The Paul George creation story is old news by now, but it's worth revisiting, if only because of how sharply man and myth have diverged. Search George's name, and you find stuff about paternity suits and wild rumors that are supposedly at the heart of the Pacers' miserable slide. It's getting harder to tell what's real and what's not, which is also true in his parallel life as a rising star for the next generation.
Still just 24 years old, George's career has already included brief stints as cult figure, budding star and potential superstar in four short seasons. Because his ascent has been so sudden and so unexpected, he has been both underrated and overrated at each stop on the spectrum.
He is a natural athlete with a self-made game, the product of spectacular gifts and long hours in the gym. He is charismatic and naive, with a young man's appetite for fame and a young man's difficulty in handling fame's consequences. None of which should be at all surprising, considering his backstory.
George first appeared before us in the days leading up to the 2010 draft. Back then, it was hard to tell if he was merely some late-rising avatar of pre-draft hype or the product of a basketball fever dream. He was long and tall with athleticism to burn, but not the kind of athleticism that produces dunking misfits like Tyrus Thomas and Stromile Swift. George's movements were graceful and effortless; the comparison that made the most sense was to Tracy McGrady. He was a player, not a jumper.
George went to Fresno State, where Jerry Tarkanian once brought in a rogues' gallery of hard cases and second-chancers in an effort to replicate the Runnin' Rebels of the Vegas Strip in the sleepy San Joaquin Valley. By the time George arrived, it had been a long and mostly very quiet time since Tark had folded up shop.
Not that his arrival was heralded with trumpets and angels. Hailing from somewhere called Palmdale, George wasn't among the chosen ones of prep basketball, which may have been a blessing. He had to work, which helped his game if not the Bulldogs, who limped home with a 15-18 record. Even your harder-core college basketball fans couldn't have been faulted for not knowing who Paul George was.
The NBA had noticed him, though. George began zooming up the draft boards, going from a late first-round flyer to a possible lottery pick. The Indiana Pacers took him with the 10th overall pick, a slot that has produced everyone from Paul Pierce to Luke Jackson. It's a boom or bust choice. From his pedigree, and given his limited and mostly anonymous body of work, it seemed like George could go either way.
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From the beginning of his career, it was clear that George had something. His athleticism and developing skill set were obvious, but he was also uniquely willing to apply himself on the defensive end. George saw rotation minutes as a rookie and joined the starting lineup in his second season. It wasn't long before coach Frank Vogel was throwing out Scottie Pippen comparisons, which were interesting if perhaps a tad premature.
When Danny Granger got hurt and missed most of the 2012-13 season, George assumed a larger role in the team's offense, but did so in fits and starts. Unsure of himself at first, he pressed when he should have chilled and deferred when it was time to take over. After going scoreless in an early December game, George locked himself in a gym. He dropped 34 against the Bulls a few nights later.
George was an All-Star that year, which began the question of whether he was a star, a superstar or something in between. He had thrilling moments in the postseason when the Pacers took the Heat to seven games, alternately outproducing LeBron James and getting taken to school by the master. He confided in David West that he wasn't sure if he was ready for the burden and vowed to make sure of it over the summer.
For the first three months of the season, it certainly seemed like he had. The Pacers were rolling and George was a top-five fixture in various MVP rankings. In late December when I caught up with the team, everyone from staffers to teammates to observers felt he was ready for the onslaught. He had commercials and national television appearances. He had fame and he had game. Whether it was too much too soon or right on time seemed immaterial. It was happening.
George acknowledged in a late-season interview with the Indianapolis Star that he had been overwhelmed by off-court demands and swept up in the frenzy. His backstory makes him unique among his more worldly peers and also makes his negotiation with the trappings of fame seem a little more human. He's still learning.
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The postseason is where George introduced himself to the nation last season, and this was his and the Pacers' chance to make up for that wretched second-half nosedive. His performances, like his team, have been uneven at best. He has been brilliant and barely there, saving his best games for when the situation is at its most dire.
In a Game 7 against the Hawks, he had 30 and 11 despite shaky three-point shooting. George was mostly meh against the Wizards, but poured in 39 points in a Game 4 road win that effectively ended the series. After suffering a concussion in Game 2 of the Heat series, he was notably off when the series shifted to Miami, but he saved the season with an improbable 21-point fourth quarter in Game 5 on Wednesday.
Overall, George's numbers are vastly improved from last season, and Indy has somehow managed to get itself back to the sixth game of the conference finals. If they can somehow win in Miami, the Pacers will bring the series back to Indiana for Game 7 and leverage the home-court advantage that was the whole point of the season. Yet no one seems satisfied with the path that led them to this point.
Rating George as a player is still a nebulous debate. He certainly ranks below LeBron and Kevin Durant in the pantheon, but within that next group, there is much more room for negotiation. He has had far more playoff success than players like Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and Stephen Curry, to say nothing of Kevin Love or LaMarcus Aldridge. He is not as good as any of them in terms of statistics, but he is a far better defender than all of them, save for Paul.
George's game still has cracks and weak spots, such as his handle and his passing. His shooting fluctuates wildly and because the Pacers lack a playmaker to open space for him to operate, he often has to do it by himself. That leads to a lot of awkward forced jumpers and empty possessions.
His rep has suffered along with the rest of his teammates, but within the Pacers' three-ring circus, George is merely a sideshow. He has not receded like Roy Hibbert or played the fool like Lance Stephenson. Their moods and antics have dominated the postseason, turning what seemed not so long ago to be a team of likable overachievers into a foul-tempered bunch of unsavory frauds and pretenders. All the while, George continues his fitful evolution. He's still one of the few redeeming characters for this exceptionally bizarre team.
Because his game doesn't lend itself to consistency, it's tough to get a proper reading on Paul George. As he ages and matures, one hopes he finds his way through the world a little more evenly and responsibly. His story is too good to be true in many respects, and it was only natural that the backlash would hit at some point. His response has been measured, both on the court and off, but with enough hints that he may emerge through all this a little better and a little wiser.
He's a long way from done, even if we can't know where Paul George is headed or who he'll be when he gets there.