get in O'Brien's line of sight.
"I knew that I was a rookie, but it didn't really hit me that [I was sitting on the bench] because I was a rookie," George said. "I just thought I wasn't cut [out] for this league or something like that."
He clearly was capable of playing in the NBA. He just had to reverse his priorities, putting defense ahead of offense, if he was going to crack O'Brien's rotation.
"He's a tough guy to play for," George said. "That was the only way I could get a compliment was for my defense, from O'Brien. That kind of triggered it, and it snowballed from there.
"My teammates would tell me my defense was crazy. Coaches would tell me my defense was good. So you start to feel yourself a little bit, and you wanted to continue on that path and get that recognition. I just ran with it from there."
By Season 2, with Frank Vogel having already replaced O'Brien, George's long frame, elite athleticism and commitment to defense earned him a starting spot.
But by the time he reached the second round of the playoffs, an eventual six-game loss at the hands of the Miami Heat, George recognized even that wasn't satisfying enough.
I feel like, say it is a LeBron or Carmelo, defensively I'm good enough to make him make turnovers or mistakes or bring him to reality. Offensively, I feel like I'm good enough to show what I got. I think that's a package not a lot of players have.
-- Indiana Pacers forward Paul George
He studied the footage of his role in the Pacers' offense against Miami. He watched for hours alone. He watched with his agent in Los Angeles.
He saw the reason Vogel now called George an "afterthought offensively," the reason his playoff numbers were worse than his regular-season statistics for a second straight season. His eyes weren't even looking at the rim, so it was apparent he wasn't thinking like a scorer.
What made it most obvious were the actions of Dwyane Wade.
"Taking nothing away from Dwyane Wade, but he takes plays off defensively sometimes," George said. "Maybe he won't close out. And that's what he was doing. He was closing out expecting me to pass.
"He was trying to read the pass or read where I was going with the ball. It was like he didn't respect me as a threat."
And why would Wade, when George almost always looked to feed the post or swing the ball whenever it hit his hands?
The image of defenders like Wade subtly dismissing him stuck with George. So a lot like Kevin Durant, George spent his offseason with Miami on his mind. He focused on ballhandling, low-post work, outside shooting, all with the goal of never being an afterthought again.
Little did he know his 2012-13 season would begin without Danny Granger, the scorer who essentially allowed George to be an afterthought.
George knew Granger's knee injury would keep him out for three months. It was bittersweet news that meant the Pacers had one fewer scoring option, but one huge scoring void to fill.
Simple transition, right? Transfer everything he worked on in the summer onto the NBA court and make people forget Granger was even missing.
As one of the primary playmakers, George tried an aggressive approach to pick-and-roll basketball, doing what his idols did and still do: constantly splitting the defenders off the dribble.
How could that be difficult? He has been doing it as long as he can remember.
"When I was little, I would set up chairs in the house and split the chairs [with the dribble]," George said. "I'm talking elementary, middle school, I would do that around the house.
"Kobe used to do it, T-Mac used to. Those are guys I grew up watching. As kids, we're like, 'That's pretty cool.'"
Vogel didn't think so. Not when it was resulting in turnover after aggravating turnover, leaving him near the bottom of the NBA in pick-and-roll efficiency in the first month of the season.
It got so bad, Vogel told him splitting was no longer an option.
"He's grown tremendously," Vogel said. "He's not trying to split as much, he's turning the ball over less, making sound decisions. He's been, since he's gotten here, one of our most willing passers. He'll still split one out of every 10 instead of six out of every 10.
"When he got going on the offensive end, that's when our season changed."
Fortunately for George, the rest of his game wasn't as difficult to apply. His offense was quickly catching up to his defense, and the result was a selection to his first All-Star Game and 3-point shooting contest.
The Pacers had found not only a competent replacement for the injured Granger, who has since been shut down, but also a player whose ceiling is significantly higher.
George may not be as vocal as West or as naturally cocky as, say, Lance Stephenson, but he did specifically predict this kind of success for himself. During his rookie season when he was occasionally in street clothes on the bench, George told his teammates that he'd be an All-Star by his third season.
"If you talk back to these guys -- Brandon Rush, Danny Granger, Dahntay Jones, A.J. Price -- they'll tell you I told them my rookie year, by Year 3 I'll be an All-Star," George said. "I put that on everything I love. I told those guys. I went down a whole list of things that I was going to accomplish."
Also on that list is making an All-NBA team, which he says will come next season.
But first, it's these playoffs that matter most.
These playoffs, in which most believe the Pacers are desperately in need of more scoring. Scoring Granger could've provided.
George doesn't necessarily disagree.
While it would presumably take away from George's opportunities to play beside Granger again, George says their games are different enough to coexist, with Granger excelling more in isolation and post-ups while George operates better in pick-and-rolls.
Regardless, Granger won't be an option this time around. That means George is thrust into the position of being a primary target.
Teiosha George showed the kind of game at Pepperdine that could toughen up a younger brother.
He said he felt defenses pay significantly more attention to him immediately after he was named an All-Star. He'll only draw more now that the games are far more important.
In a postseason in which he could potentially face Smith, Anthony and James in succession, George has to believe he's not just good enough, but better than any one of them.
"I feel like when I step on the floor, whether it's potential or not, I feel like I'm the best player to step on that floor for that game," George said. "I feel like, say it is a LeBron or Carmelo, defensively I'm good enough to make him make turnovers or mistakes or bring him to reality. Offensively, I feel like I'm good enough to show what I got. I think that's a package not a lot of players have."
West isn't prepared to put intense pressure on his 22-year-old teammate just yet, even if George appears willing to handle it.
"PG's got to play well for us," West said. "He's got to be dominant on both ends of the court. At the same time, we can't just say, 'If Paul doesn't play well, the team doesn't play well.' We've got enough guys on this team that can perform. Guys just have to be willing to do so.
"There have been some moments this year where we haven't met the challenge. But I think we're refocusing."
George is a specialist at refocusing. He tends to follow up poor performances with special ones. One game after scoring just six points in Washington on Nov. 19, he dropped nine 3-pointers on New Orleans and scored a career-best 37. He followed up a scoreless effort in Golden State on Dec. 1 with 34 points three days later in Chicago.
So far, George's April has featured a shooting slump that left him averaging 12.8 points on 32 percent shooting for the month.
Does that mean his signature bounce-back begins in the postseason?
"I have to start somewhere," George said. "I've never been in a situation where I've had to lead a team. In college, I didn't go to the NCAA tournament. Last year, I had guys that were in that position to be the leaders. This is really the first time I had the opportunity to be that guy."
Who would know better than big sis? Teiosha has known the Paul George who preferred to stay away from pressure situations. So she knows when he's confident and feeling capable of taking on the world.
Now, she says, would be that time.
George's triple-double in the Pacers' playoff opener would appear to prove her right.
"His rookie year or him going into college, those were worse pressures because he didn't really know what he was getting himself into," Teiosha said. "Fast forward to where he is now, he knows what it's like to play in the NBA, he knows what it's like to play in a playoff series, he knows how to defend playoff opponents.
"Mentally, he's prepared now."