THE NBA'S MOST anomalous superstar is headed to lunch. It's a snow-flecked, hundred-yard saunter from Bankers Life Fieldhouse to Kilroy's Bar n' Grill in Indianapolis. Not long ago, Paul George swears, he could make this trek for a platter of Indy's finest stuffed breadsticks with nary a notice. But on this January day, no such anonymity. A Bud Light truck driver climbs out of his window to bellow "PG!" upon spotting the 23-year-old. In the restaurant, a man beseeches George for an autographed napkin; another requests a picture. By the time a lady thrusts a phone in George's face -- so her friend can hear him breathe, apparently -- the point is clear: These breadsticks are going to take time.
Squeezing himself into a booth at Kilroy's, George exhales. What were these walks like, say, a year ago, before he became the best player on the NBA's best team? "To be honest," he says, grinningly sheepishly, "when I walked around downtown, people thought I was a college student. They'd tell me, 'You must play for IU.'"
Ignore, for a moment, that the campus of Indiana University resides an hour's drive from downtown Indianapolis -- or that Occam's razor suggests that a 6'9" man a block from the hometown arena might, in fact, play for the local NBA franchise. That a man now universally regarded as a leading candidate for league MVP could have been so anonymous a mere 12 months ago is enough to raise its own question: Has anyone in the NBA ever become better, faster than Paul George?
With an 83-inch wingspan on an 81-inch frame, he's the Platonic ideal of the modern swingman. His 22.2 points, 6.4 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 1.8 steals a game (through Feb. 12) scarcely hint at the astonishing depth of his all-around game. "I watch Paul George now," one Eastern Conference scout says, "and the physical tools, coordination and underlying biomechanics are all there, and there in abundance. In terms of talent, there's almost no limit to how good he could be." But what most separates George from the rest of the NBA elite is the anonymous nobody he used to be. Since the advent of the Internet and the glut of scouting databases that emerged to service the billion-dollar NCAA and NBA, every American superstar-to-be has been tagged and identified as such in puberty. Poll talent evaluators around the league and to a person they agree that George qualifies as the only domestically produced wunderkind to emerge from this much obscurity in at least a quarter of a century.
So ask yourself, and answer honestly: Did you really have any idea four years ago who the hell Paul George was? And then consider the really fun question: How the hell did this guy happen?
FOR THE ANSWER to that, we begin at the beginning; and in the beginning, there wasn't much to Paul George. A physical late bloomer, he ventured no further than the local playground for years. His game was literally forged by rejection, his shots swatted up and down his street in Palmdale, Calif., by his older sister Teiosha (a future Pepperdine starter). He didn't play organized hoops until he was a 6'1" freshman at Pete Knight High. "There wasn't a lot of meat on the bones," coach Tom Hegre says with a laugh. He didn't even know to join an AAU team until he was a rising senior. "At his first practice," George's mother, Paulette, says, "people were saying, 'I've never heard of you.'"
Nowhere close to a top-100 recruit, not even the best player in his AAU program -- that was current Pelican Jrue Holiday -- George surfaced at nearby Fresno State, a WAC school under probation for recruiting violations. With little to lose, Fresno could roll the dice on a reedy, high-flying project with two big asks: to play A) right away and B) on the perimeter. "Paul had a vision of himself that even his coaches and teammates didn't fully understand," former Bulldogs coach Steve Cleveland says.
By his second season at Fresno, George had grown in game and in stature (to 6'8"). But even though he repaid Coach Cleveland's faith in him with a 16.8/7.2/3.0/2.2 sophomore season, the red flags were scattered all over his bio. Fresno's 15-18 record, George's multisegmented jumper and his woeful 0.9 assist-to-turnover ratio meant few draft analysts projected him higher than a mid-first-round pick.
Still, not since Scottie Pippen, drafted out of Central Arkansas in 1987, had a U.S. prospect bloomed as dramatically, or as late. The 6'8" Pippen also had a delayed growth spurt, also had leveraged a wingspan around seven feet, also had made his bones as an oppressive perimeter defender. One man, at least, noted the resemblance. "There are a lot of similarities to Scottie," says Pacers president Larry Bird, who played alongside Pippen as an Olympian and against him as a Celtic. "He's got a good chance to do a lot of things that Scottie's done."
It was with that hope that Bird plucked George for the Pacers with the No. 10 pick in June 2010. Little did he know that George did not want to be as good as the great Scottie Pippen. He wanted to be better.
TWO YEARS AGO, in Brian Shaw's first spring coaching with the Pacers, the three-time NBA champion invited George and his father aboard a pontoon boat Shaw had bought on Craigslist. George, an avid angler, had been intrigued months earlier when Shaw had served fried, allegedly home-caught fillets to lockout-starved staffers. Now the three men floated out on Indy's Lake Clearwater, bonding over bluegills, crappies and a shark named Kobe Bryant.
As a storm descended, swaying the 16-foot vessel, George confided to Shaw that Bryant was, in fact, his ideal -- the one whose flourishes he'd impersonate while dribbling around the house, the one whose Lakers jersey he'd owned as a kid, the one who'd inspired him to stay out on the perimeter. Whenever anyone had asked little Paul whether he was good at his favorite sport, he had replied, with jarring self-assurance, "You ever see Kobe play?"
But Shaw, who'd watched the second-year player at work, knew idolatry was far from emulation. "If you want to be the best," he told George, "I've been around the best." For a decade, Shaw said, he'd seen Kobe play -- and stretch, and ice, and lift, and study opponents, and polish his footwork and generally start his day long before anyone else bothered. "I told real stories," Shaw says, "and Paul was like a wide-eyed puppy, soaking it all in."
From then on, if George ever threatened to cut corners, Shaw would intone Kobe's name, dangling superstardom in front of his pupil "like a carrot." George, at the time an unreliable fourth option behind Danny Granger, David West and Roy Hibbert, got the message: There's a canyon of difference between being your team's hardest worker and being Kobe Bryant.
George, Shaw says, began doin' work, Kobe-style. He booked office hours with Pacers color analyst Quinn Buckner, a known confidant of Michael Jordan, to learn a killer's regimen: what MJ ate, how he prepared, how he watched film. When he sought out Bird for criticism, the three-time NBA champ hooked him on the exhaustion of full-court one-on-one.
"It all shaped how I prepare for games now," George says. "Before, I'd come in and I'd shoot when it was my shooting time. But now, let's say we're playing at 7 p.m. I'll come into the arena at 3:30, get a nice lift in, upper body and lower body. Then I'll go to the practice court and shoot 250 jump shots. Then, after that, I'll get a massage because I'm so worked up to that point. Then it's game time. I learned that you really get into a mindset: I've been ready since 3:30. And I'm going to rip your head off."
By the end of that 2011-12 season, which ended for the Pacers with eventual champion Miami crushing them in the final three games of the second round, George resolved to make up for his late matriculation into basketball. He adopted a mantra. Over and over, in the weeks after that defeat, he began silently repeating the same phrase: This is going to take time.
"I'm a person who gets better if I'm actually learning," he says. And to do that, he needed to start ripping off heads in the offseason.