We can call this coming full circle. It’s a jagged circle, with no small amount of misery, doubt and frustration along the way, but a circle just the same.
Paul George‘s selection to the United States Olympic basketball team completes a circuitous path that began on Aug. 1, 2014, a dramatic evening that began as tragedy but turned out to be a prelude to triumph. He suffered a compound fracture of his lower right leg that evening after crashing into a basket support – a support placed too close to the basket – while attempting to block a breakaway scoring attempt by James Harden in a USA Basketball intrasquad scrimmage in Las Vegas.
It was a horrific incident, one still available for online viewing but one most people prefer never to watch again. He later recalled feeling as if someone had set his leg on fire. His bone broken in half and his leg grotesquely misshapen, George lay on his back while training and medical personnel tended to him. USA Basketball teammates watched from the sideline with stunned expressions, some with hands clasped as if in prayer.
The immediate impression was that his basketball career might have ended that night, a brutal blow for a 24-year-old who ranked as one of the NBA’s most promising players. But in some ways it began, because it helped further his maturation into one of the NBA’s elite players. He’s now poised, at 26, to have perhaps the best career in the history of the Pacers’ franchise, and become a better player than he would have been without the injury and rehabilitation.
The viewpoint from the bench during the 2014-15 season, when he played only the final six games, helped make him a smarter player.
“You sit out, you become a student of the game,” he said. “Before it was instincts and not thinking the game through. Being away, I had that time to kind of just sit back and see what was going on.”
He also had time to work on his shooting, ballhandling and upper body strength.
“It’s almost been a blessing in disguise that I was injured, to really focus on those points,” he said.
Fatherhood helped, too. Having a daughter to help care for altered his perspective as much as his injury did.
“Made me be patient,” he said. “I was always a ‘my’ kind of person. When you have a kid, it’s more than that. It definitely slowed me down and made me more mature.”
George’s first full regular season after his injury was both impressive and uneven. Impressive, considering what he had gone through to be able to play again, but uneven because of its inconsistency. He averaged 23.1 points on 42 percent shooting, 7 rebounds, 4.1 assists, 1.9 steals and 3.3 turnovers. Not many Pacers have had better seasons than that, but it drew criticism for its blank spots.
After a few games to get acclimated again at the start of the season, he went on a 12-game tear through the end of November in which he averaged 30.7 points on 49 percent shooting from the field and 51 percent from the 3-point line, along with 8.2 rebounds and 4.2 assists. He was named Player of the Month for November, and followed a few games into December with a 48-point outburst at Utah.
Given that lead-in, several games over the following 2 ½ months were mysteriously lacking. He seemed disengaged at times, and confused about his role. Should he take over the offense and look to score 30 every night? Or, step back and get his teammates more involved?
By the end of the season, he had decided. He reclaimed the team, both on the court and off. He had one of the best playoff series an NBA Pacers player has had in the first-round loss to Toronto, averaging 27.3 points while shooting 45 percent from the field, 42 percent from the 3-point line and 95 percent from the foul line, along with 7.6 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 2.3 steals.
Defensively, he dominated Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan, limiting the All-Star to an average of 17.9 points – 5.2 points below his regular season average – on 32 percent shooting and forcing him into more turnovers (2.7) than assists (2.6). DeRozan averaged 22.5 points on 44 percent shooting in the next two rounds combined.
“Unbelievable,” Toronto coach Dwane Casey said after Game 7 in Toronto. “I tell you what, I remember trying to prepare for a young Kobe Bryant. And this young man reminds me of trying to prepare for a young Kobe Bryant back in the Laker days, Now that we’re finished with him, I’m happy for him because he’s a super young man. He represents everything basketball should be about.”
George’s off-court demeanor was noticeably different during that series as well. He began talking about the team as “my guys” and backed up the declaration on the court. It was a new experience for him, because in previous playoff series he had the luxury of letting older teammates such as David West and George Hill lead the way.
“I’m a talkative person so it’s an easy transition, one I feel comfortable with,” he said.
So here we are. George emerged from last season a more battle-tested and time-tested player. A leader, as well. And now he’s an Olympian, too.
His comeback is complete.
by Mark Montieth