This time last year, uncertainty swirled around Paul George’s basketball career. The Indiana Pacers forward was a few months removed from a stomach-churning leg injury during a summer scrimmage with Team USA. People wondered if George could ever again ascend to the all-star, franchise-player level he had reached.
Less than 16 months after his right leg snapped, George hasn’t only reclaimed his previous form. He believes he has surpassed it.
“I feel like I’m better. I think a year away from the game, you learn, you grow, regardless if I was on the court or not,” George said after the Pacers shoot-around at Verizon Center Tuesday in preparation for their meeting with the Washington Wizards. “You just get a chance to really observe and be a student of the game, at that point when you’re sitting out. So I think that was the little bit that I needed, the push that I needed. I worked hard that summer going into the season. Granted I got hurt, but I feel like that year away was what I needed to just learn.”
George, 25, returned ahead of schedule to appear in six games last season as the Pacers jockeyed for a postseason berth they ultimately couldn’t seal. Rust was immediately apparent when he bricked a wide-open fast-break layup in his first game back. He went on to average 8.8 points in 15.2 minutes, carrying confidence and momentum into the offseason.
“That layup, I was going so fast, I didn’t know how to slow myself down and control that at that time,” George said. “It was taking baby steps. I was gradually getting better by the week and I’m at the point where I’m at now.”
Where George is now is back in the MVP discussion. He’s averaging 24.8 points, 8.5 rebounds, 4.8 asssits entering Tuesday, capitalizing on the dim silver lining from his catastrophic injury.
“I see things differently [now],” George said. “I let things kind of play itself out. Been very patient. And just a better shooter. That was the only thing I could do at a point, was to shoot the basketball. So I think I got better at my shooting.”
Not everything has gone smoothly. The Pacers underwent a significant makeover during the offseason, eschewing the plodding style for a fast-paced operation, and Coach Frank Vogel asked the 6-foot-9 George to shift from small forward to power forward in small-ball lineups. But George, an elite wing defender, was against the move and said so publicly.
As a result, the experiment was shelved before the postseason concluded and George, even when he’s the second biggest player on the floor for the Pacers, doesn’t defend opposing power forwards. Instead, it’s 6-6 C.J. Miles’s job in Indiana’s starting lineup.
The last-second adjustment hasn’t stymied Indiana. The Pacers are 8-5 and George, against all odds, is peaking.
“Everything was on trust,” George said. “Trust in my training staff, trust in myself, trust in my body, that I was going to be able to do things that I used to be able to do. “It’s all baby steps.”