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George Still Chasing King James

by Mark Montieth | askmontieth@gmail.com

June 4, 2013, 3:55 AM

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He's come so far in three years. From a rookie who started 19 games but didn't play in 21, to a second-year player who started every game but played a complementary role, to a third-year All-Star and Most Improved Player award winner whose coach calls him a “legitimate, bona-fide superstar.”

Paul George, however, has plenty of reasons to remain hungry. If nothing else, the memory of the Pacers' 99-76 loss to Miami in Game 7 on Monday, a game in which he scored just seven points on 2-of-9 shooting and fouled out after 34 minutes, should do it. So should the memory of LeBron James, who scored 32 in leading a second consecutive playoff elimination of the Pacers by Miami.

No matter how much progress George has made in such a short time, he will keep the image of James prominent in his memory bank. Because no matter how much praise people heap on him, and whether or not he is in fact a “bona-fide superstar,” he's still an underling in King James' court. George chased James around the court throughout the Eastern Conference finals, and he'll chase the ghost of James during the off-season.

“LeBron makes me better every summer,” George said in the locker room following Game 7 in Miami.

George is coming off one of the best individual seasons a Pacers player has ever had, all things considered. He averaged a team-best 17.4 points, but routinely took on the opponent's best wing scorer. He had two triple-doubles, one in a playoff game against Atlanta, but also finished eighth in the voting for Defensive Player of the Year. And, the best news of all for Pacers fans: he turned 23 on May 2.

Pacers coach Frank Vogel appreciates all that, but most appreciates George's hunger. That goes on display routinely to people who are around the team on a regular basis, in both words and deeds. George constantly talks of needing to improve, even half-jokingly stating a goal of winning the Most Improved Award a second-consecutive time next year following a practice in Miami.

“His best talent is his hunger, and his drive and determination,” Vogel said. “That's the most encouraging thing.”

What George learned from his latest encounter with James is that he needs to train his body to be the Pacers' go-to player. He entered the season with a goal of becoming an All-Star, but assumed Danny Granger would be on-hand to absorb much of the scoring load. Granger, however, wound up playing just five games because of recurring knee trouble, and Roy Hibbert started slowly offensively because of a wrist injury. That left George having to step up higher than he anticipated.

He reached 20 points just once in his first 10 games, and had just six points in his 12th game, but broke through with 37 in his 13th game while hitting 9-of-13 three-pointers. That's one attribute George displayed during the season, the ability to let a poor performance motivate a superior one. The ultimate example of that came when he went scoreless at Golden State on Dec. 1 and bounced back with 34 points and nine rebounds in the next game at Chicago. That ignited a 15-game stretch in which he averaged 20.7 points.

What's next? Vogel got a hint of that when the team huddled in the locker room following the final loss at Miami and a new voice emerged from amid the pack, stating it was going to take a lot of hard work for the team to take another step forward next season.

“He's ready to take that step from a leadership standpoint,” Vogel said.

George agreed in comments following his exit interview with Vogel on Wednesday.

“Going into this summer, this time around, I want to be Coach's guy,” he said. “And by that, his No. 1 go-to. Make sure I'm his floor general as well as David (West), Roy and George (Hill). I want to make sure that I'm on top of my game and when coach needs me down in those final seconds, or possessions or whenever it is, I'm on top of my game and be able to carry out Coach's full plan.”

Which is not to say that George doesn't want to improve his skills. His overall field goal percentage dropped from .440 last season to .419, and his three-point percentage dropped from .385 to .362. He averaged 4.1 assists, but also 2.95 turnovers. Some of the missed shots and mistakes were the result of the increased workload, as he played eight more minutes per game, but they let him know that he needs to condition his body to withstand more punishment.

He wants to work on his post-up game for when he's guarded by smaller defenders, his ballhandling, which is erratic in traffic, and his shooting. Most of all, though, he wants to work on his body.

“This year it's my conditioning as well,” he said. “I wasn't prepared to step into this role of being the main guy, so I didn't train to be the main guy, but I know what it takes and I know how I need to train to get to that level. This summer there will be a lot of conditioning stuff.”

There is one part of George's game that can be considered complete: His confidence.

“A lot of us had to step into new roles this year, not having Danny around,” he said. “It shocked a lot of us, but we handled it well. Myself, it just makes me comfortable now. I'm comfortable in this league, I'm confident in this league. This is just the beginning.”

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