Here's my idea for All-Star weekend: The NBA should invite Pacers swingman Paul George to compete in both the Slam Dunk and three-point contests.
The league would be recognizing the emergence of a versatile young player who is viewed by his team as a future star. At 21, George is more than a one-dimensional dunker and a long-distance specialist. He is one of the fundamental reasons for Indiana's 15-6 start, even as he generates long-term hope of becoming a superstar later in his career.
"Paul's got a chance to be a really good ball player -- beyond really good," said Pacers forward David West, a two-time All-Star. "He doesn't know how really dominant he could be. He's got such great size at the 'two-guard' position, it's almost like Kevin Durant and the size he has at the small forward position. To be a 6-foot-8 two-guard who can shoot it, bring it down the floor, handle it, is as athletic as anybody in the league -- and he's really just learning how to play.''
Set aside George's potential as a dunker and three-point shooter in Year 2 of his NBA career. What makes him so intriguing is the environment in which he is learning the pro game. Instead of being handed leadership of a young team based on his talent, George is having to earn his role with the deeply talented Pacers, who prefer to play through leading scorer Danny Granger (who had 36 points Wednesday in a win at Minnesota), as well as West and center Roy Hibbert, who could be invited to the All-Star Game with his low-post 14.0 points, 9.8 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game.
Eventually George should earn a more important part in the offense -- he's averaging 11.5 points, and his 8.5 shots per game rank last among Indiana's starters -- but in the meantime, the Pacers are channeling him as a defender. Coach Frank Vogel often shifts George onto opposing point guards in the final minutes. It's a sign of George's unusual ambition, and it also speaks to his talent that he's able to stay in front of point guards and still challenge their shots with his length.
"When [Tracy] McGrady was young, he played no defense, and not only wasn't he interested but he wasn't capable," said Vogel. "Paul has learned how to use his length to space guys like Derrick Rose or Chris Paul. We said, 'Pressure but space, and make them shoot jumpers over your length. Learn that and you can become a good ball-containment guy.'
"The thing about [Paul] is he's got a knack for anticipating on the level of Allen Iverson and Eddie Jones -- two great steals guys who know how to play the passing lanes. [Paul] gambles a little too much and that hurts you sometimes, but he led our team last year and he leads us this year in deflections per minute, and he has a knack for blocking shots. What he brings to the defensive table is just as impressive as what he brings offensively, which is not the case in most guys like him that are young, second-year guys with offensive skills."
George wasn't highly recruited before he spent two seasons with Fresno State. After a recent shootaround on the Pacers bench he was talking about his "small-town" background when Granger, who shrieked with laughter at the notion. "He said he's from a small town," shouted Granger for all his teammates to hear. "L.A. ain't a small town!"
"I grew up on the outskirts of Los Angeles," George acknowledged a moment later. "In Palmdale, which is a smaller town."
Had he drawn more attention at a younger age, or gone on to play for a bigger college, George probably would not have been available to the Pacers at No. 10 in the 2010 draft. He averaged 7.8 points in 61 games last season while shooting an unimpressive 29.7 percent from the three-point line. " I had an awkward rotation on the ball," he said. "I had the knuckleball. It was nasty. It had to go straight in or it wasn't going in at all."
He spent the summer developing a consistent backspin that has enabled him to lead the Pacers in three-point shooting at 45.8 percent this season. Among NBA players who have attempted at least 70 threes, George ranks second to the Celtics' Ray Allen (56.4 percent) in accuracy.
The improvement of his three-point shooting is creating opportunities for George inside the line. He ranks third on the Pacers with 2.0 assists per game, and he is their most explosive player around the rim. He wasn't surprised by the idea of competing in both the shooting and dunking contests later this month in Orlando. "I think I could compete and possibly win both of those," he said.
He hasn't been practicing for the dunk contest. "But I have some ideas I've had since this summer," he said. "I got a couple things up my sleeve that I think I can pull off. It beats jumping over the hood of a Kia."
George made it clear he wasn't trying to criticize Blake Griffin for his winning dunk over a car last year. Based on Griffin's extraordinary talents, George thought he should have been more ambitious.
"[George's] incredible in the open court," Vogel said. "We freeze-frame races in transition offense. We've got the rebound, here's Paul next to Ray [Allen], let's see who's going to win the race? And we'll just watch him -- whoosh -- he'll stretch out the court and win those open-court races and make himself available for lobs and layups.
"You go through the offensive skills you get from him, where you can post, you can use pick-and-rolls, you can handle, you're good in the open court, you can shoot the three. He's probably our most willing passer -- he doesn't force stuff a lot, and he's got the size to see over the defense. On the passes that a lot of guards having trouble seeing over big men, he's able to make these passes maybe better than anyone on our team.''
The point of inviting George to both contests in Orlando would be to recognize a rare young player who is trying to achieve stardom in all areas while playing a meaningful role on a winning team. In other words, if he were to win the Slam Dunk or three-point title, it wouldn't be the most important thing in his career. Isn't that how NBA careers ought to be built?