Paul George knew he could do more. He just wasn't ready.
When the Miami Heat rallied to run past the Pacers in the playoffs last season, PG witnessed LeBron James and eventually Dwyane Wade play basketball at a level the second-year guard wasn't prepared to match.
Watching LeBron and Wade destroy opponents on TV is one thing, but having to endure it on the court left George with his offseason motivation.
Pacers coach Frank Vogel wanted PG to work on his ball handling among other things, and to improve his ability to make plays as he prepared for the NBA season..
"I want him (George) to be extremely assertive with and without the basketball and to make the right play when he does have the ball," Vogel said about George's development. "Be a threat on every catch and when you put it on the deck, don't try to get into seams that are not there and just try to be aggressive attacking the basket, draw and help and making the right play."
George didn't need those words, though. Shortly after the Heat dispatched the Pacers, George saw how he could've made a difference but didn't. He saw a player that was tentative, more concerned with not making a mistake than with making a play.
When the pressure mounted the confidence in his handle and play-making ability waned. George didn't like what he saw from #24 when it counted. He realized that #LetPGFly is fun for the fans but Top 10 plays don't make the difference in the playoffs. He needs to focus on making plays with his feet on the ground.
Enter Jerry Powell, one of New York City's renowned ball handling experts. George's agent Aaron Mintz set up PG to work with Powell for two weeks in California early in the offseason. According to Powell, George was a blast to work with and the two worked well together, so PG had Powell work him out for another two weeks in Indy prior to training camp.
PG's work with Powell wasn't all about dribbling, though. It was about ball handling, taking care of the ball and being prepared to make plays.
"At first we did a lot of fundamental work," Powell said from his office, a gym in New York. "But then I changed it into game moves. When you're working ball handling, you want to get the control first. Because once you get the control everything else just falls into place."
But first Powell worked on George's handle, trying to minimize the high dribble and work with George to keep his body and dribble low to the floor. Think of Jamaal Tinsley, a NYC product whose dribble was always low and spectacular.
"His (George) ball handling was a little wiry, so what I did was I tightened it up," Powell said. "It was so wiry to the point that if you reached at him, you'd have a chance of getting the ball. So what I did was, I made it tighter, so it is not as wide so he can stay low and in control."
Powell focused on George playing his natural position on the wing with an emphasis on the good ol' triple threat.
"I tried to have him do moves off the dribble, moves off the catch with the triple threat off the jab series," Powell explained. "We worked on moves with how to get your shot off without even putting the ball down, off of pivoting and jabs. So moves off of the triple threat, and then moves on the move."
If your envisioning PG holding the ball and going through a series of moves for several seconds and bringing play to a crawl, that's not the intent. The focus was on NBA game speed and getting more comfortable with a series of options to make better decisions with the ball. That can happen in a flash.
"All of the moves that we did was something that I would get in the game," George said. "It was one-dribble, two-dribble pull-ups. One-dribble, two-dribble to the rim and counters for that, so it was real compact so I could score with limited ball handling."
That's exactly the type of game Powell wants George to emphasize to maximize his potential.
"My thought is for Paul, anything more than three dribbles is too much, help is on the way," Powell said. "He has to beat his man on two or three dribbles, any more than that he's gotta pass it. I tried to make him more efficient that way."
PG struggled to apply all of these lessons during the preseason. While he led the Pacers in minutes (28 minutes per game) and points (14.7 ppg) he also led the team in turnovers with 24. Still, too "wiry" as Powell would say.
But it is interesting to watch PG and see some of these points of emphasis emerge. With continued work, Powell's instruction will become habitual. If that happens, Powell envisions PG as a young Tracy McGrady, able to score on the wing or get in the lane and finish in spectacular fashion.
"I've always had a knack for making plays and being creative with the ball," George said. "But what I've struggled with is staying low and that's something that Jerry really helped me with. Being fast with the ball, moving with the ball and staying low doing different combinations of moves."
Developing those basics and making the simple play, the right play are keys for George to reach new heights as a player.
"If he stays low on his ball handling and attack the hip and does all of the things we worked on this summer, he has a chance to be an All-Star," Powell said.
Powell also loves the Pacers and the depth they have to take on the Eastern Conference. But any further success fior the team goes back to Powell's pupil this summer and his ability to attack and make plays when the Pacers need it most.
"A lot of it has to do with confidence," George said of making plays. "If you can handle the ball you know that you can get anywhere on the floor and you can create for others as well as yourself."