Coming into the 2010 NBA Draft, Paul George was something of an enigma. An uncanny athlete with size, length and ball skills, teams still tended to shy away from heavily scouting a guy that couldn't even dominate while playing for Fresno State.
However, in the months before the draft, those who looked harder at George realized something else: this was a special athlete playing down to his competition. The height, the long arms, the ability to knock down jumpers over defenders -- those things were very real, as he showed in workouts against his best peers.
It was just going to take the right environment for it all to come together.
Does He Have "It"?
The questions around George were never going to go away before the draft. ESPN's Chad Ford called him, "one of the biggest upside players in the draft," but didn't project him as a lottery pick due to his inability to dominate a weak college conference. DraftExpress said teams needed to do their homework, "to see if he’s capable of developing into the type of player his athleticism could permit him to be in the long-run."
Still, George had his fans. "In five years, Paul George will be the best player to come out of this draft," one Eastern Conference scout told Yahoo! Sports' Marc J. Spears before the 2010 draft. "Trust me."
Who knows whether that scout worked for the Indiana Pacers or whether he was voicing an opinion quietly becoming more and more common in the weeks before the draft. But it was Indiana, with the 10th overall pick, that took the chance on George, convinced that the proper atmosphere could turn a special athlete into a great basketball player.
During his first couple years in the league, George showed flashes of the ability. He once knocked down five three-pointers en route to what then a career-high 23 points in a game against the Wizards during his rookie season. And showing the defensive skills that are quite familiar to fans now, he led the team in steals-per-minute in his first year.
Going into the 2012-13 season, George had been making steady progress in his development, but he still had not broken out in a major way. For many NBA stars, the third season is when "the leap" -- the transition from future star to present day star -- happens. LeBron James, Derrick Rose, Carmelo Anthony, and more saw major increases in their production from their second to third seasons.
Over the past year, no person has been more influential to George's evolution on the court than Shaw. Having played with former stars like Kobe Bryant, Shaw provides George with the kind of inspiration that has allowed him to become one of the league's most exciting young players.
"He's really helped me out," George told USA Today's Mike Wells of Shaw. "He's the one that gets on me. If I'm not playing well, if things aren't going right, and he knows I'm the reason for it, he'll let me hear about it."
With the Pacers' usual leading scorer, Danny Granger, sidelined all season with a knee injury, the team has asked George to take on a significantly larger offensive role this season, and he's mostly relished it. He's averaging a career-high 17.6 points per game this year, though he's also taking five more shots per game than last season.
More importantly, George provides the Pacers with a legitimate defensive anchor on the perimeter, handling the opposing team's best perimeter scorer each night with ease. Using his length and athleticism, George hounds defenders like few can as one of the key cogs in the league's most stifling defense.
No player in the league has more defensive win shares than George this season, and while putting a player's defensive performance into a single statistic might be overly simplistic, it does reflect just how much of an impact the Pacers wing is having on that end of the court.
The Pacers are third in the Eastern Conference standings, with George posing as arguably their best player.
Potential Paying Off
Every year, teams draft incredible athletes with shaky college resumes based primarily on workouts, scouting reports and a pinch of imagination. Sometimes, it works immediately -- take Damian Lillard on the Blazers, for example. But most of the time, the workout wonders flop, like George's draft peers, Wesley Johnson and Al-Farouq Aminu.
Sometimes, it's not necessarily the player, but a just a bad situation. Aminu never really had a shot playing for a Clippers team dreaming of contention, but getting legitimate playing time with the Hornets, he's actually showing some signs of improving.
George was neither of those things. He wasn't the immediate impact NBA player upon reaching the league, filling up box scores and turning heads. But he was everything scouts said he'd be, a guy with every tool in the shed, who just needed some time and support to put it all together.
Now it's 2013, he's had the time, and he's had the support. He's a great player, a first-time All-Star and one of the most exciting players in the entire league.
Is he the best player from the 2010 draft? That's a different question. John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Greg Monroe are all great players, not to mention up-and-comers like Greivis Vasquez, Eric Bledsoe and Larry Sanders (!). Would you take George over all those guys?
You know, I just might. Not like any of those other guys are playing in Sunday night's game, after all.