No Limits: George's Rising Star Could Surpass Miller's (Part I)

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by Mark Montieth |

February 16, 2013

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

The comparison is too obvious to ignore and too intriguing not to ponder, so let's put it out there. Some of the similarities are coincidental and others are strikingly relevant to the future of the Pacers' franchise, but they are there.

The link between Reggie Miller and Paul George begins with their southern California roots, grows stronger amid the drafts that blew them all the way to Indianapolis and bonds them deep into the heart of the Pacers franchise. Miller, through 18 seasons, became the franchise's icon and eventual Hall of Famer. George, only in his third season, has the tools and gifts to surpass him. That might sound blasphemous at such an early stage of George's career, but it rings true to veteran observers.

Donnie Walsh drafted Reggie Miller in 1987 and gained an insider's view of George this season, when Walsh returned to the franchise as team president. He knows every bit of what Miller did. He can only guess at what George can do.

“There's no limits on how good this kid can be,” he said.

No limits? Could qualify as a nickname. In the interest of sanity, we're not talking about the brand of other-worldly, limit-lacking LeBron James that displays almost nightly. The case can be made, however, that George has the goods to become the best player the Pacers have ever had. If Miller, the Pacers' all-time leading scorer and playoff icon, is the franchise's gold standard, George is matching up well, on the court and off.

Both grew up about an hour outside of Los Angeles – Miller to the east in Riverside, George to the north in Palmdale. Both come from stable, suburban environments. Both had an accomplished older sister to compete against, be humbled by and draw motivation from. Both grew into the body of a tall shooting guard, even by NBA standards. Both had/have slightly unorthodox jump shots that proved accurate. Miller retired as the NBA's all-time leader in three-point shots made and attempted, but George has become a legitimate threat, too. His percentage this season, .386, is better than Miller shot in seven of his NBA seasons, and was good enough to earn an invitation to the three-point contest over All-Star Weekend. Both had/have an eye on a broadcasting career, one that Miller is fulfilling. Both came to the Pacers via similar draft spots – Miller 11th in 1987 and George 10th in 2010. Both would go much higher if teams had a chance to go back and do it all over again.

There are differences, too, but some of them favor George. He is an inch or two taller and about 20 pounds heavier than Miller. He's stronger and more athletic, and therefore can do things Miller could not, most notably as a defender, where he's one of the NBA's best at his position. He already has accumulated single-game career highs superior to Miller's in rebounds (17-12), three-pointers (9-8), assists (12-11) and blocks (4-3), and has matched him in steals (6) and triples-doubles (1).

George, of course, has miles to go before he matches Miller's flair for drama and happy endings. Miller was a legendary sniper, firing well-timed shots from long range that executed opponents, particularly in the playoffs. His worldwide fame was built on clutch shooting, and his Hall of Fame induction would have been in serious doubt without it. George, in 16 playoff games, has averaged 8.6 points while hitting 37 percent of his field goal attempts and 26 percent of his three-point attempts. His postseason poise remains unproven.

Then again, George is only 22 years old, turning 23 on May 2. Miller at 22 was an NBA rookie who averaged 10 points a game as a backup guard for a team that finished 38-44, and had offered only the vaguest glimpse of what was to come. Miller's postseason breakthrough, his 25-point fourth quarter in Madison Square Garden, didn't come until his seventh season with the Pacers.

For George to fulfill his vast potential, he'll have to match Miller's consistent work ethic and humble mindset toward improvement, which resulted in 18 seasons of productivity. Heading into and during his final season, Miller was still running the beaches and hills around Malibu, still working out with the college kids at Pepperdine, still staying after practice to shoot with teammates and still arriving at the Fieldhouse before any of his teammates on game days. George is showing a similar approach, but the question looms: can he maintain it after the first mega-contract is signed and the All-Star invitations pile up?

One thing George can never match is Miller's story. Miller lived the first few years of his life in leg braces to correct a birth deformity, and was forever the target of opposing fan discourtesies for his protruding ears and legendary older sister. He had two older brothers and Cheryl, none of whom showed him mercy in their backyard games.

George's path has been much gentler. His father, Paul, worked in blue collar jobs, first for a rim company and then as a carpenter. His mother, Paulette, was able to stay at home. He has two older sisters. Portala, six years older, was a scholarship volleyball player at Cal State San Bernardino. Teiosha, five years older, averaged 8.7 points over four basketball seasons at Pepperdine, and played a year professionally for a team in Herne, Germany.

