The awakening of superstar Paul George

Dec 2, 2015; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Indiana Pacers forward Paul George (13) reacts after a shot during the first quarter against the Los Angeles Clippers at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 2, 2015; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Indiana Pacers forward Paul George (13) reacts after a shot during the first quarter against the Los Angeles Clippers at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports /

There are the Golden State Warriors, and then there is everyone else. There is reigning MVP Stephen Curry, and then there is everyone else. Through one quarter of the 2015-16 NBA season that still holds true. The Warriors remain the class of the league. Curry remains the likely MVP favorite.

On Tuesday, yet another team will get a chance to end Golden State’s unprecedented run of basketball dominance. But this opponent, a surprise contender near the top of the Eastern Conference, features a player who is currently the most legitimate threat to Curry’s MVP throne.

That team is the Indiana Pacers. And that player is Paul George.

George, who has a more-than-decent case for being the league’s most complete two-way player, has had a phenomenal season just 16 months removed from his horrific leg injury with Team USA. He’s averaging a career-high 27 points per game. He’s shooting 45 percent from three-point range. He’s led the Pacers to a surprising 12-7 start.

But to truly appreciate George’s greatness, let’s dive back into his development process as he’s emerged as one of the game’s best talents.

The Mentors

The Indiana Pacers were Danny Granger’s team. He was their star. He was one of the game’s top scorers before George even entered the league as the No. 10 pick in 2010. And quickly, the two were inseparable.

“Danny’s been like a big brother to me,” George said in February 2013. “He’s really been a mentor to me. He’s been a big brother. Anything that I needed to learn or that I needed help with or getting adjusted to, Danny was there. So early on I felt like we had a brother relationship.”

During George’s rookie season of 2010-11, the Pacers were a classic mediocre Eastern Conference team. They fired head coach Jim O’Brien midseason and replaced him with Frank Vogel. They snuck into the playoffs at 37-45. They lost in five games to the Chicago Bulls. Granger averaged over 20 points per game for a third straight year. Darren Collison, acquired before his sophomore season, was the team’s second-leading scorer.

The team made the oft-discussed leap in 2011-12. They went 42-24 during the strike-shortened season. They knocked Dwight Howard out of the Eastern Conference with a first-round victory over the Orlando Magic. They surprisingly swapped Collison for more defense that offseason.

And promptly, the next season, 2012-13, the Pacers had the game’s best defense, won 49 games, and took the back-to-back champion Miami Heat to seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals. In 2013-14, they had the best defense again, won 56 games, and lost to the Heat in six.

Those Pacers were a defensive juggernaut. If Granger was the Pacers’ leader and offensive centerpiece, then veteran David West was the team’s heart and soul. And center Roy Hibbert was its defensive backbone. In some ways, they were countering the game’s pace-and-space trend all on their own.

But now, nearly all remnants of that era are gone. Granger, who averaged 21.6 points over a five-season stretch and has played in only 76 regular season games since, was moved at the 2014 trade deadline. West declined his $12.6 million player option with Indiana this offseason and signed a veteran’s minimum deal with the San Antonio Spurs. Hibbert was traded in July to the Los Angeles Lakers.

Only Vogel and George remain from the 2010-11 campaign. Only George, Ian Mahinmi, Lavoy Allen, George Hill, and Solomon Hill remain from the 56-win team just two seasons ago.

Looking back on Paul George’s goodbyes to Granger, and to West and Hibbert, one can see how meaningful all three were to his development as a basketball superstar. Even Lance Stephenson, once thought of as fellow up-and-coming star alongside George, departed last summer.

Paul George is now all alone with the Indiana Pacers. All at once, he is the team’s leader, offensive centerpiece, heart and soul, and defensive backbone. The team has entered a new era. The player and the team have one central identity.

The Moments

“I haven’t been exposed to this game as much as a lot of other players and I think I’m already a great prospect with good potential,” Paul George said in June 2010. “Once I get that chance to really get that experience and learn about the game, I think my ceiling is pretty high.”

At the time, he was a relatively unknown 6-foot-7 two-guard out of Fresno State University, a school with a modest basketball history, at best. But George’s arrival on the league’s center stage can be shown in five key moments throughout his career. Here are those five moments:

Jan. 31, 2012: The Jump

At the 2012 Slam Dunk contest, George, who had grown two more inches after his rookie season, lept over the 7-foot-2 Hibbert. He didn’t win the event, that accolade went to Utah’s Jeremy Evans. But George certainly made his presence felt. He was showing the rest of the league what he was capable of doing.

