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No Limits: George's rising star could surpass Miller's (Part II)

by Mark Montieth | askmontieth@gmail.com

February 16, 2013

This is Part Two of a two-part feature on Paul George. Read Part One »

His freshman season at Fresno, along with his play in a couple of summer camps that followed, enhanced his self-image and ambition. He averaged 14.3 points and 6.2 rebounds while hitting 45 percent of his three-pointers, which, given his raw athleticism, put him within the radar of NBA scouts. He stepped up his workouts following that season, obtaining the keys to the school's practice facility and going in for late-night work on his shooting and ball-handling.

Until then, the NBA had been a dream. He had always told his mother he was going to play in the league, but she shrugged it off as childhood fantasy. Now it was looking like a genuine possibility, but hardly a given. His sophomore season at Fresno brought improvement in most areas, as he averaged 16.8 points and 7.2 rebounds and shot 91 percent from the foul line, but his other shooting percentages dropped because defenses were more focused on him. Fresno finished just 15-18, and he was a second-team all-WAC selection, hardly an eye-catcher for NBA teams. It wasn't until he had a chance to show off his athleticism and skills in individual pre-draft workouts that he solidified his position within the first round.

Nobody figured him going to the Pacers, though. The various 2010 pre-draft reports pointed out that he had been turnover-prone, and some questioned his shot selection. A few even doubted his work ethic because of his laid-back demeanor. The consensus of the 12 leading mock drafts that year had him going 11th, and none had him going to the Pacers at 10. (Remember that when the next batch of mock drafts filter out in June and people start weighing in on mock draft picks.) George woke up on the morning of the draft in New York City expecting to have to go to work for Memphis or Toronto, who had the 12th and 13th picks.

Certainly Pacers president Larry Bird didn't tip his hand. Even within the organization, nobody knew who Bird would draft until he announced his decision. Bird doesn't just keep information such as that close to the vest, he internalizes it. An X-ray machine would be required to see it. “There's only two people who know who Larry's picking,” assistant coach Dan Burke once joked. “Larry and God.”

It turned out to be the savviest decision of Bird's run as team president. George is the first member of his draft class to be named to an All-Star team, although No. 1 pick John Wall might have done so if not for injuries. The players the draft “experts” had the Pacers taking that year - Gordon Hayward, Luke Babbitt, Epke Udoh, Ed Davis – have had varying levels of success in the NBA, but none have approached George's status as one of the best two-way players in the league. George leads the Pacers in scoring (17.6) and steals (1.8) and ranks second in rebounding (7.8) and assists (4.0). He also qualifies as a lock-down defender. For endorsements, check with Rudy Gay of Memphis and Toronto, who has hit 19-of-64 shots in three games against George's defense. Or Chicago's Luol Deng, who has hit 9-of-33 shots in two games. Or Houston's James Harden, who hit 5-of-19 in one game.

The only Pacer in franchise history who can match George as a two-way threat is Ron Artest, who averaged 18.3 points and was voted Defensive Player of the Year in the 2003-04 season. Artest, though, was not nearly the rebounder George has become, and self-destructed shortly after his lone All-Star season.

George, at 22, shows uncommon maturity and has years of upside remaining. But there have been growing pains. With Danny Granger, the leading scorer of the past five seasons out with a knee injury, George seemed uncertain how to handle himself offensively in the early going. He wasn't the team's only scoring threat and was playing with two former All-Stars in David West and Roy Hibbert. Should he charge ahead and show all he can do, or respect his elders and let the offense come to him? Was he being selfish if he drove the ball to the basket and tried to create, or merely assertive? It would take time to figure out.

One of George's defining characteristics is that he responds well to adversity. In college, he sprained an ankle and missed four games his sophomore season, then scored a career-high 30 points in his first game back against New Mexico State. This season he reached double figures in the first 11 games, but then scored just six points at Washington. He followed that by scoring a career-high 37 points, with nine three-pointers, in the following game against New Orleans. More recently, he scored just five points on 1-of-10 shooting against Brooklyn on Feb. 11, and responded with his first career triple-double against Charlotte heading into the All-Star break.

The ultimate comeback, however, came after his infamous scoreless outing in a loss at Golden State on Dec. 1. Rarely do NBA players have such concise turning points in a season, if not a career. George took just seven shots in that game, five of them three-pointers. He spent most of the game on the perimeter, waiting for opportunities to come to him. He sat with teammate Orlando Johnson on the red-eye flight home that night, and received some sage advice from the rookie.

