After suffering a horrific leg injury at a Team USA scrimmage less than two years ago, one that kept him out of all but six games in the following 2014-15 NBA season, Paul George is excited to be able to finally represent his country on the world's biggest stage.
"It's amazing," said George to reporters upon announcing his acceptance of Team USA Coach Mike Krzyzewski's invitation to play in the upcoming 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. "I always wanted to do this. It's a dream of mine to compete for our country, so I was pretty excited to join up."
George's new head coach Nate McMillan expressed equal excitement for his superstar.
"It's an opportunity for him to represent his country," said McMillan. "He's never been able do that. You know, he's on the big stage of the Olympics. He's excited about that. I talked with Coach K. He has big things that he wants to do with Paul."
George's decision to play is a testament to how far he has come since that ill-fated fall of 2014. On the heels of a tremendous 2013-14 season that saw George's Pacers reach the Eastern Conference Finals, while he racked up All-Defensive First Team and All-NBA Third Team honors, averaging 21.7 points, 6.8 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.9 steals in 36.2 minutes per game in the process, George's star was soaring and shining bright as ever.
GALLERY: George's History with Team USA »
With his exceptional prowess on both ends of the court, George appeared to be a lock to make the 2014 World Cup Team prior to the devastating injury. Several months of grueling rehab led him to return for the final six games of the 2014-15 regular season, but he was a shell of his former self, averaging only 8.8 points, 3.7 rebounds, an assist and 0.8 steals in 15.2 minutes per game.
Questions about George's recovery lingered throughout the following offseason as the front office reconstructed the lineup to be more offensively oriented.
Had Paul George's better days gone by the wayside?
Could he regain the upward trajectory his burgeoning career had seen prior to the injury, in which he increased his scoring average each of his first four seasons?
George answered those questions almost immediately as the 2015-16 season was underway, shooting out of the gates like a thoroughbred at Churchill Downs as he captured the initial Eastern Conference Player of the Month honors. He posted averages of 27.2 points, 8.1 rebounds, 4.4 assists and 1.6 steals in 35.6 minutes per game in 16 games over October and November, helping lead Indiana to an 11-5 start.
While George's production varied throughout the regular season, including highs of 48, 45 and 40 points, and lows of seven points on two occasions, it was evident that he was well on his way to finding his former phenomenal form. That form was particularly on display in mid-February, as he poured in 41 points during the All-Star Game in Toronto. He finished the 2015-16 campaign with averages of 23.1 points, seven rebounds, 4.1 assists and 1.9 steals in 34.8 minutes per game, increasing his scoring mark for the fourth consecutive season, excluding the outlier injury-hampered 2014-15 season. He also reclaimed his place amongst the league's premiere talents, earning All-Defensive Second Team and All-NBA Third Team honors.
George's stellar play continued into the postseason, as he helped the Pacers push the second-seeded Toronto Raptors to seven games in the opening round. He averaged 27.3 points, 7.6 rebounds, 4.3 assists and two steals in 39.3 minutes per game, including a 39-point, eight-rebound, eight-assist performance on that familiar Toronto floor in Game 5. He also helped shut down fellow All-Star DeMar DeRozan, holding him well below his regular season averages.
Yet as much as he progressed over the last season, according to George, winning a gold medal would close the book on the story of his injury, thereby fully completing the comeback.
Pacers General Manager Kevin Pritchard displayed his excitement when asked about George's Olympic quest, going so far as to calling it monumental for the franchise. "I think it's terrific," said Pritchard. "What happened to him was tough, and to have him come back and have the year that he did, I don't think we could be more proud. And hearing the news and seeing that, that he's going to play for his country, I think that's something we should all be proud of."
PG Sees a Chance to Improve
So what can Pacers fans expect next from the seemingly ever-improving superstar? How about even further improvement.
"I can use that extra games and time to better my game," said George. "I think with playing with USA, I'm so used to playing with the ball. We got five guys out there that's going to be able to score at will. Now it's about learning how to play off the ball. I think that's where guys take that next step. Learning how to space the floor. Learning how to cut. Learning how to play on the boards; battle the boards. I think just playing off the ball is where guys take that next step."
McMillan seems to agree with that logic, asserting that the Olympic experience will only help his already dynamic player improve, as it has with so many others.
"Well I spent seven years with the national team," said McMillan, "and every year that we coached that team all of those guys showed improvement coming back from the Olympics and the World Championship."
History is on His Side
So what level of enhancement can be expected from a player of George's ilk following the Olympics? The improvement levels of former Team USA Olympians were reviewed to assess what impact playing in the Olympics has on a player the following season.
Team USA began utilizing professional basketball players for its Olympic teams beginning with the famed "Dream Team" in 1992. Since then, nine shooting guards and small forwards between the ages of 22 and 27 — matching George's profile — have played for Team USA and seven of them saw significant growth the season after competing in the Olympics. Younger players were excluded due to lack of experience and the natural progression seen in an NBA players' early years. Older players were excluded due to the natural decline seen in the production of NBA players after the age of 28.
Perhaps the best way to measure a player's growth is to review the change in their Player Efficiency Rating (PER - a measure of per-minute production standardized such that the league average is 15) from the season prior to playing in their first Olympics to the season after. A player's PER is based upon his positive impact (scoring, rebounds, assists, blocks and steals) in relation to his negative impact (missed shots, fouls and turnovers) on a per-minute basis.
Of those nine players, which include Kevin Durant (23 years old), James Harden (23), Richard Jefferson (24), Shawn Marion (26), Dwyane Wade (22), Ray Allen (25), Vince Carter (23), Grant Hill (23) and Scottie Pippen (26), the average increase in PER from the season prior to playing in the Olympics to the season after was 1.78. In fact, seven of the nine players saw an increase of at least 1.6. The exceptions were Jefferson, whose New Jersey Nets added dynamic scorer Carter mid-season, and who only played 33 games due to injury that year after the Olympics, as well as Pippen, who saw teammate B.J. Armstrong (increase of 7.5 minutes per game) take on a much larger role with the team in his season after the Olympics, not to mention the continued emergence of teammate Michael Jordan, even at the age of 29, leading to reduced scoring and assisting averages.
In all likelihood, George should see his scoring average increase yet again next season. Seven of those nine aforementioned players saw their scoring average increase following their Olympic experience, for an average positive change of 2.43 points per game per player. While Ray Allen's scoring average only decreased by 1/10th of a point, Pippen's was more significant at a decline of 2.4 points per game, for reasons previously noted.
As for the rest of the box score, those nine similar players saw average increases across the board of 0.58 rebounds, 0.6 assists, 0.22 steals and 0.12 blocks per game in their season following the Olympics.
Time will tell the eventual impact that taking part in the 2016 Olympics will have on George's game moving forward, in particular his production level. But if the the players who came before serve as any indication, Pacers fans could be in store for the best version of Paul George to date.