by Tzvi Twersky | @ttwersky

“Really, I just want to keep growing and improving.” —Paul George, 2012

Two winters ago, during All-Star Weekend in Orlando, FL, Paul George tried to glow in the dark. The stunt, which took place during George’s debut in the Dunk Contest was a failure, if only because it was hard to spot him in the darkened arena if you were watching TV.

In the days leading up to that Contest, George and I played phone tag as we worked on a short piece I was writing about him for SLAM. At that point, the native of Palmdale, CA, who is as salt-of-the-earth as they come, was still a relatively unknown commodity. The grandest accomplishment on his resume, aside from being drafted out of Fresno State, was being named a participant in the Dunk Contest. (He was also in consideration for a spot in the Three-Point Shootout.)

“It feels real good to get some recognition,” George told me after we finally connected late one night. “You know.”

My, how quickly times have changed.

Back then, George, the Indiana Pacers starting small forward, was a promising second-year player who was best known for his defense, deference on offense and, obviously, dunking prowess. Now, at all of 23 years old, George is on the cusp of stardom—even superstardom. Is on the cusp of real recognition.

If you ask him, as I did at the time, the motivating factor behind George’s blue-collar approach is his upbringing.

“I hear it all the time from my friends back home: They say that I’m living the dream, that I’m living all their dreams,” George said. “When I tell them what I did, when I tell them where I’m at, it’s almost like they live vicariously through me. So that’s really the reason why I want to go hard and why I want to make a name for myself, because there’s a lot of guys that want to be in my position that can’t be.”

Maybe it was his time in Team USA’s training camp last summer. Maybe it was his stellar play all of last season. Maybe it was his electrifying All-Star Game performance in Houston. Maybe it was his spectacular two-way showing in the Playoffs. Whatever it was, something clicked for George in the past 12 months, unleashing the 6-9 uberathlete’s vast potential for the entire basketball-watching world to see.

The question is: Just how good can and will George be? If past improvement is a good predictor of future play, the answer is downright scary.

“I hate when guys try to compare you to other players,” George told me before All-Star Saturday night in 2012. At the time, because of his game and frame he was garnering comparisons to Tracy McGrady and Penny Hardaway. “They’re their own man, and I just want to be the best Paul George I can be. I want to play like a T-Mac or a Penny Hardaway. I want to have those same abilities—those are greats that have played. But I can’t be compared to them. I just want to be the best I can be.”

As the 2013-14 season gets underway, one thing is for sure: Paul George doesn’t have to worry about the Dunk Contest anymore, doesn’t have to worry about glowing in the dark ever again. After all, the ever-bright spotlight is now trained on him.

And the best he can be appears to be pretty damned great.

Where should Paul George rank in the SLAM Top 50?

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SLAMonline Top 50 Players 2013
Rank Player Team Position Pos. Rank
50 Monta Ellis Mavs SG 5
49 Luol Deng Bulls SF 10
48 Ricky Rubio TWolves PG 14
47 Greg Monroe Pistons PF 12
46 Kawhi Leonard Spurs SF 9
45 Mike Conley Grizzlies PG 13
44 Al Jefferson Bobcats C 9
43 David Lee Warriors PF 11
42 Jrue Holiday Pelicans PG 12
41 Anthony Davis Pelicans PF 10
40 Joe Johnson Nets SG 4
39 Serge Ibaka Thunder PF 9
38 Kevin Garnett Nets PF 8
37 Rudy Gay Raptors SF 8
36 Paul Pierce Nets SF 7
35 Ty Lawson Nuggets PG 11
34 Pau Gasol Lakers PF 7
33 Al Horford Hawks C 8
32 Andre Iguodala Warriors SF 6
31 Brook Lopez Nets C 7
30 Zach Randolph Grizzlies PF 6
29 DeMarcus Cousins Kings C 6
28 Damian Lillard Blazers PG 10
27 Josh Smith Hawks SF 5
26 Joakim Noah Bulls C 5
25 Roy Hibbert Pacers C 4
24 John Wall Wizards PG 9
23 Chris Bosh Heat C 3
22 Tim Duncan Spurs PF 5
21 Dirk Nowitzki Mavs PF 4
20 LaMarcus Aldridge Blazers PF 3
19 Rajon Rondo Celtics PG 8
18 Marc Gasol Grizzlies C 2
17 Blake Griffin Clippers PF 2
16 Deron Williams Nets PG 7
15 Kevin Love TWolves PF 1
14 Dwyane Wade Heat SG 3
13 Paul George Pacers SF 4

Rankings are based on expected contribution in ’13-14—to players’ team, the League and the game.