Paul George's Arrival as a Top-3 NBA Star on Full Display

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistDecember 3, 2013

USA Today

For nine different NBA teams, Paul George will always be the one that got away.

The No. 10 pick of the 2010 draft, he's been separating himself from his draft peers—and nearly everyone else in the league—ever since.

How many names are still standing in the 23-year-old's way at this point? Less than you'd think. A lot less:

Two-Way Superstardom

This league is littered with next-level talents. Bona fide superstars, though, come few and far between.

Even that elite group has its hierarchy. Most superstars can't extend their dominance for the full 94 feet.

But George is one of the rarest in a league full of rare breeds. He's a transcendent talent in any situation from anywhere on the floor.

His defense reached near mythical status during the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals. Not only did George survive his head-to-head battle with four-time MVP LeBron James, he even outshined the King at times:

But if 2012-13 signaled George's arrival, then 2013-14 has solidified his standing among the game's current greats.

Reliable defensive metrics are hard to come by, even in the midst of the NBA's statistical revolution. But the data at hand highlights just how effective he's been at the defensive end.

Indiana's league-best defense (90.7 points allowed per 100 possessions) has only tightened its grip with George on the floor (88.9). Despite the offensive machines standing in front of him on a nightly basis, he's held opposing small forwards to a paltry 9.7 player efficiency rating—league average is 15.0—this season, via

Yet it's impossible to label him as a stopper. His offense is far too good to place him in that one-way box:

With Danny Granger, Indiana's primary scoring threat for the better part of the last decade, sidelined for all but five games last season, George saw exponential growth in his offensive responsibilities.

He looked like someone who'd been unexpectedly forced into the fire. While his scoring reached a new career high (17.4), so too did his giveaways (15.2 turnover percentage). After hitting 44.5 percent of his field-goal attempts over his first two seasons, he saw that number slip to just 41.9.

This season, though, it's opposing defenses that are having trouble catching up. George is more than ready to carry the offensive load.

His scoring is once again coming at a career rate (24.9). Only this time, it's bolstered by career-best shooting (.476/.412/.835) marks. His usage rate has never been higher (29.5 percent), yet his turnovers have never been lower (11.7 percent).

He is both the unstoppable force and the immovable object. And this might not even be George at his best.

Ceiling Lifted...Again

It's worth noting that teams had a reason to overlook George on draft night in June 2010. He was solid during two seasons at Fresno State (15.5 points, 6.7 rebounds) but far from spectacular. threw out comparisons to Trevor Ariza and Danny Granger. Maybe that should have been a sign. If he could defend like Ariza and score like Granger, maybe he had superstar potential even back then.

If he had it, though, nine teams weren't buying it. And nine players became unintentional rivals in the process.

"I always want to outdo the person who was drafted higher than me," George said, via Candace Buckner of The Indianapolis Star. "Whether it's a best friend or close friend, whoever it is. I take it as a challenge."

March 29, 2012; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Indiana Pacers shooting guard Paul George (24) brings the ball up court against Washington Wizards point guard John Wall (2) at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Indiana defeated Washington 93-89. Mandatory credit: Michael Hi
Michael Hickey-USA TODAY Sports

Maybe George thinks the entire league was drafted higher than him. It seems like he's motivated to destroy the competition on a nightly basis.

But it wasn't always that way. It took a while before those nine franchises started feeling buyer's remorse.

Buried in a part-time role as a rookie, George pieced together a steady but quiet campaign (7.8 points, 3.7 rebounds in 20.7 minutes per game). He started filling more categories by his sophomore season (12.1 points, 5.6 rebounds, 2.4 assists and 1.6 steals), thanks in no small part to the extra nine minutes of floor time coming his way.

Last season was when it all came together. Sort of a 79-game "Aha!" moment.

While the traditional numbers climbed, though, his efficiency marks struggled to progress. His player efficiency rating (16.8) was just a step above mediocrity, just as it had been the previous year (16.5). His true shooting percentage (53.1) and effective field-goal percentage (49.1) both fell to career lows.

Still, he did enough to convince the voting populace of his breakout performance. He took home the 2012-13 Most Improved Player award by a comfortable margin.

Apr 24, 2013; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Indiana Pacers forward Paul George receives the Most Improved Player Award before playing against the Atlanta Hawks during game two of the first round of the 2013 NBA Playoffs at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Indiana defeat
Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Perhaps spurred by that seven-game sparring session with James, George wasn't satisfied with stopping there. As he told Fox Sports' Chris Tomasson, he had his eyes on MVP enshrinement:

The more and more I get comfortable in this league and the more and more I find myself, I think I am capable of achieving that award. Maybe not so quick as next year. But in my career, I wouldn’t be satisfied if I don't win the award.

Armed with the five-year, $80 million-plus contract extension he signed this summer, George looks like a man on a mission this season.

"Paul has brought back a demeanor (this year) where every time he shoots it's going in," Pacers center Roy Hibbert said, via Reuters' Jahmal Corner. "He brings it on the defensive end as well."

George has been climbing the superstar ladder ever since he first set foot on the NBA hardwood. Frankly, there aren't many rungs left to clear at this point.

Room for Growth

Reaching superstar status is an exhaustive process. But maintaining that level requires an insatiable appetite for success, an ever-present willingness toward evolution.

James has always been a physical specimen. But the additions of an offensive post game and a steady three-point stroke lengthened his lead on his NBA peers.

Kevin Durant could will himself to a 30-point outing. His length has always made him a terror on the glass. But he wouldn't be mentioned in the same breath as James without a new-found commitment to the defensive end and a focus on elevating his teammates.

Like these two perennial All-Stars, George has his own holes to fill. His handles could use some tightening. His passing is more of a complement than a force of its own.

But that list of problem areas is thinning by the second. Just like the number of bodies in the ultra-exclusive company he now keeps.

George is a top-three talent in the NBA. That's no longer up for debate.

As far as ordering that trio, though, that's where the real argument lies.

George is probably looking up at both James and Durant at this point. But just how much longer will that be the case?

If his past has taught us anything, it's that George will never stop grinding. Durant and James would be wise to track his progress.

I guarantee those nine teams that passed him up won't overlook his rise. No matter how hard they try.

Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of and


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