Charlotte Hornets v Indiana Pacers

PG13: The all round All-Star

Paul George's rise to NBA stardom came against all odds

Famously, Michael Jordan was cut from his high school team. Long has the tale been told of how this slight motivated His Airness to succeed, to become uncuttable, to be the best he could be, to be the best anyone could be.

It worked. After committing to developing his skills and having a very timely growth spurt, Jordan became one of the best high school players in the nation, if not the very best. Averaging a triple double, Jordan was chosen to be a McDonald’s All-American, was recruited by the biggest Division One colleges, went to North Carolina, took the Tar Heels to the national title, won an Olympic gold medal as a college player, and, aside from the Sam Bowie draft night blip, was never overlooked again.

Conversely, Paul George of the Indiana Pacers was not a widely sought-after high school player. Considered only a three-star recruit coming out of Pete Knight high school in California, George was overlooked by the (as it was then) Pac 10 Conference that dominates recruitment in the western United States. He instead committed to Pepperdine in the Western Athletic Conference, following in the footsteps of his older sister, who had played basketball there and later as a professional.

However, George ultimately decommitted from Pepperdine when the head coach who recruited him resigned, and latterly enrolled at Fresno State in the Mountain West Conference. The Fresno State Bulldogs have one NIT title to their credit, and one Sweet Sixteen run. But while the program semi-regularly produces NBA players – NBA alumni in recent years include Greg Smith, Dominic McGuire, Renaldo Major, Chris Jefferies, Melvin Ely and Tyler Johnson – the best player in school history prior to George’s ascent had been Rafer Alston. Unlike North Carolina, it is not a place where NBA stars are born.

Indiana Pacers v Miami Heat

The Mountain West Conference features strong programs such as UNLV, San Diego State, BYU and New Mexico. In competing with those teams, Fresno State are not minnows. But that aforementioned heyday came thirty years ago. Their sole Mountain West tournament title came last season.

Since 1984, the Bulldogs had only two NCAA tournament appearances – in 2000 and 2001, both times as a #9 at-large bid – and only one tournament game win. Every other year resulted in either a trip the NIT (usually losing their first game) or bust.

George came and left Fresno State without changing that. The Bulldogs went a lowly and drab 28-39 in his two seasons with the programme, all the while on probation for an appalling Academic Progress Rate, playing to small crowds, and never so much as nearly making the Big Dance.

Nevertheless, George had chosen Fresno over offers from bigger East Coast schools such as Georgetown, partly on account of the school’s struggles. It followed that with so little going for it as a destination, the floor would be George’s, and he would get all the minutes he could handle. His national profile, he reasoned, would most benefit from the plentiful opportunity the Bulldogs’ struggled availed him. It was a good decision. And one helped by doing this in only his second game.

The Bulldogs’s record kept George somewhat under the radar, despite his occasional highlights. But the Bulldog’s struggles also gave George the opportunity to be 'The Man', both offensively and defensively. To defend the opposing star wing, to take the ball in the half court, to become the leading wing scorer and playmaker on a team with few other options. Ultimately, even if no one watched many of them until film sessions come May-time, the huge amount of minutes George was given was what began his development as a player.

There were plenty of mistakes along the way. George was not a natural half-court play maker, turning the ball over a huge amount when trying to create and being more comfortable as a shooter, finisher and full-court player than as a player who could break down a defense. He also had far more tools defensively than he did nuance, missing cuts, playing too deep, and running into screens, as he struggled to make the impact defensively that his raw numbers suggested was possible.

What he did have, however, was the size, length and athleticism that puts anyone, even if they cannot not dribble the ball more than two steps without hitting their foot, on the NBA radar. And amidst his two years of on-the- job training, George improved throughout his college career, working his way up mock draft boards during his sophomore year and eventually being picked tenth overall by the Indiana Pacers.

Almost never picking at the top of the draft, nor ever deliberately tanking to get there, the Pacers picked George at a time when they were very used to picking in the middle of the first round. In three of the previous four years, they had picked 17th , 17th and 11th – indeed, as a number ten pick, George was the highest selection the franchise had made since Erick Dampier also went 10th in 1996.

