Paul George is so good that he could make history. The winner of last year's Most Improved Player award has become an honest-to-goodness superstar, forcing us to consider a novel question; is there a chance he could be the first to win that award two years in a row?
Vogel's preferred candidate is Indiana shooting guard Lance Stephenson. Just missing the cut as an All-Star this year, Stephenson has evolved from a tenacious transition player and dogged defender to a major part of the Pacers' offense.
"But certainly," Vogel continued, "Paul going from average to really good last year and this year going from really good to great has certainly gotta be recognized as well."
The award traditionally goes to players like Stephenson rather than those already seen as up-and-coming stars, but George's ascension this season has been greater than anyone anticipated, and arguably more difficult than that of anyone else in the league. Fans gave him more All-Star votes than everyone except LeBron James and Kevin Durant, and his status compared to this time in his prior seasons goes to show how far he has come.
Three years ago, George didn't make the Rising Stars game as a rookie, having spent the majority of his first few professional months glued to the bench. The Palmdale, Calif., native missed out on the opportunity to show his skills at Los Angeles' Staples Center, with Wesley Johnson and Landry Fields running up and down the court instead. He'd make his mark on national television a few months later, when Vogel had him guard MVP Derrick Rose in the playoffs.
By his sophomore season, George had established himself as a starter and a highlight machine. At All-Star Weekend in Orlando, he scored 23 points in 25 minutes in the Rising Stars game and pulled off a beautiful reverse 360 windmill in the dunk contest. Unfortunately, the dunk would be overshadowed by the fact that he'd chosen to do it in a glow-in-the-dark jersey.
A year ago, George made his first All-Star appearance, voted in by the coaches. He also participated in the Three-Point Shootout, as sure a sign as any that his growing game wasn't defined by athleticism. That breakout season was motivated by the pain he'd felt in the previous one, when the Miami Heat had eliminated his team in the second round of the playoffs. George had a rough series, and he believed his team would have won if his ballhandling and decision-making were good enough to deal with the Heat's swarming defense.
When he met Miami again in the Conference Finals, George was a different guy. In addition to guarding James as well as anybody could, he carried the Pacers' offensive load in the majority of the games, producing with several breathtaking performances and one unforgettable moment:
This year he's built on that series, determined to make more of those memories. Instead of sometimes being the Pacers' go-to guy, he's that guy every night. He hasn't stopped guarding the opponent's No. 1 option, either, making him arguably the league's best two-way player this season. George hired a dribbling coach in the summer of 2012, knowing that he needed to put in plenty of work if he was going to create his own shot against elite defenses. After the second Heat heartbreak, George doubled down in the gym and the results are better than anyone imagined.
George is averaging 22.4 points, 6.4 rebounds and 3.4 assists per game, shooting 44 percent from the field and 37 from the three-point line, thriving while using more possessions and attracting more attention than ever before. A month ago, he pulled off that reverse 360 windmill in a game.
So George is back in the All-Star Game, now a maximum-contract player and in the starting lineup, both of which are more than merited. He's also back in the dunk contest, providing it with the sort of star power it hasn't had in years. If in a few months he's back at a podium collecting an unprecedented second Most Improved Player award, that'll be deserved, too.