Before the Most Improved Player Award and the All-Star Game, before the 3-Point Shootout and the Slam Dunk Contest, before his first highlight on ESPN and the draft, there was the YMCA. When Indiana Pacers swingman Paul George played his first basketball game, he wore jean shorts.
"They were pants and he cut ‘em into shorts," said his sister Teoisha George, now a fashion designer and formerly a forward at Pepperdine. "My sister and I, we were just cracking up. We were like, ‘Oh my God, look at him playing in jean shorts.’ All these other kids, they had their full YMCA uniform. "He was looking at us, like, ‘What are you guys laughing at?’ He didn’t see anything wrong with it."
In a league with only 450 players, everyone has defied odds. But of all the kids in that YMCA, you wouldn’t think the kid wearing jean shorts would turn out to be one of the best wing defenders on the planet, guarding point guards and power forwards when required. You wouldn’t think that an NBA All-Star would arrive via Palmdale, Calif. and the WAC.
A relative unknown coming out of Fresno State when the Pacers picked him No. 10 overall in the 2010 draft, George’s emergence was unlikely. He saw himself as a Tracy McGrady-type and possessed promising physical characteristics at 6’8 and 214 pounds with exceptional leaping ability, but there is a lengthy list of athletic wings who never approached stardom.
Shooting up two inches to 6’10 and expanding his game in the seasons since, he’s gone from a solid starter to the face of the Pacers, averaging 17.4 points, 7.6 rebounds and 4.1 assists per contest this year.
He started the 2013 postseason with a 23-point, 11-rebound, 12-assist triple-double and led Indiana in all of those categories -- plus steals -- in its first-round series against the Atlanta Hawks.
If you’re wondering how he got here, his never-satisfied attitude provides a hint.
"At 23, I know I’m nowhere close to where I want to be and where I need to be and where I’m going to be," George said, "but I guess it’s a good start to see where I am."
Growing up in the small desert town of Palmdale, George didn’t play a lot of organized basketball as a child. He loved the game and played "every free moment he had," said Teiosha, but a lot of it was at the park or one-on-one against his older sister. He arrived at Pete Knight High School lanky and raw.
"He was probably about six feet tall and he was as skinny as a rail," said Knight head coach Tom Hegre. "I knew at the time that [Teiosha] had been a tremendous player in high school and she was attending Pepperdine, so we knew there was a lot of potential for growth and development in Paul."
Although George joined the varsity team early in his sophomore season, he wasn’t a star until he was a senior. As he got taller, he was asked to play on the inside, but he always wanted to play on the wing. He emulated McGrady and his favorite player, Kobe Bryant, when working on his ball-handling and outside shot.
As the only non-senior in the starting lineup, he averaged 14 points and eight rebounds per game as a junior. Selfless perhaps to a fault — "He was always a distributor and that was one of the things that we kind of pressed him about, being more offensively minded," said Teiosha — he played his role and Knight went 24-4. Then, his role changed.
"It was the summer before his senior year that we really started to see him reaching the potential," Hegre said. "What we anticipated really skyrocketed."
No longer taking a backseat to more experienced players, it was time for George to stand out. It was time to be more confident on the court, to lead by example even if his personality wasn’t such that he’d tell people what to do. In a team meeting before the season started, Hegre asked if anyone had a problem with George scoring 30 points a game. No one did, with one teammate speaking up to say that’s what was needed in order to win. That was what he needed to hear.
George played on the inside and outside at the end of his high school career as a combo forward. He didn’t quite average 30, but his 25 points, 12 rebounds, three assists and three steals per game were signs of things to come.
"He was a completely different player and person on the court his senior year," Hegre said.
The drive and dedication he displayed meant Hegre wanted his other players to spend as much time with George as possible. In the most literal sense, Hegre thought he made those around him better.
"Before Paul, we were always looking for qualities of leaders and players with work ethic," he said. "Now we’re looking for guys that have Paul George qualities. He’s kind of set the bar for us. He gives us kind of a measuring stick and it’s hard to find those guys. They don’t come around very often."
