Paul George’s place in the 2016 Eastern All-Star starting line-up has a greater significance than the traditional honour one could usually associate with such a prestigious nod.
The Pacers forward has answered a question that must have swirled around his mind for the entire year he was on the sidelines with a broken leg – will he be the same?
Approaching Christmas 2015, George answered that question and then some. Indiana’s franchise player received the Eastern Conference Player of the Month award back in November where he was posting numbers of 27.1 points per game, 8.1 rebounds, and 4.4 assists for the season and shooting 45.3%, including a formidable 45.9% from deep while hitting 3.3 triples each battle.
To put those stats into perspective today, the phenomenal and frankly otherworldly Steph Curry is hitting a league-high 29.8 points per game, on average. Kawhi Leonard is dropping a league-high 47.8% of his threes every night. 8.1 rebounds would see George in the top 25 players in the NBA right now for that stat and almost certainly the highest rank small forward, where he typically operates.
But, this time last year, George was consigned to the sidelines with no certainties and no guarantees.
It wasn’t just any old injury either, not at all. George broke his tibia and fibula chasing down James Harden in the fourth quarter of a Red - White scrimmage for Team USA as they prepped for the FIBA World Cup.
The 25-year-old was hounding down Houston Rockets’ Harden on a fast break and, as he landed, his right leg was caught under the basket stanchion. The pictures were, and still are, horrific. The injury was hard to watch and worse yet for George to bear.
PG-13 – as he is affectionately known – had just enjoyed his real breakout season in 2013-14 having registered career highs in points, rebounds, three-pointers made and steals.
George had also been named to the NBA All-Defensive first team in 2014. He was starting to grace LeBron and Melo territory.
Despite being drafted as a shooting guard in a similar dynamic mould to Kobe Bryant, George morphed into a small forward during the 2012-13 campaign and, by the following year, he was the undisputed go-to-guy in the Pacers offence.
For a while, it was a question of would George be able to return to the court again, let alone at what level.
George told Bleacher Report: “I felt I was immortal, I was invincible. I’ve made so many plays where guys go down and I walked up clean from it. I did feel that nothing bad could ever happen to me on the court.”
You’ll find endless quotes online attributed to Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan about how important the mental side of basketball is. Many claim that the NBA is a softer league than it was a decade ago, but still, the true greats knew that between the myriad of superstar egos and the fiercely competitive nature of the game – belief in your own game is paramount.
What damage was done to the ascending George after such a debilitating injury? Did he still have the fire to return? Did he still believe in his qualities? Could he evade the lingering fear of experiencing that intense physical pain once more?
The 2013 NBA Most Improved Player has returned to answer all of those questions and poses a new one: What’s the limit for Paul George?
After managing six appearances off the pine at the end of the 2014-15 season, George has started all 47 of the Pacers games this term and is averaging 35.5 minutes a night. That’s testament to the drive in George to get himself back to the invincible athlete he once felt and carry the Pacers on his back too.
Indiana finished last season 19th overall between the two conferences, a fair distance away from the playoffs. As February continues, the Pacers have won three of the last four and are sitting pretty in seventh in the east, firmly in touch with the Atlanta Hawks in third.
The 6’9” forward has dipped a little since the festive season. He’s racked up just 20.1 points, 6.4 rebounds, and 3.4 assists each night in addition to an underwhelming 37.7% field goal average in his last 25 games.
But, if there’s anything George’s traumatic injury should have taught you about the man, it’s this: He does not give up.
A third All-Star appearance alongside LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade and Kyle Lowry is justification for the hours of rehab and mental endurance he suffered away from the spotlight.
Now, the Fresno State graduate is back in full swing having refused to quite literally be broken, his surface is only beginning to be scratched.