May 24, 2013: The Sequence

In Indiana’s epic showdown with LeBron James’ Miami Heat, George was a sensation. The end of Game 2’s third quarter was particularly notable. George demolished Miami’s Chris Anderson with a particularly nasty dunk. And right on cue, James swiftly responded with a buzzer-beating three. Immediately after, James went out of his way to dap George and said: “I got you back, young fella.” George has said it’s a moment he’ll always remember.

Jan. 14, 2014: The Dunk

While the Slam Dunk appearance was his first major slam in front of the public eye, this fastbreak windmill 360 over the Los Angeles Clippers is his most famous and infamous, undoubtedly. George’s shooting numbers fell off in the second half of 2013-14, and his showmanship on that Clippers dunk was later criticized by the masses.

Aug. 1, 2014: The Injury

During a USA Basketball Showcase scrimmage, George jumped to defend a James Harden fastbreak layup attempt. As they both came back down, George’s leg collided awkwardly with the bottom of the stanchion. It remains one of the most gruesome basketball injuries captured on camera, up there with Shaun Livingston and Kevin Ware. The scrimmage ended shortly afterwards.

April 5, 2015: The Return

Only eight months later, George was back on the basketball court wearing his new No. 13 jersey. You can feel the aura of excitement and relief among Pacers fans when he made his first basket in that game. He played only 91 minutes in six games during the final weeks of last season, but they were meaningful in his reacclimation to the game.

All of those moments — the dunks, the acknowledgement from the Eastern Conference’s dominating force, the fall, and the return — all of them make this season’s Paul George story one for the ages.

The Momentum

Indiana’s frontcourt was depleted this past offseason. West left. Hibbert was traded. The team, which finished 38-44 last year, is down to only Mahinmi, Allen, Jordan Hill, and rookie Myles Turner for players taller than George. That frontcourt — arguably one of the league’s worst — is what led to all of the early season talk of George at the 4.

Oddly enough, the team really didn’t get any younger this offseason, either. Of the top-nine Pacers in minutes played this season, George remains the youngest. Along with Jordan Hill and Turner, the team’s other two summer acquisitions were 30-year-old Monta Ellis and the oft-injured wing Chase Budinger.

This is what led to many predicting the Pacers to remain on the outskirts of the East’s playoff race. An average of dozens of online projections landed them at only 37.5 wins and the No. 9 seed.

Is it any wonder that those projections, those creeping doubts, added any fuel to the fire for Paul George? A player who has shared countless times that his childhood idol is Kobe Bryant?

To George, Bryant was the apex. Throughout his career, his coaches have dangled the word “Kobe” as a training tool, regularly instructing him to work harder, train harder and push harder – just as Kobe would do. George has set out to be the most tireless worker in the NBA.

It is only fitting then, as Kobe rides into the sunset of his final NBA season, that George has finally made his biggest offensive leap. He was the Eastern Conference Player of the Month in November 2013 by averaging 23-6-3 with 40 percent three-point shooting.

Exactly two years later, he again won the November 2015 Eastern Conference Player of the Month. He averaged 29.5 points, 8 rebounds, and 4 assists per game with 49.5 percent three-point shooting

George is better than he’s ever been. He remains one of the game’s dominant perimeter defenders. He scored a career-high 48 in Saturday’s road loss at Utah. He’s on pace for the most three-pointers in NBA history by anyone not named Stephen Curry.

Like perhaps no other team from the era of Danny Granger, David West, and Roy Hibbert, this Pacers squad has combined Vogel’s defense with a modern offense. George Hill and C.J. Miles are thriving. Indiana has gone in and out of big lineups and small lineups and fast lineups and three-point lineups, and ranks top-seven in the league in both offensive rating and defensive rating.

The Indiana Pacers are second in three-point shooting percentage at 40.1 percent, only behind the perfect 22-0 Golden State Warriors. Paul George’s 64 threes are second, only behind the reigning MVP Curry.

On Tuesday, the two team teams will battle. Meanwhile, Paul George is ready for another moment to add to his career collection. He’s still only 25 years old. He’s fresh and he’s young. And he’s one of the game’s brightest stars. Right now.