For a number of reasons, Paul George has seemed like the one-and-only topic of conversation throughout the Indiana Pacers’ preseason.
Seeing his first training camp action since his horrendous compound leg fracture last summer, the Pacers star found himself at the center of the team’s new transformation to smaller, faster style of play –– specifically, playing a “stretch”-style power-forward position that he’d never handled before.
At first, George wasn’t thrilled about the concept, and he actually voiced those concerns to the media on several occasions. For a player returning from a serious injury, George’s concerns were valid and understandable, and although he could’ve handled the situation better, he by no means handled it poorly. Still, the possibility of a rift between between the team’s franchise player and its brass obviously drew a lot of attention despite the fact that Indiana had hardly taken the court yet.
Now, seven preseason games later, all the hot takes on the new style have cooled considerably, as the Pacers put together a 5-2 preseason record led largely by the brilliant play of George, who dominated during his first tastes of action at power forward. The young forward scored 18.7 points per game, good for sixth in the league during preseason, while shooting a very respectable 43.2 percent overall and 39 percent from three, numbers that don’t mean a ton given their preseason context but are encouraging given the uncertainty of George’s recovery.
His recent attitude has also been encouraging, as he told NBA.com’s Steven Aschburner that the preseason preparation has helped him feel better about the transition situation:
“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.”
While George has been dominating the preseason from the get-go, scoring 12 points in his very first quarter against Anthony Davis, his ease has been obviously recently, as he’s been making some dynamic plays while still letting the game come to him.
George has already become more comfortable getting after defensive rebounds then pushing the ball up the floor himself, while also not being afraid to let shots go, even on his bad nights. It’s been more than 14 months since George saw extended live NBA action, so he had some predictably clunky nights during the preseason, but he showed no hesitance or lack of faith in his stroke while hoisting 20 FGA per 36 minutes during exhibitions. He looked right at home as a stretch 4, making opposing power forwards look silly as he blew past them or ran them into screens, exactly the way Larry Bird envisioned this new team.
In short: George has looked “back” during the preseason. He’s proved that with his on-court goods, from his impressive numbers to his fluid movement to his recent set of throwdowns that’s reminded us just what kind of athlete he is:
It might be the preseason, but moves like that look good anytime, and given what we know about a potentially healthy George from the past, these plays clearly bode well for his potential on offense this season. Defensively, he still has some kinks to work out in adjusting to the responsibilities of his new position and the Pacers’ new system, but that goes for the rest of the team as well. Plus, in order to best utilize George’s elite perimeter defensive skills, coach Frank Vogel has made real attempts already during the preseason to share the defensive responsibilities of the 3- and 4-spots between George and the likes of C.J. Miles or Chase Budinger.
So while this could still all turn rotten for Indiana, it also wouldn’t be surprising if the tenets of this new strategy never became an issue again, and George found a way to thrive against the mismatches of his new position. He was borderline dominant during the preseason and is anxious to reestablish himself as an elite NBA player after spending a year away.
We’ll see the first real results of the Pacers’ new era in just a few days, however, the fact that Vogel and Bird have gotten George to settle down, buy in and have patience –– at least for now –– marks the first real victory for their rebooted squad.