“I told him you can never take yourself out of the game,” Johnson said. “You're too great a player to limit yourself to what you do offensively. I told him not to settle as much, to get to the free throw line. I wanted him to be more aggressive and get free throws or something to get himself going instead of relying on that jump shot.”

George's rebuttal was one of the best games of his career: 34 points on 14-of-25 shooting, along with nine rebounds and three steals, in a road win at Chicago. Before that happened, though, George had gone to work. He didn't sleep on the 4½ hour flight home, but fatigue hadn't dulled his anger. He drove straight from the airport to the Bankers Life Fieldhouse practice court, arriving about 7 a.m. With the help of a shooting “gun” that gathers shots in a net and kicks out rebounds, he put up 501 shots – not just three-pointers, but mid-range shots and free throws, too – and made 375 of them. He finally headed home about 9:30.

The success that followed in Chicago convinced him to change his pre-game preparation. He had been doing the standard thing until then, arriving early enough to get up shots, but he became Reggie-like from that point onward. He would be the first player in on game days and put up dozens and dozens of shots in a more structured fashion.

“I knew I needed to change the way I prepare for games,” he recalled. “You hear about the guys who are great in this league and their work ethic. I felt I was doing the job an average player would do … but I want to be elite at this game. Whatever it takes, I was up to do it.”

But will he be doing it when he's a graying or balding veteran, as Miller did?

“This is how I'll prepare for every game from here on out,” George said matter-of-factly.

George has never met Miller, but Miller has been a vague presence and influence over the years. When George was a freshman and sophomore in high school and visiting Teiosha at Pepperdine in the summer, he would hang around the basketball arena. Occasionally he would peek through the curtain surrounding the concourse and watch Miller working out with Pepperdine's players. The memory of watching the veteran NBA star scrimmage and go through drills with the college kids stuck with him. Earlier this season, when he hit those nine three-pointers, breaking by one Miller's franchise record, on his way to 37 points in the win over New Orleans, Miller issued a congratulatory tweet to his 200,000-plus followers, adding “that's what I call ON FIRE!!!!!” And when Miller was in Bankers Life Fieldhouse to broadcast the Pacers' win over New York on Jan. 10, he told TNT viewers that George was “becoming the face of this franchise.”

There's another way George reminds people of Miller. He leads by example rather than locker room declarations or pre-game speeches. Beyond that, he associates equally well with everyone on the team. That overnight flight conversation with Johnson was telling. He could have sought out David West or George Hill, or a coach, but he had his heart-to-heart with the second-round draft pick who had barely played to that point.

He's been that way since high school.

“He brought a real family feeling to our team,” his high school coach, Hegre, said. “That had a lot to do with how close he was growing up with his family and what a positive impact they had on him. That kind of carried over to our team his senior year.”

There's also another difference from Miller. Miller is shy by nature, but was edgy and emotional as a player and responded to the big stage like a sunflower to sunlight. It worked for him. George is less shy but also calmer and more accommodating. While Miller passed through side doors and back hallways to avoid the media, George takes it all in stride. Miller was as elusive for reporters in a postgame locker room as he was for defenders on the court, making them wait until he was fully dressed and then taking only a handful of questions. At the first pause, or the first uncomfortable question, he was up and gone, leaving behind a stream of thank you's. George returns from the showers, wraps himself in towels, sits in front of his locker and calmly takes on every question.

There will be many of them in the years to come, as he continues to develop. His sisters, his high school coach, Pacers coach Frank Vogel, Walsh … everyone agrees that his potential has not fully been tapped, and what lies ahead can only be imagined.

“I told him, understand you're getting better and better, but there's always going to be a level to get to above this one,” Walsh said. “But you can get to it. If you keep working the way you're working with your talent level, you can get to it.”

Jermaine O'Neal holds the Pacers' franchise record with six All-Star selections, but George figures to have enough time and talent to surpass that, barring unforeseen calamity. Once again, it comes down to lasting devotion. Will he return to Indianapolis feeling satisfied, or will he be hungry for more.

The early indications are promising. In an interview on the day he signed his contract in 2010, he made his intentions clear: “I don't just want to be on the roster,” he said. “I want to be a name – a household name you can talk about years later.” He still talks that way.

“I definitely want this to be a perennial thing,” he said. “Moving forward I want to be a starter, not just a reserve.”

Then he caught himself.

“I really want to win, though,” he said. “The team we have here is set up for the long run as far as being able to compete for a championship.”

Miller would have liked that one.

This is Part Two of a two-part feature on Paul George. Read Part One »

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