Not many people know what to expect from Paul George to start this season.
Coming off an awful compound leg fracture, the sixth-year pro played in just six minute-restricted games last season, making this year his first extended NBA action in more than 14 months. Along with a full comeback, his incumbent employer, the Indiana Pacers, spent all offseason overhauling their identity and wanted George to switch positions as part of the plan. Considering the switch, the time off and the injury, a slow start would’ve been understandable for George.
Sure enough, the young forward did struggle at the onset –– it just didn’t last long.
After being away from the court for so long, George looked overeager in his return, overthinking easy looks and forcing tough ones on the offensive end. He quickly demonstrated that he still had it on defense, but his struggles on offense were a big reason for the Pacers’ 0-3 start.
Since then, Indiana is 3-1, and George’s turnaround has been equally as instrumental to the team’s about-face. The young forward stated prior to the season that he still had goals to win the NBA MVP, and based on the way he’s played so far, he appears to be very serious about that.
After putting together stellar efforts against some fellow Eastern Conference mediocrity in the Detroit Pistons (although they look legit!) and Boston Celtics earlier in the week, George showed off on a national stage Friday night on ESPN against the Miami Heat with 36 points, 12 boards, three assists and 3 steals. Then, on Sunday in a head-to-head matchup with LeBron James, George once again carried the Pacers, dropping 32 points to go along with another 11 rebounds and six handouts.
If George is feeling any kind of residual effect from his injury, they’re blending in well. He’s gotten back to doing what stars are supposed to do by showing up when the team needs him most and already managed to return to the level of “as he goes, the team goes,” a requisite status for franchise players.
Just look at the numbers so far: during Indiana’s bad, three-loss start, George averaged 17 points and 7.7 rebounds per game and shot just 16 percent from three and 35 percent overall on 14.3 field goal attempts per game. During the team’s 3-1 run since then, he’s found his form, averaging 27.5 points with 40 percent shooting from three and 45.8 percent overall on 20.8 attempts per game to go along with 10.5 rebounds and 4.5 steals.
Those numbers should yield a sigh of relief from the Pacers, a small-market team who need their home-grown draft choices like George to develop into full-fledged stars. He’s been showing off the kinds of silky moves and skills on offense that turned him into a budding star a few years ago: slithering his way through screens off-the-ball for effective catch-and-shoot attempts, while still being elusive enough with the ball in his hands to finagle a good mid-range look when he needs one. He ran the elderly Luol Deng as well as the young Justise Winslow ragged around the floor Friday night en route to a 10/16 night from non-paint, non-three-point areas:
Aside from his above-the-break three-pointers, George’s shot chart is about as good as you could hope for so far from a guy who shoots that much from mid-range coming off a serious leg injury. His catch-and-shoot numbers look great, a 56 percent eFG on 4.7 attempts per game, and although his pull-up mark still isn’t quite where it should be at 35 percent, it’s headed in the right direction since his difficult beginning. On the interior, George’s lackluster start both has to do with that fact that he’s re-learning how to negotiate the trees among the paint, as well as his added responsibilities rebounding the ball and rotating on defense.
Indiana is taking its time implementing its spread-floor scheme, but even when coach Frank Vogel plays a more “traditional” big lineup, the Pacers don’t have a terribly huge front line, so team rebounding has been critical to their early success. George has helped in a big way there, as he’s currently the leading rebounder on the team, and Indiana is a better rebounding team in general when George is on the floor. That’s the type of willing dirty-work Indiana was hoping to get from him in switching to this smaller style.
Even on defense, which has always been George’s forte, he’s already back to normal, getting his hands in the passing lanes and harassing opponents’ shot attempts to great effect.
Given that the Pacers have already missed C.J. Miles –– the team’s other “strategic fulcrum” besides George –– for four games, and that Monta Ellis has struggled to shoot early on, George’s rapid return on offense is even more impressive. This might not yet be George’s final form, and that could be scary.
That’s an exciting possibility, but still sadly one that remains a ways off, since Indiana is still finding itself. Right now, though, the positive reality is that George is helping the Pacers off to a good start when many expected them to struggle with their adjustments. This team is already 4-1 against the Eastern Conference, and if Indiana can keep this strong early play going, it could find itself with a better-than-expected cushion for playoff contention later in the season.