INDIANAPOLIS — No, it doesn't work quite the same for everyone.
While late bloomers are rare in the NBA, there are some who linger longer on one level, or at least take some time to get noticed. LaMarcus Aldridge, garnering early All-NBA consideration, is one such example. He's averaged at least 21.1 points in each of his past three seasons, and yet, now, in his eight season, it feels like some are discovering him for the first time.
On the other end of the spectrum, there are a few who are anointed and admired from the start. In recent years, Tim Duncan and LeBron James quickly come to mind.
For most of the elite, however, there was a natural progression, one that became obvious to the trained observer's eyes. That was the progression from promising player to solid starter to emerging star to established superstar.
Promising player in 2010-11, averaging 7.8 points in 20.7 minutes.
Solid starter in 2011-12, averaging 12.1 points in 29.7 minutes.
Emerging star in 2012-13, averaging 17.4 points in 37.6 minutes.
Established superstar in 2013-14, averaging 25.1 points while raising his shooting percentage from 41.9 last season to 47.8.
This is the fast-moving force the Miami Heat will encounter on Tuesday, in the season's first marquee Eastern Conference showdown, to be staged at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. This is the man, albeit still quite a young one at age 23, who has clearly made The Leap, but still must continue to ascend for the Pacers to have a real chance to hurdle James and the Heat into the NBA Finals this spring.
What he did last May and early June against Miami (19.4 points, 6.0 rebounds, 5.1 assists, 47.5 percent shooting) was impressive. It was also insufficient, and likely would be again in the 2014 Eastern Conference Finals (especially if James is clearly outplaying him on the other side).
The Heat certainly won't be taking him lightly. His progression to this point? They saw it coming. Several were praising him profusely even when he was a rookie, and even though Danny Granger was then the Pacers' leading scorer, they saw where George was going. Some have even been where he's been.
Take out James, due to the understanding that he's an anomaly. While he's improved exponentially over his decade-plus as a pro, he started from a higher plane than George, or anyone else in recent memory.
Three other Heat players, however, had to work their way into position to be a go-to guy: Dwyane Wade for Miami; Chris Bosh for Toronto; Ray Allen for Milwaukee and, later, Seattle. Wade led the Heat in scoring six times, starting in his second season; Bosh led the Raptors five times, starting in his third; and Allen led the Bucks four times (including the half-season before he was traded), starting in his fourth, before leading the Sonics five times (including the half-season after he was traded).
Each knows the perks and pressures of being The Man.
Wade wasn't available to the media on Sunday in Detroit, and the Heat were off Monday, but Miami's nine-time All-Star has previously spoken about the challenges of leading a squad, not only in his own case—which led to his desire to pair up with other premier players—but also when referencing the new role of James Harden in Houston. He's also made note of George's marked improvement just about every time the Heat and Pacers have met.
Bosh and Allen did speak Sunday, about the steps they took, back when they carried more of a burden than their current roles require. And Bosh spoke specifically of George.
"He's playing spectacular basketball right now," Bosh said. "He’s head and shoulders their best offensive player, and they’re able to work off him a lot. He’s trying to make his mark, and with them behind him, they’re trying to win a championship."
Bosh acknowledged that, early in his career, "I never made a leap as big as he did." Still, he sees some similarities, in terms of the confidence that George now exudes. Bosh began to feel that in his third and fourth seasons. "Just having that confidence, and just saying, 'OK, I can do this, I can be a steady All-Star every year, I’m the go-to guy and I can handle it,'" said Bosh, who averaged 22.5, 22.6, 22.3, 22.7 and 24.0 points over a five-season stretch. "And you just go from there."
Allen knew his own scoring would increase, from 13.4 as a rookie, when the Bucks traded No. 2 scorer Vin Baker the next offseason. "But I don't think I ever looked at it like I was the lead guy, or the guy," Allen said. "I just knew that I had greater responsibility. I was always told that with the more shots, more plays, there was greater responsibility. I was always one of those young guys who felt that I had to continue do more, I had to lead by example. I was still young, so at no point did I ever think that I was good enough. I was always working to get better."
Over time, Allen became one of the league's most reliable scorers. Still, he said he never put pressure on himself to score, even with the ball is in his hands more and so much offense running through him.
"I just looked at it like it’s my job to make Darvin Ham better, it’s my job to make Scott Williams better," Allen said. "So I always took that as a great challenge."
That was in Milwaukee. Then he was traded to Seattle for future Hall of Fame point guard Gary Payton.
"I got a different cast of characters with Rashard (Lewis) and younger players," Allen said. "So I felt like my habits had to wear off on them, and they had to understand how to be ready and professional and do their job and be consistent every day. Rashard was on that verge where he wanted to get paid great, he wanted to be an All-Star, but he had to learn. And I think I helped him with that from the standpoint of being prepared every day."
Even there, as he was averaging 25.1 points in 2005-06 and 26.4 points in 2006-07, he still didn't try to reach a certain total.
"There’s never a number that you’re supposed to score," Allen said. "The league determines that every year, the coaches determine that with by your playing time. When I played, it was always about, some nights you’re going to score 30, some 40, some 15. So you should never put pressure on yourself with scoring, or what that number’s gonna be, because it averages it out. And at the end of the year, you’ll figure out what it is that you have, that you don’t have. But the purpose is winning games, and you’ve got to fill that stat sheet, not just one category."
That appears to be the attitude George has taken now. His assists and rebounds are down slightly, but his steals are up, turnovers are down, and efficiency is significantly better, especially from long distance.
He's an established superstar, with a prized invite to the NBA's inner circle.
He's made The Leap.
So he can rest now, the toughest part behind.
Bosh shakes his head.
"The hardest jump is after this," Bosh said. "After we see him constantly put up 25 a game, constantly get to a certain part in the postseason, it’s after that. It’s that jump after that. When they expect that 25 a game. And it’s like, 'OK, you’re an All-Star. Biggie.' It’s that next level of basketball after that. I think that’s the most difficult to attain. When it's 'oh, it’s just 22. Damn!'"
Bosh laughed, as if reliving the experience.
"It’s a tough crowd out there," he said. "It’s a tough crowd."
That's the crowd for which Paul George plays now, even on nights like Tuesday, when he's playing on his most familiar floor.
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