His nickname within the family is “Man,” given by his mother, because he was so independent and mature by nature from the time he was a small boy. He didn't want to be held, and didn't mind being alone. “He's my little man,” his mother would tell friends.

Without an older brother and with two older sisters, George was well-nurtured.

“He was that annoying little brother,” said Teiosha, now a clothes designer and an assistant basketball coach at Bellarmine-Jefferson High School, a Catholic school in Burbank, Calif. “He was a true boy, very tough, but we were very girly. When he was younger we spoiled him so much. He was the cutest little thing and we took him under our wings. When he got older and we were teenagers and he was still a little boy, we bumped heads. But we were always very close.”

Those who knew him as a child or high schooler have no stories to tell. He never got in trouble for anything beyond minor transgressions such as dribbling the ball around the house or playing barefoot outside in the rain, and in fact never did anything to draw much attention to himself. Mom made sure of that.

“I was very stern,” she said. “I didn't need a village.”

“He was a very good kid. He was everybody's kid. Everywhere he went it was like, 'Who is your parent? You are so well-mannered. You're a very good kid.' We didn't have to worry about him. He always played with older kids, because he was so mature. He always knew his role.”

The best anecdote anyone can come up with is of the time he was wearing cornrows, carefully prepared by his sisters, and went outside to play. He tried to dunk, but his finger became entangled in a braid and ripped it out of his scalp.

“It tickled us to death,” Mom said. “We had to shave his hair out because he had a bald spot.”

George grew up playing at a public park near his house and on the goal in front of the family's home. He and Teiosha played plenty of one-on-one games, just like Reggie and Cheryl had done. Teiosha, just like Cheryl, dominated her younger brother for as long as she had the physical advantage, but she was nonchalant about it. That made it even worse for Paul. “She'd beat me and go back to playing with her dolls,” he recalled. “It killed me.”

George didn't beat his sister until he was a senior in high school, when he had surpassed her athletically. He did it again after he started college, at which point she retired from their rivalry. It was a valuable training ground for George, though. Those days he ran into the house crying over his losses fueled his ambition. Teiosha, meanwhile, proved you could get a college scholarship and play professionally if you worked hard enough.

George found further inspiration and examples in the NBA. He followed the Lakers closely, and idolized Kobe Bryant. One of his earliest playoff memories is of the 2000 Finals, when the Lakers beat the Pacers in six games. He was 10 at the time. The Clippers, however, were his favorite team, because he had a natural affinity for the underdog, and they fit his self-image and his independent streak. “I could relate to that team,” he said. “Not coming from a big-time area, people not expecting too much from me.”

George didn't deserve much expectation until he was a senior at Pete Knight High School. His game had been molded against older players on the playgrounds more than on school teams and was therefore somewhat unrefined when he got to high school. He started his sophomore season on the JV team, but was moved up to the varsity after four or five games. He averaged 5.4 points that season, then 11.5 as a junior when he started alongside four seniors.

George began catching the eye of recruiters during the summer following his junior season while playing in a couple of AAU tournaments with the Pump and Run team. Even then, however, he was overshadowed by teammate Jrue Holiday, who went on to play one season at UCLA before becoming a first-round draft pick of Philadelphia. He made a verbal commitment to the first school that offered him, Santa Clara, but his high school coach, Tom Hegre, thought he could do better and urged him to remain open-minded. Shortly thereafter, George attended Teiosha's Midnight Madness event at Pepperdine, enjoyed the experience and changed his commitment. Midway through his senior season, though, Pepperdine's coach, Vance Walberg, announced his resignation. George's scholarship would still be honored, but he reopened his recruitment and ultimately settled on Fresno State. He had a last-minute offer from Georgetown as well as earlier invitations from the likes of Penn State and Arizona State, but wanted to stay in California.

George was a steal for Fresno. Surely more prestigious programs would have wanted him had they still had scholarships available after his senior season, when he averaged 23.3 points and led his high school team to a 25-9 record. But Fresno felt right. He was rated just a two-star recruit coming out of high school by analysts, and wanted to test the collegiate waters as a big fish in a smaller pond.

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

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