Nevertheless, it is precisely because the Pacers often find success in that mid-range area that they are rarely bad enough to pick higher. With those two seventeenths and one eleventh pick, the Pacers landed Danny Granger, Shawne Williams and Jerryd Bayless – while Williams and his ill-discipline quickly flamed out, Bayless remains in the league as a good scoring role player (when healthy), while Granger went on to briefly star.

In George, Indiana saw a player far from ready, but who had within him the chance at stardom. The physical profile that had got him to this point would, if he could develop the skills and refinement required, give him the opportunity to become one of the game’s very best. Players with star potential are not supposed to be available with the tenth pick, on a board with Cole Aldrich and Xavier Henry as the biggest names left. Indiana was hoping George could be it.

They were right. Many a player comes to the NBA draft with a tremendous physical profile. Athleticism does not automatically equal potential, and is far from the only ingredient within it. It is however, the most overtly obvious one, the rarest one, and the completely unteachable one. With his Tracy McGrady-like frame and explosiveness, George could, in a best case hypothetical, enmesh those innate tools with learned skills and become the all-around basketball player. Moreso than Henry could, or that Kedrick Brown could, or that any other projectable-looking athletic wing man ever could.

That hypothetical has become reality. George this season is averaging 22.5 points, 6.2 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.7 steals per game, shooting 38.9% from three-point range on 6.0 attempts per game, all the while battling a troubled ankle and carrying a greater workload than ever. Even when he suffered a horrific broken leg, he did not just come back – he came back better.

Team USA Showcase

At the NBA level, George had to work his way up. After sitting for almost the entire second month of his career, George had to battle his way to a 20.7 minute per game average as a rookie, the recipient of far greater opportunity once Frank Vogel took over from Jim O’Brien midseason, but still stuck behind Granger and a then-big minute-playing Mike Dunleavy Jr. The early results were not bad, but not brilliant – in his first season, George averaged 7.8 points and 3.1 rebounds per game, with a team-leading 104 defensive rating speaking to his defensive impact but a 13.0 PER speaking to his offensive limitations.

Under Vogel, however, George began to ascent, pushing Granger aside and making the primary wing option position his own. His scoring developed, his playmaking developed, his defense developed, and his body developed – the skinny young man out of Fresno State was now a 6’10 behemoth with a filled-out frame, and a significant size mismatch at the wing positions his skill set was best suited for.

Even as he got better, there continued to be problems around him. Often flanked by weak supporting casts, George was also briefly subject to the idea that he should play power forward, akin to LeBron James’s mid-career switch. Having finally won the spot, he was faced with having it taken away from him for an experiment, an idea he firmly resisted. The present-day Pacers still have a sub-par cast of players around George. Al Jefferson and Monta Ellis are much declined, Ellis especially, while only Myles Turner represents a potential star amongst the few younger players.

To this day, George is still having to do too much. For all his development as a half-court player and ball handler, George remains best as a finisher, a beneficiary of a strong team offense, ball-movement and a spread floor, rather than a player who can get to the rim or score from the post at will. He completes this role better than any other Pacer, but, and combined with also having to develop whichever opponent (from point guard to power forward) happens to be torching his team that night. The Pacers do not have that movement and spread floor, and George is thus not at his most effective either. As good as George has made himself, he will become even better once his team improves around him.

However, regardless of the mediocrity of the rest of his team, regardless of the efficacy of any one given ranking system, and regardless of where he may specifically place in any given ranking of individual player talents, George is unequivocally one of the world’s best players. A star player, a franchise changing player, a player who has realised the potential assigned to so many but achieved by so few. George is a three-time All-Star, soon to be four, and an elite two-way player in the era when such a thing is coveted the most.

Despite their flaws, the Pacers come into tonight’s game with a 20-18 record, on a six-game winning streak, and with the provisional fifth seed in their Eastern Conference. And more than anyone or anything else, that’s on George.

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