The Indiana Pacers are on the brink of something special. After pushing eventual NBA champion Miami Heat to six games in the Eastern Conference semifinals in 2012, the Pacers are expecting big things for the 2012-13 season.
On the forefront of this hoops hysteria in Indiana is Paul George. The 22-year-old athletic forward is entering his third season with the team. Three seasons ago when the Pacers drafted George out of Fresno State, George stood 6 feet 8 inches tall. Since then George has had a 2-inch growth spurt and now measures at 6-10.
But his frame isn’t the only thing that has grown. George has become much more than just a dunker and a rim-rattler. He worked on his ball handling and low-post game all summer, as well as his midrange jump shot. He’s not a finished product by any stretch, but Indiana assistant coach Brian Shaw believes the fate of the franchise rests on the shoulders of this Palmdale, Calif., native.
Mike Wells of the Indianapolis Star wrote:
After George had finished one of his summer workouts at a Southern California gym, Shaw sat the third-year guard down and left him with something profound to ponder.
“I told him that the fact that everybody in the starting lineup is basically already who they are with the exception of him,” Shaw recalled saying. “Whatever steps he makes are going to be the same steps the team will take.”
Talk about pressure.
George looked like he was ready for that responsibility last season when he played at times like the team’s best all-around player. But then there were occasions when he was the fifth best Pacer on the court.
That’s in the past, according to George. Shaw’s conversation is implanted in George’s brain and he said he is ready to carry that load on his shoulders.
“I feel like there’s a lot riding on me,” George said on the eve of training camp opening today. “I like the pressure. I like to be in the situation I’m in. I worked hard the whole summer to get better at my game. I’m the ‘X’ factor.”
George averaged 12.1 points and 5.6 rebounds a game last season, and former Pacer and current TV analyst Austin Croshere thinks George can increase those numbers.
“He is the guy on this team that has the most upside,” Croshere said. “He had a number of big games, but he struggled a little as far as consistency. This is the year he becomes more consistent and comes into his own. He’s the biggest key whether this team is a five seed or a two seed that could challenge Miami.”
Croshere added: “I don’t know if there is really a limit on how good this guy can be; the athleticism, the skill set, to be 6-10, jump the way he can. I don’t want to limit him by saying he can only be an All-Star. MVP? You don’t want to put that type of pressure on him, but he can be very, very good.”
During the offseason, George obtained valuable experience playing against Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, LeBron James, and Carmelo Anthony in Las Vegas as part of the USA select squad that practiced against the U.S. Olympic team.
George watched how the players on the gold-medal winning team worked out every day, what they ate and how they approached the game. He was also able to talk frequently to LeBron when they went to China as part of a Nike promotional tour.
“The USA thing helped a lot,” George told the Indy Star. “You’re playing against some of the best players in our league. They brought it to us every game and every practice was tough.”
With the uncertainty of Derrick Rose’s return, the Pacers have a tremendous opportunity to overtake the Chicago Bulls in the Central Division. Indiana returns all five starters who played in the postseason and the core group that finished third in the Eastern Conference remains intact. So, anything less than a No. 2 seeding will be considered a disappointment.
Projected finish in Central Division: First.
Joel Huerto is the editor and publisher of OneManFastBreak.net. Follow him on Twitter @onemanfastbreak.