Paul George has been named the NBA’s Most Improved Player for this season.
Good for him.
But the award — in and of itself — is little more than a milestone. It’s something nice for Paul to put on his mantle, but it brings with it no guarantees or promises. It will have no effect on where Paul George goes from here.
No, what will decide the course of Pacer wing’s career will be the same force that has carved the path he has followed to this point.
Paul George, himself.
And those who have been close observers of the third-year player from Fresno State will probably find that thought reassuring.
“PG’s humble, man. He’s not an ‘I’ guy,” said David West earlier this season. “He’s a ‘team’ guy. He’s just going to continue to improve, because he knows that’s what is going to help our team ultimately get the most out of the group we have.”
Those comments came following the first game after the All-Star break. Fresh off a 17-point performance in his All-Star Game debut, Paul George had just posted 27 points in a 34-point Pacer victory over the New York Knicks. In many ways, it was the best of times for the Pacers and their budding star.
But it wasn’t always easy, and that’s a very good thing.
It was a rocky start to the season. The Pacers limped through November, and George appeared unable to fill the gap left by the loss of Danny Granger. Then, on December 1, Paul went scoreless in a Pacer loss in Oakland — and looked bad doing it.
However, while many started to inch towards the panic button, Paul George simply moved onto the next game. Three days later in Chicago, George played the best all-around game of his career to that point, scoring 34 points and adding nine boards, three steals, and two blocks in a Pacer win. What that game reminded us is that growth is a process, not an event.
It also served as a launching point for a 56-game stretch in which George averaged over 19 points, 8 rebounds, and 4 assists per game. Indiana went 38-18 in those 56 games.
In early January, the Pacers won an ugly decision over the New York Knicks. The score was 16-14, Indiana, after the first quarter, and George had opened the night’s proceedings by missing his first five shots, and seven of his first eight, in the half. However, he finished the night with 24 points, 11 rebounds, and a ridiculous 6 steals.
After the game, attributed his ability to deal with adversity and turn it around to his experience with the Team USA players last summer. He had the opportunity to spend a significant amount of time with them during his stint with the USA Select team, and it made an impression.
He says he learned a lot by “being around the [Team] USA guys — just how they carried themselves.”
The biggest lesson was how they always seemed to be forward thinking. “They were always, ‘That next play,’” said George. “That’s how they thought about it. ‘That next play.’ That’s been the way for me. I can’t get down on the play that’s going on. It’s always ‘that next play.’ I started out slow, but then ‘that next play’ allowed me to get hot and get going.”
“That next play” on that January night was a corner three with 2 minutes left in the first half. After making it, you can see him nod his head once, as if I saying, “There it is.” Including that shot, he made 9 of his final 16 attempts.
But, as noted earlier, growth is a process, not an event, and April served as a harsh reminder.
Over his final six games of the regular season, George averaged less than 13 points per night and shot only 32% from the floor. He missed 27 of his 35 three-point attempts, and converted only 72% of his free throws. The team went 2-4 in those games (and 2-5 in April), backing into the playoffs on a low point.
How did Paul respond? By producing only the franchise’s second triple double in playoff history. After the game, he was asked what that accomplishment meant.
“I know what the team will expect of me, now,” he said, laughing. “I like the pressure. I want to continue to hold up under the pressure. Hopefully, my teammates will know I’m going to do whatever it takes for us to advance.”
Though the juxtaposition of the April troubles with the sublime performance of Game 1 may seem jarring, it actually fits with the overall arc. Paul George, himself, has often struggled to describe what he is doing to generate his success. “I’m being more aggressive about letting the game come to me, ” George once responded after a game. He then thought about what he said, and rolled his eyes and shook his head at the seemingly contradictory remark.
He was frustrated that he couldn’t articulate what he understood intuitively. And that is this: Paul George is on the way to mastering his craft. As he gains experience and knowledge, more of the craft becomes his. What is traditionally viewed as increased aggressiveness is really the manifestation of confidence. George doesn’t have to stretch for plays or skills, as they simply have become his to use.
Again, there is not a straight line between where Paul has been to where he is to where he will be. There have been failures and shortfalls, and there will be more. But that is part of the beauty of Paul George. There’s no question that George has been blessed with great physical attributes and natural skills, but that is not the nature of his success.
George uses his successes to get more confident, and he uses his failures to get stronger. What often gets lost when watching elite athletes is that the physical is abetted by the mental. Coupled to those blessings is a mind at work — and, in Paul’s case — a strong, agile one.
And this is what that mind is thinking: “Tell myself, ‘Keep attacking.’ My mindset is ‘next play.’”
Tags: Most Improved