As beloved as he was by his high school team, he was under-recruited. Palmdale was far from a basketball pipeline -- "It’s not really the place where you get recruited … you have to make a lot of noise to get people to come out to see you," said Teiosha -- and he wasn’t the best player on his AAU team. That distinction belonged to the exponentially more hyped Jrue Holiday, who went on to attend UCLA. George’s name was nowhere to be found on ESPN’s top 100 or the Rivals 150.
George picked Fresno State over schools like Georgetown and Penn State because he wanted to play major minutes immediately. Once on campus, he took little time making the same impression he did in high school, organizing workouts with teammates and calling his coaches to unlock the gym on weekends.
In a challenging time for the program, George was enthusiastic. The Bulldogs weren’t playing to sold-out crowds every night — under head coach Steve Cleveland the program was rebuilding after being put on probation by the NCAA for earlier recruiting violations.
"I know it seems a little cliché, but it was the truth: He was always the first guy in the gym," Cleveland said.
Cleveland, now an analyst for ESPNU and BYUtv, said that in his 30-plus years of coaching, he never enjoyed working with anyone more than he did George.
Still lean in his freshman year in college, he needed to put on weight to compete against older players. Starting and playing exclusively on the wing like he wanted, he also needed to improve his ball-handling and perimeter defense, and he knew it. Cleveland said George wasn’t even thinking about leaving after his sophomore year when he was heading into it but the time he devoted to the weight room and improving his skills put him on that path.
"When he came, it was one dribble to create space for a jumper," Cleveland said. "By the time he was [leaving], he could get the thing to the rack."
He made his first appearance on a 2010 mock draft on DraftExpress just over a month into his sophomore season. He was slated as a late-first round pick. The hours he put in upped his numbers from 14.3 to 16.8 points per game, from 6.2 to 7.2 rebounds per game and from 70-percent free throw shooting to 91 percent.
"He’d always call me," said Greg Smith, a big man then for Fresno State and now with the Houston Rockets. "He was like, ‘Do you wanna go to the gym? [We’ll] work on some pick-and-roll, we’ll get some jump shots up’ … and that really helped us out with chemistry."
The sophomore George set an example for the 6’10, 250-pound freshman Smith with his practice habits. On a team that was only allowed to have eight scholarship players, the two stood out. George could make even opposing crowds go wild with his dunks, Smith’s enormous hands could catch everything around the basket. The mentorship and friendship endured, with George later telling Smith to keep fighting when Smith was getting down on himself, playing in Mexico after going undrafted in 2011.
"There was a connection because I think they both felt that they had a chance to play at the next level," said Cleveland.
The Bulldogs failed to reach the postseason with a 15-18 overall record despite the presence of the talented tandem. Ranked in the 20s in pre-draft projections in May 2010, George put in the work to show NBA teams he could develop into something special. His rare quickness, length and smooth skillset at his size translating perfectly to the individual workout setting, he shot up the boards in the weeks leading up to the draft.
George never stopped working after hearing his name called at No. 10. Not when he was collecting DNP’s in his first couple of months in the league. Not after he earned a starting role as a rookie and found himself guarding MVP Derrick Rose in the playoffs. He turned himself into a deadly 3-point shooter in his second season, then made the most of his increased minutes and role in his third by making his first All-Star team.
"Just make sure that whenever you come in, man, you have some fun," Kevin Garnett told him in this NBA.com video before the game earlier this year in Houston. "You’re used to bumping heads with these cats, but you should be enjoying it, too."
More than the individual accomplishment, more than meeting hip-hop artists 2 Chainz and Meek Mill, George said being around his fellow All-Stars was the highlight of that weekend. George certainly won’t forget speaking with Garnett, saying the Boston Celtics big man "still gets the same feelings at All-Star Weekend" after being selected to the team 15 times in his 18 NBA years, numbers that George can recite from memory.
