Under The Radar: Paul George Is Back And Better Than Ever


In his first full season after fracturing his right leg in gruesome fashion, Paul George is playing the best basketball of his career

The Golden State Warriors’ early season dominance of the NBA has had a number of significant impacts on the rest of the league. The run has propelled last season’s Most Valuable Player, Stephen Curry, from a superstar, into a full-blown superduperstar, validated the team’s status as one of the best of all-time, and has made everyone stop and consider that Luke Walton may actually have what it takes to be a successful NBA coach (I know, crazy right?).

The Warriors’ streak has swallowed up almost all of the other NBA storylines that otherwise would have come to the forefront. How is nobody talking about how dysfunctional the Houston Rockets are? Or that the Celtics are really well-coached and might actually make some noise in the East? Why are we only now realizing the fact that Byron Scott hasn’t had a pulse since the 2013 season? These narratives would absolutely be bigger deals in any other, non-Warrior dominated season. God damn you Steph Curry and your freakishly consistent 3-point shooting.

Another story that has remained relatively low-key has been the magnificent return of Indiana Pacers forward Paul George. Two summers ago, George sustained a gruesome compound fracture in his right leg during an intrasquad scrimmage while playing for Team USA. The injury sidelined the 25-year old forward for much of last season, and cast doubt on whether we’d ever see the MVP-level Paul George we had seen during the first half of the 2013 season. 

Not only has George returned to form in his first full season since the injury, but he’s exceeded expectations, and is now one of the more dominant forwards in the NBA.

So how has Paul George returned from his ghastly injury only to play the best basketball of his career to this point? There are a couple of reasons.

First, George’s transition to the power forward position has aided his offensive game in ways that he never could have imagined. When Pacers team president, Larry Bird, hinted at moving the traditional “3” to power forward last spring, George was hesitant. The summer addition of guard Monta Ellis to go along with George Hill and C.J. Miles further necessitated the shift. George ultimately did make the move, and the results have been dazzling. PG13 is putting up better numbers at power forward than he ever did playing the traditional small forward position.

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Despite the offensive prowess Paul George displayed over the first five years of his career, he’d never really shown any kind of a knack for the pick-and-roll game. In 2013-14, he ranked 40th of 54 among players with a minimum of 250 pick-and-roll possessions, a paltry .77 points per possession. It’s not atypical for a small forward to leave the P&R out of his game, but as a power forward, it’s a near necessity, and George has excelled with it thus far.

This season, the contrast is startling: he’s eighth of 52 players with a minimum of 75 possessions, scoring at a rate of .92 points per possession. Not only has he been able to fit into his new role effectively without mucking up the flow of Indiana’s offense, but he’s been able to take on an increased role within his team’s small-ball offense. George’s defense hasn’t suffered as a result of the move either. Rather than banging bodies with guys much bigger than him every night, Paul George has retained his role as the team’s go-to perimeter defender, while C.J. Miles has assumed the role of the power forward defensively.

Another improvement in Paul George’s game this season has been his efficiency. Prior to this season, George never eclipsed a Player Efficiency Rating (PER) higher than 19.9%, which he put up in the 2013-2014 season. This season, he’s jumped to 26.3%, good enough for 5th in the league. The Efficiency Ratings put up by George in his first 5 years in the league were respectable, all falling between 13.1% and the previously mentioned 19.9% from 2013. But when those percentages were paired with his usage% (an estimate of the percentage of team plays used by a player while he was on the floor), a stat that he has led the team in every season he’s been healthy since 2012, the numbers become a little concerning. If a player is using nearly a quarter of his team’s possessions when he’s on the floor, he needs to be playing efficient basketball.

This season, Paul George has figured out how to do that. Leading his team in usage, using 32% of their possessions, George is playing the most efficient basketball of his career. Of all the NBA players using more than 30% of his team’s possessions, George ranks 4th in the league in PER behind Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, and LeBron James. Not exactly poor company to be in. George’s increased efficiency has translated into both personal achievement, and the success of his team, with the Pacers currently sporting a 13-9 record, and sitting 4th in the Eastern Conference.

Paul George’s outstanding return is yet another major NBA story which has gone relatively ignored this season, but if he keeps it up, the NBA community won’t be able to keep quiet for long. George’s positive adjustment to the power forward position, and his increased efficiency have led to career-high statistical outputs for the 25-year old.

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His 45% shooting percentage from the field is the best he’s shot since his rookie season, and his 45% shooting percentage from behind the 3-point line would be the best of his career were he able to keep it up through the rest of the season. Paul George’s scoring average, 27.9 PPG, would also serve as a new career-high, and his ascension to the next level this season is proof that he is a true star in this league. Can he win the MVP this season? Probably not.

At this point it would take a freak incident, or maybe Kristaps Porzingis + some PED’s to keep Stephen Curry from earning the award. But were Curry not running away with the MVP race, George would certainly have to be part of that conversation. MVP or not, Paul George is showing the rest of the league that he is for real, back and better than ever.