George Soaring to Unprecedented Heights

No one expected Paul George to be this good to start the 2015-16 season. No one except for Paul George.

After only playing the final six games of the 2014-15 campaign while rehabbing from a broken leg, there was understandable skepticism coming into this year about whether George would be the same caliber player he was two seasons ago, when he was a starter in the All-Star Game and a third team All-NBA selection. George didn't share those doubts. Instead, he issued a bold proclamation on Media Day.

"I'm trying to come into this year as if I played last year and had another amazing season," George said. "I have the same goal. I wasn't the MVP last year. I want to be the MVP this year."

That statement raised more than a few eyebrows among those assembled at that late September press conference, but no one is questioning him now.

He was right. George is every bit as good as the player who starred for the 56-win Pacers two seasons ago.

In fact, he's better.

At just 25 years old and despite missing almost all of last year, George has now done something that even the great Reggie Miller never did. He was named Eastern Conference Player of the Month on Thursday for the second time in his career. He also won the award after the first month two years ago.

Miller, for all his accolades, was never named Player of the Month. To be fair, the award was only given out to one player across the NBA for much of his career (the league started honoring one player in each conference during the 2001-02 season).

In fact, George is one of only three Pacers players to ever take home the honor. The others? Detlef Schrempf in February 1992 and Jermaine O'Neal three times (January, April, and December 2003).

It's very rare for a player to come back from an injury that caused them to sit out essentially an entire season and not miss a beat. Just look at Derrick Rose, who has yet to come close to his former MVP form since tearing his ACL in the 2012 playoffs.

That makes George's return all the more remarkable.

There is no question that George is playing the best basketball of his career. If you compare his stats now to his stats through this point two seasons ago, there is no question that the new and improved PG-13 is a better all-around player.

When George was named Player of the Month for October/November 2013, he had some pretty impressive averages: 23.6 points, 6.1 rebounds, and 3.3 assists per game.

This season, he raised all three of those numbers significantly to 27.2 points, 8.1 rebounds, and 4.4 assists per contest.

In five seasons prior to this year, George had only scored 30 or more points in consecutive games once, doing so in a pair of games on Feb. 19 and 22, 2014. This year, he matched that feat with 36 points in a Nov. 6 win over Miami and 32 two days later at Cleveland. In the past week, he's one-upped himself, topping 30 points in each of his past four games, including a 40-point outburst at Washington on Nov. 24.

Some of the jump in George's numbers, no doubt, is a reflection of a new offensive system. Two seasons ago, the Pacers had a self-proclaimed "smashmouth" identity, slowing down the pace and working the ball through David West and Roy Hibbert in the post. This year, West and Hibbert are gone and George is the unquestioned alpha dog in a new up-tempo offensive attack.

But to say George's averages are only higher because his team is playing a faster pace unfairly discounts all the long hours he has logged in the gym to make himself better.

Perhaps no stat offers better evidence than George's 3-point percentage.

Two seasons ago, George got off to a hot start from beyond the 3-point arc. He knocked down 40.4 percent of his 3-pointers through the end of November, then cooled off slightly the rest of the year, finishing at a respectable .364 clip.

For most of last year, George wasn't cleared to practice with the team, so he did the only thing he could do. He got up shots. Lots of them.

All those shots are paying off now, as George has emerged as one of the best shooters in the entire league. Despite taking one more 3-pointer per game than he did two years ago, George's shooting numbers are markedly improved. He made 45.5 percent of his 3-pointers through the end of November. After going 5-for-9 from three in Wednesday's win over the Clippers, his average climbed even higher to .463, tied for fifth-best in the NBA.

No one may have believed him before the season, but he's turned all his doubters into believers. Paul George is better than ever.

MVP? It's looking more and more possible every day.