POSTED: Sep 27, 2013 1:56 PM ET
UPDATED: Sep 27, 2013 8:32 PM ET
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Danny Granger's problematic left knee feels better.
Teammates and coaches say he's playing better, too.
All Granger has to do now is prove he can still help the Pacers win games.
"I've been playing the last three weeks, going full speed and full court," Granger said Friday as Indiana held its annual media day one day before training camp opens. "But camp is a different intensity. It's a two-a-days and I know how you feel after you get done that first day, you just want to go sit in an ice tub."
That's how Granger felt when he was young and healthy, so he can only imagine what it will be like this time around.
The good news is that Granger, once the Pacers' franchise player, has been cleared to fully participate in Indiana's workouts. However, doctors have advised coach Frank Vogel to give Granger some extra rest during camp as he completes the final week of a six-month rehab program.
It's been a long time since the 30-year-old former All-Star has had a chance to show he still has it.
Granger first injured the knee tendon during the second round of the 2012 playoffs, then reinjured it during the ensuing offseason. In an attempt to get healthy, he twice had doctors inject blood platelet-rich plasma into the knee.
When the pain didn't go away, Granger attempted to play through the injury. That didn't work, either. Granger was 10 of 35 from the field, had only nine rebounds and averaged a meager 5.4 points in five games, a sharp drop after leading the Pacers in scoring each of the previous five seasons. Eventually, the lingering problems sent Granger back to the bench, and on April 4, Dr. James Andrews performed season-ending surgery.
Suddenly, the man who at times single-handedly carried the Pacers was forced to watch his teammates make a run to the Eastern Conference finals and come within one victory of dethroning Miami.
He returns to this season to a team that already has a strong nucleus, a deeper bench, NBA title aspirations and now a healthy competition between Granger and the guy replaced him in the starting lineup last season, Lance Stephenson.
"I don't think it's a competition," said Stephenson, who has bulked up over the summer. "It's bigger than me and Danny. It's about this team and winning."
A year ago, budding star Paul George regularly deferred the leadership role to Granger, often calling it his team. After signing a five-year contract extension that could top $90 million on Tuesday, this is clearly the 23-year-old's team now.
During the playoffs, Stephenson emerged as the kind of player who could speed up the tempo and change games. His job now is to show he can do both, and defend, more consistently. If he can, he's likely to get a huge payday when he becomes a restricted free agent next summer.
Center Roy Hibbert, who used his old-school approach to dominate the middle in the postseason, has added about 10 pounds to his 7-foot-2 frame, making him a stronger and more imposing inside presence than he has been in the past.
Power forward David West, who re-signed with the Pacers to chase a title, has lost about 10 pounds. George Hill spent the offseason watching film, working on pick-and-rolls in hopes of becoming a more natural point guard.
Larry Bird, the Pacers president of basketball operations, signed three free agents and pulled off a trade with Phoenix to effectively rebuild the bench - one of the few weaknesses exposed during Indiana's playoff run. Vogel also hired two new assistants to replace the ones he lost to Denver and San Antonio.
Granger stayed in Indianapolis to work his way back and create a whole new attitude.
"Danny's confident and he feels good about where he's at," West said. "Danny's got an aggressive attitude to him, an edge to him, It's almost like he has something to prove."
Like Stephenson, Granger's contract expires after this season. So if Granger can prove he's healthy and he re-emerges as a key contributor on a title-contending team, Granger might be able to silence the critics who contend he's too old, too injury-prone and too one-dimensional to deserve another big contract.
But all the Pacers really want is for Granger to play like his old self.
"Danny looks great," Vogel said. "He was here more than anyone on our team this summer, by far. He's doing every little detail we've asked of him to get his knee healthy and get back on the court and we're eager to see what he can do."