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For Pacers' leading man, comeback has been completed

Eighteen months after major injury, George back at All-Star level

POSTED: Feb 8, 2016 12:04 PM ET

By Shaun Powell

BY Shaun Powell

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Paul George knows what you were saying that day, once you took your jaw off the ground and removed the lump in your throat.

"Over," he says now. "I'm sure some people thought my career was over."

He didn't hear you, of course. He didn't hear anything on a steamy August day in Las Vegas in 2014 when he horrifically crashed landed during a Team USA exhibition game and shattered his right leg. He was too much in shock, understandably, and if anything he immediately worried about his parents and their thoughts. Please don't take that personally, but their voices were inside his head and their hands were by his side once the medication wore off a bit in the emergency room and he realized what exactly happened.

But, fast forward to now, to the most amazing recovery story by far in the NBA, the story everyone wants to tell and read and witness. No, George's career did not end that day. Yes, 18 months later, George is once again among the top all-around players in basketball. And true, his appearance in Sunday's All-Star Game will coronate the king of all comebacks, and most folks will watch and no doubt wonder: How in the hell ...

"You know, I can understand why people are surprised by this," he said during a break at practice. "I mean, it's not like this kind of thing happens every day or every year. You just don't see it. But after I had the chance to understand what happened and not too long after surgery and speaking to the doctors, I knew I'd be back to this point. The only question in my mind was when, not if. When."

USAB Scrimmage Recap

Paul George was carried off on a stretcher after suffering a gruesome leg injury Friday night.

Each time George takes the floor for a Pacers' game, the same scene is replayed. He gets hugs at mid-court from players on the other team, and also by the other coaching staff. Before the game, whenever the Pacers are on the road, there are area staff members who greet him, shake his hand. And the fans ... everyone, it seems, is a Paul George fan these days. The love he gets, from people 'Who Remember What Happened', is constant.

"Man," he says, shaking his head. "It's overwhelming, to know how much it means for people to see me back on the floor and playing at a high level. And I appreciate everyone. It means so much."

But the gushing he gets now doesn't compare to what happened in the immediate aftermath of his injury. It showed the power of sports, of compassion, of faith and of social media. Everyone with a computer, it seems, reached out to George in some way or form. Twitter was flooded with mentions, and in particular, famous folks connected to him through the web-a-sphere. He was floored by that.

"I mean, a bunch of people through the entertainment world, people I didn't really know or only met once, people whose work I admired from when I was a kid," he said.

It's really remarkable that he's even back on the basketball court and playing like the old Paul George.To overcome something like that and go through all the rehab is a great accomplishment.

– Indiana Pacers coach Frank Vogel

How about some names?

George thinks for a moment?

"I heard from a lot but the one who stands out at the moment is David Beckham," said George. "He and his wife (former Spice girl Victoria Bekham) called me and expressed their concern and support. I was like, wow. Thanks."

George had a rod placed in his shin during surgery, which was followed by months of physical therapy to help strengthen the leg. Because the injury involved bone and not muscle or tendons, George was encouraged that his recovery wouldn't be as drastic as he originally thought. By comparison, Shaun Livingston broke his leg and suffered ligament damage several years ago, and it took him roughly two years to recover.

Climbing the Mountain - Episode 1

See how Paul George, Shaun Livingston and Jamal Crawford all battled injury but never gave up on their NBA dreams.

Before the injury, George was a tough on-ball defender with length and a strong rebounder for a graceful, 6-foot-9 small forward. He doubled as a prime scoring option who could shoot with range and attack the rim. Those all-around skills separated him from most. He averaged 21.7 points, 6.8 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.9 steals in 2013-14 which earned him a spot on Team USA, which justified his position as a top-10 player.

Now, compare that to his first five weeks of this season, when he averaged 29.3 points, 8.2 rebounds and 4.3 assists. Those numbers have dropped a bit since, but George's averages for the season (23 points, 7.1 rebounds and 4.0 assists) puts him currently at the pace he was pre-injury.

He gives some credit to his abbreviated return last season, seven months after surgery, when he played six games and averaged 15 minutes.

"That helped me get a sense of where I was and where I had to go," he said. "It gave me a bit more confidence going into that summer."

Pacers coach Frank Vogel saw the way George played with a slight limp in those six games and wondered, but any worries quickly disappeared when training camp began and Vogel recognized the player from two years earlier.

I mean, it's not like this kind of thing happens every day or every year. You just don't see it. But after I had the chance to understand what happened and not too long after surgery and speaking to the doctors, I knew I'd be back to this point. The only question in my mind was when, not if. When.

– Indiana Pacers All-Star swingman Paul George

"It's really remarkable that he's even back on the basketball court and playing like the old Paul George," he said. "To overcome something like that and go through all the rehab is a great accomplishment. To see him play this way makes it more special."

Vogel adds: "When the doctors told him the surgery was successful, that's all he needed to hear. In his mind, he was going to get back to where he was before and do whatever necessary to accomplish that."

The Pacers are a different team than the one George knew and helped battle the LeBron James-led Heat in the East. Roy Hibbert and David West are gone and the team is in transition, although not worthy of a tear-down. There's an enthusiasm about rookie Myles Turner, while guard C.J. Miles has been a pleasant surprise, yet the Pacers are currently in the bottom half of the playoff draw. George is their only solid star and he's only 25, so there's time, but he has learned not to take anything for granted.

"I think I'm back to where I needed to be," he said, "and now my goal is to get this team back there as well. I like where we are as a group. Obviously we need to improve in a few areas, but I have confidence in the organization that we'll get there.

"I'm the last person to be pessimistic about anything."

Two Januarys ago George unleashed a 360 windmill slam against the Clippers, one of the best in-game dunks in recent NBA history if not all time. That of course was before the broken leg. Can he repeat that feat? He laughed and winked.

George's 360 Windmill Dunk

Paul George throws down a crazy 360 degree windmill dunk.

"Just watch," said a player who knows anything's possible.

Veteran NBA writer Shaun Powell has worked for newspapers and other publications for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here or follow him on Twitter.

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