I certainly didn’t.
While I was a fan of George’s before the draft — I’m a sucker for raw athletes with lots of potential as much as the rest of you — it was when I got a chance to speak with him during predraft availablity that I felt like he had something different going on than a lot of the other young guys in the room. There was an ease about him as he kept us entertained by telling us he couldn’t believe he was really there, in New York City, talking to reporters a day before he’d get drafted. He told us of his father who had called him shortly before the interviewing session, because he was getting on a plane for the first time in his life to come to New York and was nervous. His father nervous, he himself cool as a cucumber, George just seemed ready to roll with whatever came his way the next day. When he ended up going the Pacers way with the 10th pick in the draft, he was happy and ready to work.
After a season filled with the ups and downs that are often the norm for first-year players, George has finished the season strong and has settled in nicely with the Pacers, giving Indy fans a glimpse into a future that has quickly become the now. While his athleticism is on display for all to see and his potential is what he was drafted for, George has made some impressive strides to close the season and is now starting on a playoff team.
Part of the reason for that accelerated progress is the positive attitude and mature mindset this 20-year-old rookie has had to kick off his NBA career. Part is his willingness to take advice and criticism from his peers and to seek out mentorship from some of the best in the game. Playing in Indiana, George has had the privilege of picking Larry Bird’s brain. Not a bad choice for a mentor, eh? He’s also got a coach who believes in him wholeheartedly and teammates who already see how bright the future can be for him.
This support system has worked out well for George, and the encouragement he has received — especially in the second half of the season, when interim coach Frank Vogel took over — is paying dividends here in the first round of the playoffs. The Pacers might be trailing the Chicago Bulls 0-3, but George has proven he belongs.
Under the brightest lights that the NBA has to offer, George has stood out. Not an easy thing to do when you’re on the same floor as Derrick Rose. Guarding Rose is as tough a job as any in the NBA, but George has been playing the part using his length to try and rattle the point guard. While Rose has had the last laugh in all three meetings, it’s been fun to watch George step up to the challenge of guarding Rose with the same intensity that he puts into sprinting out on the fast break to receive an outlet pass and energize the crowd with a dunk. George has been fearless in these playoffs, and for all of those who doubted his selection with the 10th pick in the draft, he’s not looking so bad out there, is he?
Toward the end of the regular season, when the Pacers came to Toronto to take on the Raptors, I asked George about his success and ability to adapt to the pro game in his first NBA season. He pointed to the first half of the season when his minutes were up and down and he was being bounced around a bit, from getting on the floor, to being on the bench, to sometimes not even being in uniform. Maintaining his composure, George didn’t complain publicly or allow a lack of consistency to affect how he approached his game.
“I went from playing to not playing to not even dressing,” George said. “That was really the point in time when I really lived in the gym. I would stay after and go in on off days and lift. I knew this was something that I wanted to do and not playing was something I definitely didn’t want to do. So I had to really ask myself what I wanted. It took myself to push myself on those days.”
George said he’d go to the arena every night with a friend and they’d work out and get shots up for hours. It’s paying off.
While he hasn’t been much of a scorer in the first three postseason games of his career, he’s been comfortable. With his wide array of blocks, steals, rebounds, defense and dunks, George is an exciting player to watch. He’s enjoyable to speak with because you get the feeling that he gets it.
He wants to be good and he’s putting in the work now to ensure that happens. He asks for and accepts advice readily, often talking with Bird about things he can work on during the summer to improve his game, while accepting whatever lessons someone who has been there wants to pass along.
“We don’t even talk about basketball sometimes,” George said. “He tells me there is no way you should be tired or too tired to work out. You can always get better.”
George isn’t the only one a little in awe of the teacher/student relationship he gets to have with Bird. His father is pretty amped about it, too.
“It’s surreal,” George said. “Every time I tell my Dad I’ve been talking to Larry Bird he flips out. He tells me to put him on the phone. It’s great being a small town kid and having an opportunity to talk to a legend and have a legend in your corner like that is tremendous.”
No doubt Bird is pleased to know the words that he speaks to George are not falling on deaf ears. After the Pacers returned home from Chicago to get ready for Game 3, George was back at the arena with a friend, putting up 1,000 shots and staying past 3 a.m. getting extra work in.
These are the little things that matter. The stories that sound good now, but are going to sound even better down the road when George is an NBA vet and people are discussing what has made him stay in the league and be a success.
After a rollercoaster ride of a rookie season, George now gets to have some shine of his own. Whether the Pacers pull out a victory in Game 4 to prolong their season or whether George’s offseason will begin sooner than he’d like, I think we can all agree that this rookie season has proven successful and the future is bright.