Just 14 months removed from his gruesome leg injury at a Team USA practice scrimmage that sent basketball fans’ stomachs turning, Pacers All-Star forward Paul George is ready to resume his NBA career in full bloom. In the glimpses the 25-year-old Fresno State alum has given fans leading up to opening night just a few days away, many have already been convinced that George is indeed “back”.
In the Pacers’ seven preseason games, George has averaged 18.7 points, 6.3 rebounds, 1.1 steals, 1.6 blocks in just 24.4 minutes of run per game. Not bad considering he’s had his grumblings about the new power forward role tasked to him by Team President Larry Bird and head coach Frank Vogel.
Despite his apprehensions playing the 4, Vogel believes that George can thrive in the position given the right situation. “It makes sense with the way the league plays right now to play this way,” Vogel told NBA.com. “Again, we don’t have him out there playing like the prototypical power forward. He’s still playing his game, he just has more space to do it.”
There have been early evidence of Vogel’s belief, such as when George exploded for 20 points in the first quarter alone against the Pistons two weeks ago in Detroit, and his hot shooting night in Chicago earlier this week highlighted by an emphatic dunk off his own missed three-point attempt.
Things didn’t always look so optimistic for George though. Many wondered at the tail-end of last season when George first made his return from his injury, whether he could still get back to his old form that had many anointing him as a future superstar.
In six games, George only averaged 8.8 point and 3.7 rebounds in 15.2 minutes per game and appeared tentative while obviously still favoring his leg. The Pacers won five of those six games George played in, until they dropped their final game against the Grizzlies that would’ve ushered them into the playoffs. Though missing out on the playoffs for the first time since 2011 was indeed a blow to the Pacers, losing their franchise player to yet another leg injury in that game proved to be even more devastating and led many to question why George was allowed to return as early as he did in the first place.
Fortunately for the Pacers, the injury George suffered in Memphis was a calf strain that didn’t have any impact nor added any damage to his recently healed leg, but it was enough for George to take his recovery to even a higher level. George worked even harder in the offseason as he did coming back from his injury, which has further galvanized his confidence in fulfilling his basketball goals.
“Honestly, I feel like I’m better than the Paul George I was (before),” George told USA Today. “I do understand that I’m coming back as a fresh new player, with a new team, but I’m not limiting myself. I still have the aspiration of being the MVP, still have the aspiration of being one of the best defenders, one of the best scorers in the league. All of that is still there. But now I just feel like I’m much … wiser. I’m a better ball-handler, a better playmaker. I just feel like everything is just enhanced having a year out from the game.”
The early returns have been very favorable, but the real season is indeed a different animal. The wait is almost over for George, with opening night just a few days away in Toronto against the Raptors on October 28. No matter what level George returns to this season, one has to admire his resolve to come back from such a horrific injury and putting in all the hard work and aspire to be better than he was before breaking his leg. That is no small victory in itself.