May 3, 2016

SHATZMAN | Paul George is Back and Better Than Ever

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It was the summer of 2014 during a US national team scrimmage when Paul George suffered one of the most gruesome injuries in sports history. Like Kevin Ware’s in the 2013 NCAA Tournament and Shaun Livingston’s in 2007, George’s injury garnered a reaction not only from his stunned teammates, but the sporting world as a whole: intriguing for the morbidly curious, not to be showed to the squeamish. What would later be deemed a compound fracture of his right leg in real-time looked like it could change the rapidly ascending trajectory of George’s basketball career.

At just 24-years-old, George had already been selected to two All-Star games and had been named to two All-NBA teams and two All-Defensive teams. In 2013, he won Most Improved Player. The 6-foot-9 do-it-all forward — with his Durant-like jumper and his LeBron-esque defense — was a budding superstar for a Pacers’ franchise that needed one. The Pacers had missed the playoffs in the four seasons prior to selecting George 10th overall out of Fresno State in 2010, and memories of the 2004 Malice at the Palace still tainted the organization’s reputation.

But George’s arrival sparked success at an unexpectedly fast pace. The Pacers’ made the postseason in each of George’s first four seasons. While the Heat eliminated the Pacers from three consecutive postseasons, the LeBron James versus Paul George matchup became a fierce rivalry, and George garnered league-wide recognition for his performance. The setting where his injury occurred — Team USA practice, preparing for the 2014 FIBA World Cup alongside teammates like Stephen Curry, James Harden and Anthony Davis — reflected George’s rising stardom.

I mentioned Louisville’s Kevin Ware and current Warriors guard Shaun Livingston, both of whom suffered leg injuries that were, from a visual standpoint, equally appalling to Paul George’s. Both suffered consequences beyond the short-term recovery — surgery, rehab and so forth — typical of a major injury. Livingston, today, nearly a decade after his injury, remains on a per-game minutes limit. Ware went on to finish his collegiate career at Georgia State, ostensibly a different player than he was pre-injury. Paul George’s recovery, though, was more remarkable than his transcendence from interesting mid-major draft pick, to draft-steal, to NBA superstar.

George was expected to miss the 2014-15 season at a minimum. But he returned for the last few games of the season, defying medical predictions. Despite his return, the question still remained whether George would return to the player he had been before the injury. Leg injuries can derail careers. Think Brandon Roy and Greg Oden. Even Derrick Rose.

On Sunday night, the Pacers’ season ended in Toronto. Led by George, the seventh-seeded Pacers’ battled to game seven in a series that was decided in the final few possessions. George averaged 27-8-4 for the series. He carried the load for an offense that lacked scoring options. His defense was top-notch. But more impressive than anything else was his will — his competitiveness, his want to win. It sounds corny, but it’s true. After George posted a 39-8-8 line in a heartbreaking game five loss, the small forward said that he would play the entire next game if necessary, adding “Whatever we got to do to win. I’m doing it.”

So I focused on George for the next two games. His motor was relentless. Several times in the fourth quarter of game seven, with the Pacers’ trailing and desperate for a defensive stop, George secured possession in traffic because of effort. I can recall two plays specifically, both of which George came away with the ball in improbable situations. I’m not one to commend “effort.” I expect effort from guys making millions to play basketball. But this was next-level. The Pacers lost, but George carried an inconsistent supporting cast to the final seconds of game seven. His unselfishness may have been a detriment down the stretch, as perhaps the Pacers’ would have been better off with George taking 25 perhaps shots than letting Monta Ellis force a contested 2-pointer. Regardless, the need for a better supporting cast around George was glaring in the Toronto series. But who could have predicted that George would be a star to build around not two years removed from an awful leg injury?

The NBA no longer awards a “Comeback Player of the Year.” If it did, Paul George would win. Throughout the season, broadcasters regularly commented on a George highlight play with, “Now that looks like pre-injury Paul George!” as if to suggest that George is a shell of his former All-Star self. That just isn’t the case. This was George’s highest-scoring, most productive season since he entered the league. He earned his third All-Star selection, and carried a mediocre team to a near-upset in the postseason.

After his injury in 2014, George posted on Twitter, “Thanks everybody for the love and support.. I’ll be ok and be back better than ever!!! Love y’all!” At that time, his declaration seemed dubious. It looked like George was in the midst of a tragic sports story, one that would be the subject of an ESPN 30 for 30 documentary years down the road. But George returned from his broken leg as if it were a bruise. Perhaps from a medical standpoint, Paul George was lucky. He surprised doctors just as he surprised the NBA as a rising star, draft-steal out of Fresno State.

Or maybe George wasn’t lucky at all — just determined to be great.