Paul George spent eight months rehabbing his surgically repaired broken leg. He played in only six games. He averaged 12 fewer points per game. Going from that, to being Paul George again will, no doubt, be a sizable leap in terms of games played and total points scored, but we know who Paul George is and what he can be. Chase Budinger going from a fringe rotation player during the 2014-15 season in Minnesota to competing for a starting job in Indiana, and possibly thriving, should perhaps be considered as a bigger personal rise given his overall career trajectory.
Here is why the conditions are ripe for Chase Budinger to make a leap next season.
Opportunity is there for the taking:
Forced to compete with the likes of Andrew Wiggins and Shabazz Muhammad (among others) for playing time, Chase Budinger averaged fewer minutes during his sixth season in the NBA (19.2) than he did as an untried rookie in Houston (20.1). In fact, it was not until late in the 2014-15 season, when injuries began to take their toll, that the former Arizona Wildcat began to see more steady minutes both at the wing and as a stretch four, averaging 27.0 minutes per contest in March and 33.8 minutes in April.
"It's just playing time," Budinger told the Star Tribune's Kent Youngblood at the end of last season. "I mean, I've been in this league long enough to show I'm an NBA player. I've just been able to prove it these last couple games, just by getting the opportunity. ... I'm a shooter. I've been working hard on it lately. Being able to get more shots up in games, that's helpful."
Hampered by injuries and having missed 53% of the team's total games during his three seasons with the Timberwolves, the opportunity for Budinger to prove his worth as a shooter over a full season may not have been there on Minnesota's youth infused roster.
But, per reports, it is there for the taking in Indiana.
A source tells me that Chase Budinger was traded for to compete w/ CJ Miles for the small forward starting spot.— Candace Buckner (@CandaceDBuckner) July 13, 2015
He made the most of what opportunity was there:
"It's a little bit that he was able to stay with it and be able to keep on fighting through," said head coach and president Flip Saunders, per Fox Sports. "Some guys, especially veterans, might have given up on it, saying 'this is kind of a lost season.' He didn't do that. He kept on shooting, kept on working on his game, and when an opportunity came, he took advantage of it. He's extremely professional."
Despite being buried in Minnesota's playing rotation, Chase Budinger stayed ready. And when his minutes spiked in March, so, unsurprisingly, did his productivity. Over the last two months of the season, he averaged 12.3 points and 4.2 rebounds while nearly putting forth a 50-40-90 effort, shooting 49.7% from the field, 39.1% from three, and 85.4% from the free throw line.
It would take going all the way back to January of 2011 (50.9%), prior to his first meniscus surgery, to find a month where Budinger shot a higher percentage from the field than he did over his final 20 games of the 2014-15 season.
On March 23, he knocked down 4-of-8 three-pointers against the Jazz. Two nights later, he scored a season-high 22 points on 64.3% shooting against the Lakers. Two nights after that, he broke that season-high, scoring 23 points in Houston.
After two and one-half years of rehabbing his knee as well as his playing reputation, Chase Budinger is finally trending upwards.
"The knee doesn't really cross my mind anymore," said Budinger, via Fox Sports. "It's been feeling great all year. I've had no problems with it at all."
Once healthy, maybe all the former Arizona Wildcat really needed was the chance to regain his rhythm.
If it's really as simple as playing time, then it is reasonable to believe that he can parlay his modest late-season renaissance with the 'Wolves into a full-season leap with the Pacers headed into free agency.
His versatility will give him an advantage:
Chase Budinger played just 9% of Minnesota's total minutes at power forward last season, per 82games.com. The 'Wolves most used lineup with Budinger at power forward during the month of April, scored 104.4 points per 100 possessions and outscored opponents by 8.9 points per 100 possessions. On the season, Minnesota scored 99.8 points per 100 possessions.
Though this was done over an extremely small sample size, the results of playing the 6-foot-7 small forward at stretch four bode well not only for Indiana's transition to small ball but to Paul George, as well.
Though it may be easier for the team's franchise player to take traditional post-up players off the dribble as he gradually morphs back into being Paul George, guarding bulkier power forwards for multiple possessions may hinder his ability to go into the fourth quarter of games with fresh legs.
Shane Battier touched on this very subject while talking to Grantland's Zach Lowe on the 'The Lowe Post,' when asked if he believed he could have survived better playing power forward in his prime:
"I would have been more effective, especially on the offensive end as a younger stretch four," said Battier, before adding,"But I do think it would have taken it's toll. No question. It's just a lot of banging, especially if you don't have the beef, the mass. It wears on you."
The best recourse for teams with size to utilize against effective small ball lineups, which the Pacers hope to have with Paul George at the four next season, is to bully those lineups in the post.
"If I had to guard a guy who was a high post-up guy, a guy like Zach Randolph or Carlos Boozer and if I had to guard him for multiple possessions, I was tired." explained Battier.
Will playing Paul George "a lot" at power forward be worth it if he can't be effective in the fourth quarter? Or worse, if his legs are worn down by the end of the season?
Fortunately, having Chase Budinger as an option at stretch four could lessen some of George's burden.
Budinger is not the rebounder that George is, nor is he near to the same caliber of defender, but switching all the pick-and-rolls and affecting the catch in the post could mitigate some of that drop-off.
Knocking down 39.1% of his three-point tries over the final two months of the season, Budinger has the potential to provide the Pacers with another space-providing power forward, making it more likely that he spends a lot less time on the bench this season.
Though his versatility may make Frank Vogel's job harder, it's possible it will make Paul George's job easier.
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Whether wearing a uniform or suit and tie, he's spent much of the last two and one-half years watching the 'Wolves play from the bench. He's missed over 100 games. He's played just barely over 20 percent of his total possible minutes in Minnesota over the last three seasons.
But that could change in Indiana, if he stays healthy.
After trying to recruit him to come to Indiana in 2012, the Pacers finally got their man. If he channels the player he was four summers ago, there is no question he will be Indiana's biggest riser in 2015-16.