"It’s one thing to compete against them, it’s another for it to be my first time to experience it with the guys I was able to experience it with," George said. "That’s something that I’ll always cherish and remember."
That was George’s second brush with greatness in a matter of months. Last July, he guarded Bryant and LeBron James in scrimmages against the United States Olympic Team as part of the USA Basketball Select Team in Las Vegas.
"He’s always competed and he competed extremely hard," said USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo. "There are things that happen during those practices that are very, very competitive. It’s not a lark. They’re there for a particular reason, they’re trying to earn a spot, if you will, going forward on our teams."
Colangelo said George recognized the opportunity in front of him and when players like Bryant took the lead in the weight room, younger players followed almost immediately. George was amazed by what he saw from the would-be gold medalists.
"I think me making the Select Team was huge," George said. "It was the chance for me to be around those guys and see their work ethic and how they prepare. I think that’s what I took the most away from it. It’s just the way they carry themselves."
George will absolutely be one of the approximately 20 players invited back to Las Vegas this summer, according to Colangelo. From that pool, USA Basketball will select who will represent the country at the 2014 FIBA World Cup in Spain.
Colangelo consulted Larry Bird when considering George for the Select Team. Bird drafted George when he was president of basketball operations for the Pacers and he has advised and supported him since. After a playoff loss against the Miami Heat last year, Bird spoke with George on the phone for over an hour.
George struggled in that Heat series, looking uncomfortable and tentative as he averaged 8.6 points on 37-percent shooting. Reviewing the film afterward, he realized he had to get better, stronger and more comfortable with the ball in his hands. Aside from the fact he had the best defensive schemes in the world to combat, it was a similar situation to the one he was in before his senior year in high school and his sophomore year in college.
"Everything I did [last] summer really prepared me for the year I’m having," George said. "It gave me the opportunity to have my mindset to put my hands on goals like making the All-Defensive Team and the All-Star team. So I just really credit it to hard work."
Indiana assistant coach Brian Shaw observed some of that work when he visited George in Los Angeles. When he first watched George, he noticed his size, agility and footwork. When Shaw thinks footwork, he thinks Bryant, who he’s known since he played in Italy at the same time as Bryant’s father. Years after playing one-on-one against the 11-year-old Bryant, Shaw played alongside him with the Lakers, then coached him as an assistant on Phil Jackson’s staff.
Shaw knew George’s talent. He also knew his goals and wanted to help him reach them, through Bryant. George had the enthusiasm to improve since he first picked up a basketball, a boundless work ethic in high school and college, but understanding what it took to approach his job like an elite NBA player took some time.
"It was just a matter of trying to get his mindset to the point where his confidence is so high he feels like he can do anything and everything that he wants to out there on the floor," said Shaw.
Whenever Shaw mentioned Bryant’s name, George perked up. When George asked Shaw questions about Bryant’s intensity and regimen, Shaw gladly answered. When Shaw stressed that Bryant wasn’t taking a single day off, that he was getting in the ice tub after games and watching film of himself and his opponents, it carried weight.
"If Kobe is doing it and he’s the best at his position, then why would he think that he’d be able to take time off from doing those same things that made Kobe so great?," Shaw said.
In early November, Brian Shaw called George into his office to show him an article listing contract extensions signed by a number of members of the 2009 draft class. James Harden signed for $80 million over five years with the Houston Rockets. Holiday, George’s AAU teammate, got a four-year, $41 million deal from the Philadelphia 76ers. DeMar DeRozan, another product of California, signed with the Toronto Raptors for four years and more than $38 million.
"You’re still on your rookie contract," Shaw said to George, who will be eligible for an extension this offseason, "but you have to put the pressure on this team to do the same thing with you. And the only way that that’s going to happen is you gotta be consistent and you gotta show it in your play."
