The unheralded 10th pick in the 2010 Draft out of mid-major Fresno State, Paul George was not tagged by many as a future superstar. Yet this season, his third in the league, George broke out with regular season averages of 17.4 points, 7.4 rebounds and 4.1 assists, and led the Indiana Pacers to a 49-32 record. Named an All-Star for the first time, George earned the Most Improved Player award and a place on both the All-NBA Third Team and the All-Defensive Second Team.
His meteoric rise was punctuated in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals as he delivered the dunk of the playoffs, blowing by LeBron James with unseemly ease and finishing over Chris Andersen at the rim.
Just as impressive as George’s ability to attack the basket is his defense. Using his elite athleticism and length, George is able to defend the game’s great perimeter scorers one-on-one without the need for a double team. During the regular season, he held both Kevin Durant and Kobe Bryant to 38% shooting when matched up against them. In the Conference Semi Finals he flustered Carmelo Anthony with his 6’10” frame and held the league’s leading scorer to 40% shooting.
This series, he is trusted by the Pacers to limit James to tough shots—perhaps the toughest task in basketball. On the final play of Game 2, George used his foot speed to keep the MVP out of the lane and force him into a turnover to seal the Pacers’ victory.
Certainly, it helps that George is backed up by an elite rim protector in Roy Hibbert, the anchor of the Pacers’ league-best defense. Hibbert’s ability to block and contest shots deters opponents from entering the paint, and allows George to be more aggressive in pressuring the ball on the perimeter. Yet George’s two-way talents are essential to the Pacers’ success and are highly coveted in a league based more than ever on athleticism and wing play.
Though he lacks the natural pure scoring ability of a Tracy McGrady or Vince Carter, George can consistently affect the game in a greater variety of ways than they ever did. An elite perimeter defender, one of the best rebounders at his position, and good enough offensively to be a top-two scoring option on a contending team, George will certainly command max contract money when he signs his next contract, and the Pacers will not hesitate to pay him. The list of current small forwards superior to George is a short one: 1) James; 2) Durant; 3) Anthony. Indeed, George’s ascent has rendered teammate Danny Granger, a 24 ppg scorer just three years ago, expendable.
George’s game has plenty of room for improvement, particularly offensively. He is yet to develop a back to the basket game, and his shooting needs a lot of work. His field goal percentage this year was just 41.9%. He shot the sixth most threes in the league with 469 attempts, but connected on only 36.2% of them—worse than any other player who shot more than 420 threes and is not named J.R. Smith. Moreover, he is still finding his comfort level as a lead ball handler; earlier in the season, Frank Vogel banned him from attempting to split double teams off the dribble due to the number of turnovers he was committing.
Alas, fans comparing George to Scottie Pippen should probably calm down a little. He is more comparable at this stage to Luol Deng, whose third year stats were comparable—nay, slightly superior—to George’s: 18.8 ppg, 7.1 rpg, 2.5 apg, 51.7% shooting (the ‘06/07 Bulls also finished with 49 wins). George’s superior length and athleticism give him a higher ceiling than Deng ever had, however.
At 23 years old, it is safe to assume that George will continue to improve and fill in the holes in his game. In Indiana, under the tutelage of Frank Vogel and Brian Shaw, and on a team that both emphasizes defense and requires his scoring in order to succeed, George is in the perfect situation for his own personal growth. We can expect George to become a 20 ppg scorer and amass a slew of All-Star Game and All-Defensive Team appearances throughout his career. Look for George to be a marquee player for the next decade.