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George ready to adjust to new roles of power forward, leader

With veterans West and Hibbert gone, the two-time All-Star is 'ready to have spotlight' that comes with leading team

POSTED: Oct 21, 2015 1:20 PM ET

By Steve Aschburner

BY Steve Aschburner

NBA.com

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In six preseason games, Paul George has averaged 19.8 points, 3.6 rebounds and 3.4 assists primarily as a power forward.

Even in its most tense and uncomfortable moments earlier this fall, the Great Paul George Power Forward Experiment seemed to be as much about terminology as strategy. And something that was driven more by the when than by the what.

Ten years ago, the idea of using Paul George -- a Scottie Pippen play-alike for much of his first five NBA seasons -- as a power forward would have been equal parts laughable and regrettable. But now, in a league brimming with stretch-4s, point centers and an embrace of the mathematical concept that three is greater than two, moving George to a position that has moved more than a little itself is more no deal than big deal.

"Absolutely," Indiana Pacers coach Frank Vogel said after a full teaching shootaround session Tuesday at Chicago's United Center. "Ten years ago I think it would have been a crazy idea. Because you'd be one of five teams that was doing it. Now, if you don't do it, you're one of five teams not doing it.

"It makes sense with the way the league plays right now to play this way. Again, we don't have him out there playing like the prototypical power forward. He's still playing his game, he just has more space to do it."

George's move to a position that once took its "power" label literally, behemoths as broad as they were wide banging like NFL lineman for advantages in the paint, created one of the buzzier storylines and early soap operas of the preseason.

I'm ready to have that spotlight, I'm ready for that leadership, I'm ready to come into my own now.

– Pacers' Paul George

Larry Bird, the Pacers' president of basketball operations, had staked out the change at the end of 2014-15, but to George -- already preoccupied with his comeback from that ghastly leg fracture from August 2014 -- this was more uncertainty. Another unknown on top of an unknown. He didn't quite balk but he fretted, some of it openly. And as Indiana's training camp opened, instead of focusing on O or D, a lot of the team's fans wondered about the "uh oh" of George's shaky buy-in.

"Yeah," George said, followed by a sigh. "At one point, it was hard to wrap [my head around] everything. Here I am coming back from a big-time injury and wanting to get back to what I used to be, playing the three. Then I come back playing a stretch four -- it took a toll on me mentally.

"But the more we've had practice time and I've had sit-down moments with coach and with Larry, the more at ease I've felt about the situation."

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Six preseason games into the Pacers' October, the results have helped to calm everyone down. George has been healthy, mobile and productive from his new spot: 19.8 points, 3.6 rebounds, 3.4 assists. He's moving without issues, playing without a minutes restriction and finding himself most of the time staring across at an opponent no bulkier than himself (a not-very-bulky 6-foot-9 and 220 pounds).

Also, even against teams deploying strict stretch-4 power forwards, George often will find himself guarding small forwards because his perimeter defensive skills aren't an advantage Vogel and the Pacers want to relinquish. And then on nights such as Tuesday, against a team such as Chicago that can deploy "jumbo" lineups built with Pau Gasol, Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson, Nikola Mirotic and rookie Bobby Portis, Vogel went more traditional. He started George next to traditional bigs Ian Mahinmi and Lavoy Allen.

The Pacers started strong figuratively as well, outscoring the Bulls 34-24 in the first quarter with George scoring 15 points on 6-for-8 shooting. Things bogged down for Indiana the rest of the game, a 103-94 loss, but Bird, Vogel and the Pacers remain committed to the team's transformation.

Not only isn't it a burden on George to have him make this move, Vogel said, it's a plus.

"It's easy to say it's an added thing" he said. "But it's really something that benefits him dramatically. The openness of the floor is going to make the game easier for him.

"It's also not just about him either. But if he's at the four, you've seen already that Ian Mahinmi becomes a better player when he's in the paint with more space. Monta Ellis is going to get to the basket more because Paul George is at the four and he has more space. George Hill is going to get to the basket. C.J. Miles, when they chase him off pin-downs, has more room to get to the basket and use more space.

Ten years ago I think it would have been a crazy idea.

– Pacers' Frank Vogel on Paul George's position change

"It makes everybody on the floor better -- it's not just about who's guarding Paul George and what does that matchup look like. So we don't feel like it's an added burden to him. We feel like it's something done to facilitate his return."

Keep in mind, George isn't the only one shaken from his comfort zone this season. Vogel made his bones as an NBA coach after taking over in 2010-11 by grinding opponents defensively, using a system built around rim protector Roy Hibbert in a methodical halfcourt game. Suddenly asking Vogel to shift his attention to offense -- allowing him to, requiring him to, whatever -- seems like a big change for him as well.

"Nah, I like what we're doing now, to be honest with you," Vogel said. "I like the flexibility of playing with speed against spread lineups, which has given us problems in the past. ... I like that we have quality bigs that can get the job done too."

Said George of Vogel: "He's been a lot more patient. With this group, it's been a lot more teaching. Usually in camp we get right to defense, we get right into the swing of things. This year we've kind of taken baby steps. And almost haven't even touched the defensive side yet because this offense is new to us.

"We changed our whole [identity], what the makeup of this team was. We've always been a smash-mouth, gut-it-out defensive team and it's almost like a new team now."

The Pacers' frequent one-in, four-out looks this season won't make people quickly forget Hibbert and David West, however. Indiana had so much success in the Eastern Conference with those guys and now they're gone.

That's another change thrown at George. Instead of slipping comfortably back into the seat the Pacers kept open for him, he's at the head of their table now. New chair, new meal, different part of the restaurant from when he left.

"It's kind of a love-hate situation," George told NBA.com. "Of course I loved having those guys here and them being big pieces of what we did. But the other side is, I'm ready for this moment. I'm ready to have that spotlight, I'm ready for that leadership, I'm ready to come into my own now.

"It's like I've got a big plate and I'm ready for a big portion."

With an extra helping of big.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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