By Ben Golliver
In hindsight, the NBA's online media was probably a bit indelicate in its collective reaction to Danny Granger's knee injury earlier this year. It took just a few moments after the Pacers announced in early November their star forward would miss months after receiving an injection in his ailing left knee before the discussion turned to Paul George and how this opportunity might help thrust the 22-year-old towards stardom.
This was a classic case of "the grass is greener on the side with more unscratched potential." Granger's lot in NBA life was clear: a fringe star who, at 29, was a top-10 small forward in PER averaging 18.7 points and 5.0 rebounds per game. If not capable of outright dominating, Granger was good enough to be the No. 1 guy on a balanced Pacers team that advanced to the 2012 Eastern Conference semifinals and briefly had the Heat, dealing with injuries at the time, on the ropes. Granger's numbers had trended downwards over the last few seasons, as the collection of talent around him improved and he offloaded some of the heavy lifting, but he is and was a reliable performer.
George, on the other hand, entered this season as a far more audacious and unknown quantity. Not afraid to leap over 7-footer Roy Hibbert or cover his body in glowsticks during the 2012 Slam Dunk Contest, George has the length, size, strength and charisma of a future star. His ceiling is meaningfully higher than Granger's, even if he only stepped into a full-time starter's role for the first time last season and even if he finished that year as Indiana's fourth-leading scorer.
The potential had been bubbling on the stove top; Granger's injury made it time for dinner, ready or not.
There were some early concerns after an uneven November, but George has hit full-stride in December, earning Eastern Conference Player of the Week honors earlier this week and playing, quite simply, the most productive basketball of his career. While George's blossoming wasn't immediate and while it hasn't powered Indiana to the top of a weak Central Division, it has happened much like his advocates hoped for back in November.
Take a look at the chart below, which compare's George's scoring, rebounding and assist averages over the course of his three NBA seasons. Note: only months in which George played 10 games are included.
The stark upward trend that you would expect to see in a blossoming star in a larger role is evident across the board. George is scoring significantly more points than ever before in December while also raising his rebounding and assist numbers. Of course, it must be noted that George is No. 29 in the NBA in minutes played per game at 35.8, and he's seen that number rise even higher in December, as coach Frank Vogel is playing him 37.0 minutes per night. Under such conditions, we should expect his numbers to rise.
Even when turning to per-minute stats, though, George's progress is evident, if a touch less obvious. Here's a glance at his per-36 points, rebounds and assists over the same time period. Again, December 2012 represents career high-water marks (or close) in all three categories, although the effect is muted slightly by the increased role.
What to take from this second chart? Mostly a confirmation of anticipated results, but also a reaffirmation of the context at play here. George is not only filling more minutes than ever before but he's filling them more effectively than ever before, particularly when it comes to scoring.
There will always be doubters when players take a big step forward like this, and that's particularly true here because George has crossed the 20 points per game threshold in 10 December outings. Plenty of guys can average 12 points per game, as he did last year; only nine NBA players are averaging 20+ so far this season.
"He's obviously very talented and has played much better," Skiles said prior to Tuesday's game at the Bradley Center. "But that's a pretty small sample size."
"Nothing against James Harden, but he played one (great) game for Houston, and it was like the greatest thing that's ever happened. Let's wait and watch and see what people do."
Skiles' point is well-taken, even if it sure sounds like his cynicism might be influenced by the fact that he starts two inconsistent guards with poor field goal percentages who are prone to violent swings in the quality of their play. If any NBA coach were to preach in favor of the big picture, it would probably be the one tasked with turning the Brandon Jennings / Monta Ellis into a playoff team.
The good news for George and the rest of us is that it's fairly clear where we should look, in the short term, to gauge the sustainability of his play: his three-point shooting. Back in a November win over the Hornets, George scored a career-high 37 points by setting a Pacers franchise-record nine three-pointers, something that not even Reggie Miller could match. Throughout much of December, he was simply been red hot: he went five straight games from Dec. 5 to Dec. 14 making three or more three-pointers in each game. Through Friday, he's shooting a career-high (and team-best) 40 percent from deep. And he's hitting at that clip despite shooting significantly more threes than in previous seasons. Last year, he shot 3.5 per game; this season, he's averaging 5.5 per game. Indeed, while George is shooting more from all areas of the court this season, due in part to Granger's absence, the deep ball is by far the largest growth area in his shot location chart. Take a look.
A skeptic like Skiles might point to George's last three games, which have seen him shooting a combined 3-for-15 (20 percent) and argue that the law of averages is catching up with him. He would also likely circle the increased number of long two attempts as a point of concern. Optimists, though, might equally argue that George's 38.5 percent three-point shooting in 66 games last year provides enough sample to justify a reputation as a reliable deep weapon. Until George's three-point shooting percentage meaningfully dips, Vogel has every reason to encourage George to jack from outside.
George's early season data, even if it leaves these questions unresolved, does make one thing clear. If he is capable of sustaining these levels of production, either through the course of this season or during 2013-14, the final year of his rookie deal, the Pacers are going to have one expensive player on their hands. Consider this: a grand total of one player finished last season shooting 38 percent or better from deep while averaging 19 or more points per game. That man was Thunder forward and three-time defending scoring champion Kevin Durant. In other words, George is scratching some extremely rare air during this streak, but one that feels within reach for him as he continues to transition into a lead scorer's role and advance towards his prime years. Certainly, he's not Durant, but his combination of length, leaping ability and range is very, very unique in this league. (Incidentally, Granger is actually one of the players to make the 19+ points and 38+ three-point percentage club in recent years, doing it in 2008, 2009 and 2011.) How long George can keep up his recent clip and how the Pacers and Vogel reincorporate Granger loom as large questions over the six months. For now, November's immediate excitement over George's burgeoning opportunity has never appeared more justified.