Paul George didn't become a starter until the final two months of his rookie season.
Three years later, the Indiana Pacers forward is a superstar.
“He's a special player,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. “The term superstar gets thrown around NBA circles quite frequently, but he's a superstar. He's a superstar in this league. There's only a handful of them and he's one of them.”
George's transformation has turned Sunday's showdown with Thunder forward Kevin Durant into a marquee matchup.
The two are the reigning players of the month for November in their respective conferences, top five scorers and early candidates in the MVP race. After winning the NBA's Most Improved Player award last season, George has established himself, in just his fourth season, as one of the game's best players.
At the conclusion of the Thunder's practice Saturday afternoon, there was some chatter about George now being the league's third-best player, presumably behind LeBron James and Durant.
“He can do it all,” Durant said. “I think he's up there with one of the top players in the league because he's elevated his game to new heights.”
In a road game at Portland this past Monday, George posted a career-high 43 points. He made seven 3-pointers, five of which came in the final three minutes and had the league buzzing more about George's continued emergence than the Blazers' four-point win. The day before that, George torched the Clippers, in Los Angeles, for 27 points, six rebounds and five assists.
“I watched him from afar and he's having a phenomenal season this year, just leading those guys,” Durant said. “You can tell he's playing super confident basketball right now.”
If George doesn't quite live up to the hype in his lone appearance in Oklahoma City, it might have something to do with playing on the second night of a back-to-back following Saturday's game at San Antonio and the Pacers closing out a five-game trip.
And oh yeah, Durant.
Durant has owned George in their individual matchup, winning three of their four head-to-head meetings while averaging 31.5 points to George's 10.3. Durant has made 53 percent of his field goals in those games compared to George's 31.1 percent clip. George did not play in one of the two Thunder-Pacers games in 2010-11, and the teams met just once in 2011-12 due to the lockout.
“One thing I do love about the KD-Paul George matchup is that each time they guard each other,” said Thunder center Kendrick Perkins. “When we play Miami, LeBron (James) and KD don't guard each other most of the time. You got Shane Battier guarding KD or something like that.”
That's largely a credit to George, who has forced his way into any conversation about the game's best players behind his defensive effort. He finished eighth in Defensive Player of the Year voting last year, garnering eight first-place votes, and enhanced his reputation by valiantly standing toe to toe with James in the Eastern Conference Finals a year ago.
This year, George has helped to again make the Pacers a defensive juggernaut. Before Saturday's games, the Pacers led the league in defensive efficiency (points allowed per 100 possessions) at 90.2. They were allowing a league-best 87.5 points per game.
“What he does, he brings his competitive spirit every night on both ends of the floor,” Brooks said of George. “That's what makes him a great player. You have a lot of respect for guys who bring it and are two-way players, and he's definitely a superstar in this league.”