Pacers G Paul George making name for himself

CLIFF BRUNT AP Sports Writer Published:

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) -- Paul George was fired up after participating in the rookie-sophomore challenge and the slam dunk contest during All-Star festivities in Orlando.

What really got his attention was watching his Indiana Pacers teammate, center Roy Hibbert, play in the All-Star game.

"That was an eye opener," the 21-year-old George said. "At the end of the day, it's all about that game on Sunday. To get a chance to watch Roy and all the other players there made me want to bring another level and be in that game for years to come."

Pacers veteran Jeff Foster expects that to happen.

"I told him when he made the rookie-sophomore game that 'This is just your taste, and I fully expect you to be playing in the game on Sunday in a couple years,'" Foster said. "As long as he has the dedication and desire and drive to get there, I think he will."

George wowed crowds with his acrobatic dunks and blocks last year as a rookie, creating a buzz with his enormous potential. He quickly realized that wasn't enough.

"Early on, when I wasn't getting the opportunity to play, defense was the only way for me to get on the court," he said. "With that, that kind of just stuck with me."

He made a lasting impression in the playoffs against the Chicago Bulls and league MVP Derrick Rose. George slowed him down and was a key reason the series was so tight.

"The chance to guard Derrick Rose -- it was a lot of confidence off that matchup," George said. "That's my mentality -- to bring that same effort every night."

George took what he learned and went to work in the offseason. He improved his shot, put on muscle and studied. Even when the Pacers went out and picked up George Hill, a shooting guard with starter-level talent, George earned the starting job at shooting guard. He is averaging 12.3 points and 5.3 rebounds this season.

His improvement, especially on defense, is one of the key reasons the Pacers have emerged as a threat in the Eastern Conference.

"Paul is one of those players who can affect a game in a lot of different ways," Pacers forward Danny Granger said. "He can score, but more importantly, he's a really good defender. Six-nine, can guard multiple positions. Super athletic. He's just one of those rare finds."

George averages 1.8 steals and has 25 blocked shots this season.

"He's improved on the defensive end, even being better with his hands, blocking shots and steals," Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. "But his ability to guard straight up one-on-one and to negotiate through action -- his pick-and-roll defense and his pin-down defense -- all of that has improved."

Vogel believes some accolades soon should come George's way.

"I think he should be getting votes this year for All-Defensive team," Vogel said. "I think he's that good right now. We put him on a lot of the sizable point guards and he's done a phenomenal job."

George's commitment to defense has impressed his teammates.

"He's probably one of the best defenders in this league already, in his second year," Pacers point guard Darren Collison said. "The effort that he brings to the table night in and night out is tremendous."

As his defensive reputation has grown, George has noticed a change in the way teams attack him.

"There's going to be guys that really try to take it to me and really try to get me in foul trouble and alleviate the pressure that I can cause. Now, it's just being smart -- knowing when to take chances, just continue to be good with my hands."

He's improved on offense, too. His 3-point percentage is up from 30 percent as a rookie to 41 percent in his second year.

"That's been a huge weapon for us," Vogel said. "But he's also improved his assertiveness off the bounce, and we're going to him in the post because he has matchups most nights because of his size."

Granger said George is basically a younger version of himself, but perhaps even more athletic. Granger smiled about the comparison.

"When I came in, I was defensive-minded too," he said. "They would throw me on everybody, and I would try to shut them down. I kind of grew into my offensive capabilities. I think Paul is very similar to how I was when I was his age."

George worked out with Granger before the Pacers even drafted him, and he considers him a mentor.

"Danny's like a big brother to me," he said. "It's helped me a lot. Danny's a great scorer in this league, and he doesn't get credit for it, but he can also defend."

There have been challenges for George. Miami's Dwyane Wade got the best of him, getting him up in the air and scoring on a circus shot at the end of overtime last Saturday to win the game for the Heat.

"That last shot, that's really what he gets paid for, that shot right there," George said. "He gave me his all."

Those lessons are all part of the building of a superstar.

"He has a chance to be a special player if he continues to work and he continues to improve," Foster said. "He has a God-given athleticism that not many people his size have."

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