(The following piece is the first contribution to 8p9s from Drew Sparks, a lifelong Pacers follower, military veteran and political science/quantitative analysis scholar who lives in Indianapolis. – JW.)
Not a bad week for the 22-year-old Californian, a currently and rightfully christened Indiana occupant.
In the Pacers’ first playoff game last Sunday, Paul George became just the second Pacer to log a triple double in the franchise’s NBA playoff history, and now he holds the title of the 2012-13 NBA Most Improved Player of the Year.
Though it was an award many debated, the numbers don’t lie.
George averaged 17.4 points, 7.6 rebounds and 4.1 assists in 2012-13 — easily the highest totals of his three years as a pro. This is up from last year where George averaged 12.1 points, 5.6 rebounds and 2.4 assists. His award also highlights how the Pacers have able to continually develop talent, as George became the fourth Pacers’ player to win the Most Improved Player Award since the beginning of the Millennium. The others were Jalen Rose, Jermaine O’Neal, and Danny Granger.
It seems like it was just the other day that #24 was taking a backseat to veterans. Now he holds the keys to the future for Indiana’s pro basketball estate. Let’s not forget that he also earned a spot on the Eastern Conference All-Star roster, as well as led the Blue & Gold to its first Central Division title since the 2003-04 season.
As most readers already know, Paul grew up in the Los Angeles area. He explains that his work ethic was constructed from remnants of the legendary predecessors that played before him. As quoted in the Washington Post, he grew up “idolizing guys like Kobe, watching his whole regimen, watching what time he got up to work out, watching what he was putting in his body.”
The hard work has paid off, and you can guarantee that there are young Hoosiers planning on building a legacy of their own, taking pages of PG’s work-ethic book.
He told coach Frank Vogel that he would vow to be a more aggressive player after the loss to Miami in last year’s playoff run. No truer words have been spoken, and there is empirical evidence on the court. If someone told you that the Pacers were playing this effectively with the absence of their captain, Danny Granger, for nearly the entire year, you probably would have laughed at them.
The more aggressive mentality has shown up in Game 1 and Game 2 of this first series against Atlanta. He spread the floor, drove to the hoop, earned free throws, demonstrated that shut down D and confirmed that the award was given to the right player.
In the first away game against Atlanta, in their domain on Saturday night, not so much.
This adds some intrigue and reminds us that this young man is in fact, young. As Tim Donahue wrote last week, its shows that growth is a process, not an event.
But if Indiana has plans to beat the Hawks and sell seats into the later weeks of May, George has to take play like he did throughout much of the regular season. If Indiana plans on selling seats into June, George has to play like he did in Game 1. Especially when prospectively matching up with two future Hall of Famers in the next two rounds, Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James.
We have to ask ourselves, and more importantly, Paul has to ask himself, is this man able to bear the burden of a team under the glaring lights consistently. That is a lot to ask.
To put it all in perspective, Paul George was an All-Star for a team that won its division and 49 games, while leading a team whose best scorer from the past six years totaled 27 points this season. Right now George is in the conversation of best wing defenders in the NBA, and could take a run at Defensive Player of the Year for years to come.
Make no mistake about it, the defensive aspect of George’s game is what sets him apart, but it will not show up in a stat line night after night (aside from those occasional five-steal, three-block nights). Above all else, he has an ability to neutralize most teams’ number-one option.
Few players with his offensive talents can make that claim.
It is tough to ask him to slow down a player like Josh Smith. Smith is bigger, stronger and (probably) can reach higher. But, George has had an uncanny ability all year to make players take the shots Frank Vogel wants them to take rather than the ones that the opponent’s coach wants them to take.
Smith falls into that trap a lot, taking long jumpers instead of planting himself in the lane. If George can steer Josh into taking more jumpers, it won’t exactly be a unique feat of achievement. But it will show just how versatile of a defender he is. Remember, two years ago at this time, George was being switched over to slow down Derrick Rose. Now he is being asked to curtail Smith’s scoring.
Most Indiana spectators can readily see the other strengths in Paul George’s game. He has a quick release, his athleticism is at times freakish, and his ability to run the floor fuels the rest of the roster during dry spells. Obviously, it is not the polish on his strengths that earned him this award. Personally, I believe(d) that George’s biggest weakness is his inability to create for himself (especially given his innate talent/athleticism), his lowly shooting percentage when pulling up off the dribble, and especially his turnovers.
These weaknesses are still present, but he has made great strides.
When asked about future individual achievements, George’s confidently told the Washington Post that “I think I can play at an MVP level. I think that’s very much within reach.”
This, of course, was after reiterating several times that everything was a result of team play. Not to put the cart in front of the horse, but what a grand idea.
These Pacers have come a long way, and to even utter those beliefs in these parts is awe-inspiring.
This is not the Malice in the Palace, Club Rio, Downtown Circle fiasco Pacers. What we are witnessing is a complete group of players on the cusp of title contention who represent what Midwestern Hoosier values are all about. Larry Bird, Kevin Pritchard and Donnie Walsh have shown a shared vision of re-creation. With the right pieces, the right mentality, and old-school approach, all can be right again.
Paul George’s attitude — shut up, put up, less words, more work — is the epitome of that ideal. He has become the centerpiece of the roster, and few teams in the NBA can say they have a foundational player who does the right thing — on and off the court — as often as Paul George.
Topics: Most Improved