by Yaron Weitzman / @YaronWeitzman
It’s the summer of 2007 in Palmdale, CA, and the Pete Knight High School boys basketball team is in the middle of a practice. Its coach, Tom Hegre, decides to run an out-of-bounds play. He wants to get a senior forward named Paul George an open shot. George is the only returning starter from last year’s 22-4 team; the rest have graduated. Understandably, Hegre is worried. He knows George is talented, but he’s not sure that a player coming off of a season averaging 14 ppg and 8 rpg can develop into the star that the Knight basketball team desperately needs him to be.
The play Hegre calls works to perfection. George catches the ball in the corner without a defender close enough to prevent the right hand attached to his growing frame from releasing a jumper.
But no shot is taken. Instead, George passes the ball. As he watches this on the sideline, Hegre’s frustration mounts. During the next dead ball, he decides to approach his senior forward.
“You ever catch the ball on that play and don’t shoot it, I’m taking you off the court,” Hegre says. Eventually practice ends and everyone makes their way to the locker room. Hegre calls a team meeting.
“Does anyone care how many shots Paul takes?” he asks the team.
“No,” they answer.
“Does anyone have a problem if Paul scores 30 every game this year?”
Around 10 months later, George is named the Golden League Player of the Year. He earns the honor after leading Knight to a 24-9 record, and to the California Division I State playoffs. He finishes the season averaging 25 points per game.
* * *
Paul George is an NBA paradox.
Many of the things that he does well—like not forcing shots—are the very things that you’d least expect a 22-year-old to do. The things he doesn’t do on the court—like forcing shots—are those that you’d most expect to see a 22-year-old do. And, to make matters even more confusing, those things that he doesn’t do well happen to be the exact things many want him to do, even though they are the same things that most young players have to be begged not to do.
So what exactly has George, taken by the Pacers with the 10th pick in the ’10 Draft, shown that he can do well in his first two NBA seasons?
For one, he’s proven that he knows how to get better, something that sounds simpler than it is. Every offseason, nearly every NBA player has a story written about him saying that he is “working hard.” And yet, rarely do you see one of them tangibly improve as much as George did last year. He became a 39 percent shooter after shooting 30 percent from behind the arc the year before. He upped his scoring by nearly 5 points a game (7.8 to 12.1 ppg). He more than doubled his assists (1.1 to 2.4 apg). His PER jumped from 13 to 16.5. “The way he improved from year one to year two is really indicative of his attitude, his work ethic and his desire to be great,” says Pacers head coach Frank Vogel. “And the way he was able to improve his three-point shot, that was remarkable.”
Perhaps as remarkable is that the 6-8 George, just five years out of high school, is already one of the better defensive players in the NBA. He’s tall and strong and quick and athletic. He can lock down a point guard at the top of key, shut down passing lanes with his long arms and bang bodies with big men in the paint. “He’s got hands and anticipation like Allen Iverson and Eddie Jones, he can block shots, and he’s one of our better ball containment guys,” Vogel says. “Usually 6-8 guys can’t guard against dribble penetration, but Paul is actually one of the best on our team at that. He just has defensive instincts that you can’t teach.”
But it’s not the physical attributes or instincts that make George such a defensive gem and such an unusual young player. It’s that he so desperately wants to apply those qualities to the defensive side of the court. George says that he always feels like he has something to prove; that, since he was young, he’s always been told that he wasn’t fast enough, tall enough, strong enough. But where many young players would try to prove their doubters wrong by attempting to put the ball into the basket as often as they possibly could, George decided that he would do so by doing the exact opposite. “I play with a chip on my shoulder, which is why I was really trying to defend guys well last year,” he says. “I was just trying to make a name for myself.”
And then there’s the unselfishness and ability to play within the flow of an offense. Some would call that passiveness. Depends who you ask.
* * *
Paul George really cares about his teammates. Their feelings. What they think of him. What they wish he would do. It’s why in high school he would try to involve his teammates in his recruitment process by bringing a shoebox full of recruiting letters to practice. It’s why he had his entire high school basketball team pose in the picture that was taken of him signing a letter of intent to play at Pepperdine University (he was released from that letter when Vance Walberg resigned as head coach and instead went to Fresno State). “He’s always been conscious of what his teammates are thinking,” Hegre says. “It’s why at Knight he wouldn’t go out and try to take over a game offensively until we told him to.”
This kind of mentality leads to two different results. One is that, at every level of basketball he’s ever played at, there’s always a point where George is labeled as timid. The other is that, eventually, something in George changes, and somewhere inside of him a switch is flipped on and the basketball beast is unleashed.
“It’s something that’s always been a problem for me. I’ve just always been a guy who wants to get my teammates going,” George says. “In high school, I started off as a secondary guy, and then when my senior year came, I started to really look to score and want the ball every possession. My freshman year in college I looked to the juniors and seniors, and then in my sophomore year, we only had one senior on the team, so I started to take over games. I think it—coming with the mindset of being aggressive—it’s just something that just naturally happens.
“When you start to see your jersey in the stands, and understand the plays more, and you’ve been around the coach and understand what he wants from you, it just makes you more comfortable and opens everything up. For me, it’s just about being more comfortable and having my teammates trust me with taking more shots and trying to take over a game offensively.”
The Pacers are still waiting for this progression. Vogel, though, is anything but worried. He understands that George is just entering his third year and has no issues with how his starting shooting guard plays and approaches the game. In fact, he loves it. “I debate this with local reporters all the time—they like to call him out for not being assertive and I actually think Paul is ahead of schedule in terms of where we thought he was going to be when we drafted him.” Vogel says. “What you don’t want, and you get this from a lot of young players, is for him to try to prove himself and force stuff. And he doesn’t. Paul plays within our team’s concept, and that’s a big reason we’ve had our success. I don’t want him to lose that. And to have all these guys—the media, his friends—telling him that he should shoot more, and to still not do that, that impressed and surprised me.”
This, though, can be a slippery slope; there’s a fine line between being a facilitator and passing up too many open looks, and praise for the former can quickly, and legitimately, grow into the latter. It’s great that George is so careful not to force shots, so willing to defer to others on the court. But eventually, a point is going to have to come where he is no longer OK with being his team’s fourth or fifth option, like he was in ’10-11, or being 10th on his team in usage rate, like he was in last year’s Playoffs. At some point, whether it’s this season or the next or the one after that, if the Pacers want to avoid the fate of the pre-Danny Ferry Hawks, they’re going to need Paul George to become a star, and to start doing the very things that he prefers not to do.
“I think he’s feeling out his spots with the Pacers, like he did in high school,” says George’s high school teammate, Lamonte Dewindt. “Once they give him a vote of confidence and let him know that he’s more of a key guy for them on offense, I think you’ll see a different player.”
History certainly seems to agree. The Pacers can only hope.