Approaching the season with star small forward Danny Granger out of the lineup with a knee injury, George said that he welcomed the load being placed on him. Granger’s absence obviously wasn’t what George wanted, but it meant more touches, more shots and more of an opportunity to show he’d improved. It also meant he’d be seeing the opposing team’s top wing defender every night.
There was no team meeting telling George he should score 30 points per game -- not on a team with as many offensive options as Indiana -- but Shaw told him he had to play aggressively. He told him that if the Pacers improved this season, it would be because of his growth. They knew what to expect out of forward David West, center Roy Hibbert and guard George Hill. The same couldn’t be said for George as a featured part of the attack.
"I knew coming into my third year I was going to have to have a huge year," said George. "And with Danny being out it really magnified on the performances I was going to have to have, the consistency I was going to have to keep."
This dependability eluded George early on in the season. He averaged 13.5 points and shot 38.5 percent from the field during the first 17 games. His offseason work with a dribbling coach initially produced uneven results. The guy who had been told to play more aggressively, more selfishly his entire basketball-playing life was now pressing, being told to slow down and stop trying to split the pick-and-roll.
The low point came on Dec. 1 when he went scoreless on 0-for-7 shooting in a road loss to the Golden State Warriors. If he was looking to let the game to come to him that night, it never did.
"I think that was embarrassing for him that he didn’t score," Shaw said. "And it wasn’t like Golden State shut him down. He wasn’t hitting shots, he wasn’t aggressive offensively."
George said that was the turning point of his season.
"It was good that we had a long flight back to Indiana right after that loss," he said. "It was just a lot of stuff I was able to think about and one of the things that I needed to change was how I prepare for games. Not that I wasn’t preparing for games well enough, but I needed to do that extra, giving the extra effort on preparing. And that included film and coming into the gym early, getting four or five hundred shots up before games, getting a lift in before games, and really just getting my mind right."
He went to the gym to get about 500 shots up as soon as the plane landed in Indianapolis at 7 a.m. The next game against Chicago, he scored 34 points and grabbed nine rebounds, shooting 14-for-25 from the field and adding three steals and two blocks.
"Once I wrapped my mind around [the new routine], and the first couple of games start rolling, that’s when the confidence sets in," George said. "I knew that that’s the level that I could play at, so when I step into games now, I’m expecting to perform well."
George is now expected to build on this. Part of that is developing a killer instinct on the court — one that runs contrary to his polite nature off it. Over the course of the regular season, Shaw continually texted George when the Lakers were playing to tell him to pay attention to Bryant’s demeanor.
The other part is becoming more efficient, selecting better shots and making better decisions. While his drop in field goal percentage (44 percent to 42 percent) this season is understandable considering the added responsibility and defensive attention, he and his coaches know that number needs to go back up. His turnovers, 2.9 per game on the season, need to decrease, too.
Even with all the strides George has made, there’s still plenty of potential to unlock. His whole life he’s shown the ability to do that. As improbable as his rise appears, those who had the opportunity to observe him closely aren’t exactly surprised.
"All the guys that make it to that level, it has to take an incredible amount of dedication and work ethic," said George's high school coach Hegre. "But … there’s guys that take it just a notch beyond the others. And I just think he’s always had the attitude of ‘I can always work harder.’ "When the NBA guys were calling … one of the things that I always liked to talk about when describing Paul was ‘He’s not anywhere near as good as he’s going to be.’ And I still believe that today."
After this postseason, the NBA’s Most Improved Player will once again be focused on his craft, showing that same spirit he had when he started back in Palmdale, wearing jean shorts at the YMCA and dribbling his ball inside the house.
"My mom would always yell at him, ‘Get that basketball out of here,’" said Teiosha. "He’d always get in trouble for that. But, I mean, looking at it now, we laugh. As the time we thought he was just crazy — 'What are you doing?' you know? But that’s the type of passion that he had, he always worked on his game. If something was stopping him or there was some type of obstacle, he would find a way to get around it, to maneuver around it."
That passion for the game and that knack for negotiating such challenges has taken George this far. There’s no telling where he’ll end up.