The national tone of the Indiana Pacers is certainly positive following their playoff run, but expectations are equally tempered by the team's need for a "go-to player." However, these are often followed immediately by, "Unless Paul George becomes that guy."
To a fair degree, it makes sense that Paul George would get that kind of praise. A high upside player with a dynamic skill set, who at 22 and after two seasons, is already the team's best defensive player, well, it creates an interesting level of hype for George. In his rookie season, George displayed those tremendous skills. A high flying wingman who, while expected to be a three, slid flawlessly into the shooting guard role, his size a big mismatch against most NBA two guards.
With rumors of him growing two inches over the lockout offseason, George came into the season ready to take on a larger role within the offense. George showed a lot of promise in his rookie year, but spent more time not rocking the boat of the starting lineup than anything. With a quick explosion to start the year, including big nights against New Jersey and Toronto as he sat at 65% three point shooting early on in the season.
Highlight plays, defensive chops, stability in three point shooting, one of his most glaring shortcomings from his rookie year, things were looking up for George. As the season progressed, he began to have his youth catch up to him, his shooting came down, but his highlight plays remained. His defense also saw stagnation, as George, who plays his best when leading his game from the defensive end, began to believe too much in his evolving offensive game.
That's not to say George's offense didn't show game changing potential. In a season where scoring for the Pacers was balanced, far from needing the odd 25-point night from Dahntay Jones or A.J. Price, George was one of four Pacers to reach 30, his 30 point, 9 rebound, 5 assist, and 5 steal game against Dallas giving him plenty of love heading into the All-Star Weekend.
After putting forth one of the best efforts in the Rising Stars Challenge, George brought the glow in the dark jam that highlighted a nationally panned dunk contest. George played well out of the All-Star break, but his sophomore struggles were still prominent. As the season drew to a close, the motion to put George Hill in the starting lineup dropped George's field goal attempts and offensive involvement from 9.7 attempts to 6.7 over the first six games of Hill's starting tenure.
Whether a lack of drive from George to demand more shots, or his knowing that he's still a young player is up for debate, but similar to last year, George disappeared a lot from the offense late in the year, but when actively involved, he remained sensational. Once in the postseason, whether the stage was bigger than he was prepared for, his reliable three point shooting took a dive, and he spent a lot of time offensively not demanding the ball and not converting the times he did.
A lackluster offensive series against Miami was somewhat expected, but him and Danny Granger's tall order to contain Dwyane Wade and LeBron James took a giant chunk out of their offensive games, proving a big advantage for Miami when the two woke up in the second half of the series. That said, George took the task of guarding James and Wade well, occasionally showcasing some All-Defensive Team skills that were only broken by better offense from two of the best.
Unfortunately, the lackluster offensive series for George wasn't all related to exerting his energy on the two All-Pros, but he just didn't hit shots when he got his opportunities. A few shots go in, and the Pacers are in a great position to change the complex of the series. Unfortunately, youth may have been what came into play, and it cropped at some inopportune times.
Paul George has some great potential, and put it together far more often this year than he did last. His defensive skill set will be among the league's best when he puts it all together, with some of the top steal numbers in the game. His potential is still there, but for people willing to diminish his growth, think about his place on the team, and think about how far he's come from his rookie summer league.
He has plenty of room to development, but fans are quick to forget just how young he is and the level of play he's shown. Whether nights where he put up some incredible stat lines with big points, big rebounding numbers, plenty of steals and even assists are more an anomaly than something that can be a consistent remains to be seen, but enough flashes for a player of his age, there's still plenty of reason to believe for the time being.
Paul George has shown a lot of promise on both sides of the floor, but focus is going to be key. Having teammates like Roy Hibbert to push him, and having a coach like Brian Shaw knowing how to push him to be like his idol Kobe Bryant helps tremendously, but he needs to develop a more willing ability on the offensive end, needing to learn to create his own shot, while also working on his overall offensive game.
The same can be said for his defensive game where George, despite having some incredible defensive abilities for a player of his age, wasn't always smart with his defensive play. He bit on nearly every fake his man threw his way (though in his defense, he improved on this tremendously throughout the Miami series), and needs to learn his places to gamble. When guarding an elite offensive player, he needs to stay honest, and not game or try and make a highlight defensive play.
And the Future
George has gotten a lot of passes for some of his play because of his youth. That's not an excuse, but as a player who was brought in as almost entirely a project player, he's still showcased tremendous growth in his two years. That said, next year will be the start of the criticism for George's shortcomings. Whether he's really the potential franchise player the team is searching for, or simply another "second fiddle," we'll begin to get an idea as next season gets underway.