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Why 2015-16 will be a season of firsts for Paul George

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In 2010, he made his debut. In 2013, he ascended. In 2014, he was shut down. In 2015, his ability to overcome daunting firsts will define his future.

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Paul George has twice been named an All-Star. He's been recognized as an All-NBA caliber defender. He's advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals, and he's signed and earned a maximum contract extension. No longer a rookie, George's resumé proves that he is worthy of his team's franchise tag. In fact, five full seasons have come and gone since the Palmdale product made his NBA debut against the San Antonio Spurs, yet the amount of firsts he must face heading into his sixth NBA season are far more profound than the nervous jitters he likely felt before his first game.

Here's why the 2015-16 feels like the first time for Paul George.

It's his first summer of training post-rehab:

Paul George's ability to fundamentally transform himself over the summer has become a tradition of sorts:

  • After associate head coach Brian Shaw flooded the ears of his eager pupil with motivational tales of Kobe Bryant's relentless work ethic, Paul George's season ended with a second-round loss to the eventual NBA Champion Miami Heat, marking the first time the Pacers had advanced passed the first-round of the playoffs since 2005.
  • After he sought the aid of trainer Jerry Powell to refine his ballhandling skills, George was named an All-Star and his now signature play -- the Birdman dunk -- was born.
  • After he worked with former Laker Mike Penberthy on his shooting mechanics and contracted with Best Ball Analytics founder Justin Zormelo to help him train smarter and become more efficient, the 6-foot-9 small forward with the 83-inch wingspan drained seven three-pointers as part of a 43-point scoring barrage against the Portland Trailblazers and was named Third Team All-NBA and First Team All-Defense.

Prior to the now infamous injury George sustained at the Thomas & Mack Center, he had vowed to play more physical. He wanted to improve at finishing through contact. He wanted to be able to take advantage of mismatches in the post and draw more double teams. He was working to put on weight. He had hired a personal chef and cut out fast food. He had reunited with Penberthy, this time looking to improve on shooting after cutting and off the catch, and per Pacers.com's Mark Montieth, the former Lakers sharpshooter liked what he was seeing, "We were really making some strides," Penberthy said of George. "Man, he looked good before he got hurt."

George's fifth season, with the exception of all but six games, effectively ended on August 1. The fruits of all his rigorous pre-injury preparation and labor never came to fruition.

But with the rigors of rehabilitation behind him, George has had the opportunity  to return to some semblance of normalcy.

"He looks really good," Vogel said at the Caroline Symmes Celebrity Softball Challenge. "Obviously he was back and healthy enough to play last season, and now he's taken another step. We're encouraged with what he's been able to do."

Though the Blue & Gold's star elected not to take part in basketball activities at Team USA's mini-camp in Las Vegas, the two-time All-Star has been seen putting in work akin to summers past:

Three years ago George dazzled onlookers when he threw down a 360-degree dunk in Shanghai. Thereafter, his steady ascent to two-way stardom proved he was capable of much more than spellbinding highlights. He showed himself to be a complete ball player. Can his latest feat in Manila take him full-circle and serve as a similar launch pad?

It's his first time being the leader:

Indiana's security blanket is now employed by the San Antonio Spurs. David West's departure not only fundamentally altered Larry Bird's approach to the Pacers' offseason, it fast-tracked Paul George from being the Pacers' best player to serving as the team's veteran leader.

"Mannnnnnn O man!" George wrote on Instagram. "My big bro and the big OG DWest! Couldn't thank y'all enough for the good times and helping me thru my bad ones! I don't feel as if yall left me BUT that you prepared me for this moment.. And THIS moment is my opportunity to help lead this team!"

Already, George is leading in such a way that others want to follow.

Myles Turner, Joe Young, and Rakeem Christmas are working out with the Blue & Gold's franchise player in Indy, reports Basketball Insider's Alex Kennedy.

"Paul George he just got out here and we have been working out and hanging out with him a lot - just fishing with him and just chilling," Turner told Kennedy. "It's really nice to have that. I mean, you want to be able to have a good veteran [to help you] and I think Paul George is a great veteran. He's very focused this season coming off of that leg injury, so he's going to be right back [to normal]."

Whether it's getting in some offseason conditioning, attending a summer concert to foster team building, or publicly hyping Indiana's No. 11 pick in the 2015 NBA Draft, George has already begun to resemble the leader Indiana needs in lieu of David West.

It's his first time playing power forward:

Regardless if he plays "a lot" or "a few minutes" at the power forward position next season, Paul George will be asked to do something he's never done before. According to 82games.com, Indiana's starting swingman has played exactly zero percent of the team's total minutes at power forward the last five seasons.

The ease with which Paul George should be able to beat larger power forwards off the dribble should make for an easier transition as he regains his feel for the game post-injury; however, doing so will also require that the two-time All-Star be able to consistently play at a faster tempo while also being tasked with guarding more physical players for multiple possessions. The fact is, what has the potential to be a great transformation for his career offensively also may wear heavily on his legs not only during games but as the season progresses.

Given the drawbacks, the importance of having an additional option at stretch-four who could lessen some of George's burden probably should not be overlooked.

*  *  *

In many ways, three distinct plays -- a dunk, a lay-up, and another dunk -- can be seen as the defining moments of Paul George's career thus far.

His 360-degree dunk in Shanghai should be seen as the beginning of his rise. The moment wherein he went from putting on a show that wowed LeBron James to matching the phenom shot for shot in the Eastern Conference Finals. His attempt to contest James Harden's lay-up coupled with the gruesome aftermath which followed mark the second phase, a major obstacle in his path toward super-stardom, and his windmill dunk in Manila this summer... well...that's the start of an act yet to be written.

What's next?

That is something that will be defined by his ability to transform profound firsts into past successes.

For more in this series, be sure to check out the links:

Why George Hill will be the most intriguing Pacer to watch in 2015-16

Why Rodney Stuckey must remain an anomaly for the Pacers in 2015-16

Why Chase Budinger could make the biggest jump for the Pacers in 2015-16