LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin – these are some of the players NBA fans would definitely pay to see play. James is the NBA’s all-around best player, Durant and Anthony are two of the best scorers, Paul is the best point guard and Griffin is the most exciting dunker. But I’ll pass on these great players, and pay to see Paul George play.
George came out of college without much hype or fanfare surrounding him. In fact, George’s name was lost in a list of names that included Evan Turner, Wesley Johnson, Gordon Hayward, Al-Farouq Aminu and Xavier Henry. Four years later, Turner, the No. 2 pick, is on the trade block for the tanking 76ers, Johnson and Henry are on veteran minimum deals with the Lakers, Hayward is a solid piece in Utah and Aminu still cannot shoot consistently. George, however, has improved elements of his game each season, committed himself to being a defensive stopper and is now one of the 10 best players in the league.
George really made a name for himself in last year’s playoffs against the Miami HEAT. He was asked to slow down LeBron James; no big deal for the 23-year-old out of Fresno State, right? In Game One, after hitting an incredibly difficult three-pointer to tie the game, George let James blow by him for the game-winning layup. George did not go away quietly though. In Game Two, at the end of the third quarter, George managed to drive past James and throw down a monster dunk on Chris Anderson, who fouled him. George made his free throw and completed the three-point play. In response, James ran the ball down the court with five seconds to go and hit a long pull-up three pointer over George. LeBron said a few words to George, and the two exchanged a high five as they returned to their benches.
It was clear that George had earned the respect of the best player in the world. James would later say, “We’re just two guys trying to do what it takes to help our team win. He’s really good. He’s going to be a great one.” George would lead the Pacers to a win in Game Two, but the HEAT would win the series in seven games. Though the Pacers lost, it was a major step for the gritty team, and established George as their franchise player.
This season, George has cemented his status as an elite two-way player, a rare type of superstar in this league. He is the go-to player on offense, and is usually asked to guard the best wing player on opposing teams. Other players in the league who do this include James and… well, that is pretty much it. But remember, James was a high school phenom, he was always supposed to be one of the best players in the league. George was supposed to be solid, but never pegged as a potential superstar.
However, through hard work, and self-confidence, George has increased his scoring each year from 7.8 points per game, to 12.1, to 17.4, to 22.6 this year. After losing to the Pacers on November 20, 2013, Carmelo Anthony said, “He’s [gotten] a lot better offensively. All it takes is confidence in this league. I think George, that’s what he has right now, and it’s growing day by day, game by game, and you can see that when he’s out there on the court.” Anthony scored 30 points, but George held him to shooting just 10-28 from the floor. George managed to score 35, including nine of Indiana’s 14 points in overtime.
In his fourth year, George has taken the leap that other great players have taken. Compare the stat lines of these three players in their fourth year in the league:
Player A (PER 36): .457 FG%, .355 3PT%, .733 FT%, 6.8 rebounds, 4.1 assists, 2.3 turnovers, 1.4 steals, 1.4 blocks, 24.1 points.
Player B (PER 36): .440 FG%, .365 3PT%, .852 FT%, 6.3 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 2.8 turnovers, 1.8 steals, 0.2 blocks, 22.3 points.
Player C (PER 36): .476 FG%, .319 3PT%, .698 FT%, 5.9 rebounds, 5.3 assists, 2.8 turnovers, 1.4 steals, 0.6 blocks, 24.1 points.
These players are Tracy McGrady, LeBron James and Paul George. Try to match these players with their stat line. You may get it right, but you may not, and that is what is amazing about George. In four years, he has managed to achieve similar levels of play to two of the best small forwards in the last two decades.
Player A is McGrady, who was an amazing player and could score the ball effortlessly. In McGrady’s fifth-year, he increased his scoring average to 29.3 points per 36 minutes. It is scary to think that George may be primed to make another leap in scoring similar to McGrady. What distinguishes George from McGrady, however, is that George is asked to be a lockdown defender in Indiana. In fact, many fans might think of George as a defender rather than an elite scorer. While George can score in a variety of ways, he commits himself to a team philosophy centered on defense. And it’s working. At 39-10, the Pacers have the best record in the league with George as their leader.
Player C is James. LeBron is an unbelievable talent, who may go down as the greatest player of all time. Similar to McGrady, LeBron was so highly regarded as a prospect that he skipped college and entered the draft straight out of high school. NBA rules now require players to spend one year in college before entering the draft. George spent two years at Fresno State, and was not the sort of prospect that would enter the NBA straight from high school anyway. Yet George can hold his own against LeBron statistically, and in a playoff series. With the Pacers and HEAT currently ranked atop the Eastern Conference, it is likely that George will get a second shot to out duel the best player in the league, which all NBA fans should look forward to.
Yes, George has struggled in early 2014 and shot 5-22 against the Portland Trail Blazers last night. It doesn’t matter. With roughly four minutes to go in overtime against the Blazers, George fought for an offensive rebound off a Danny Granger miss, and stole the ball from Robin Lopez, who had secured the rebound. George then missed an open three pointer, but got the offensive rebound and eventually would run baseline to get open for a dunk off a George Hill assist. Then, while up three, Indiana turned to George to seal the game. George smoothly took a step back jumper with 20 seconds to go and buried it.
This is why George is such a great player. Even when he isn’t scoring efficiently, he is still making plays defensively. This is not a criticism of players such as Kevin Durant or Carmelo Anthony. They are almost unstoppable on offense. But neither player is considered a lockdown defender, and neither commits themselves to the defensive side of the ball like George does. George is not a better player than Durant, though he is arguably better than Carmelo. But this is not about paying to see the best player in the league. That title is held by LeBron James. This is recognizing the all-around elite play and commitment to defense that George displays, which many of the best players in the league never do. James is one of those few players, but he was expected to do that. George was not, and it makes him that much easier to appreciate as a player. As proof, George earned the Most Improved Player award last year, and could potentially win it again this season, which is a testament to his commitment towards improving his game.
Still need convincing that George is worth the price of admission? Then check out this dunk he threw down against the Clippers on January 18.
In a league that focuses mainly on scoring, Paul George commits himself to defense like only a handful of players have in recent memory. He is the number one scoring option, and the lockdown defender on the team with the best record in the league. George works harder on defense than he does offense, and that is what places him among the NBA elite.
That is why I would pay to see Paul George play.
– Jesse Blancarte