On the Rise: Paul George enjoying best year of his life

LOS ANGELES — Paul George has always been a hard worker.

During his days at Knight High School in Palmdale, he’d arrive to the gym early and stay late, looking to improve his game as much as he could.

“I was willing and would go beyond to get better,” George said after Indiana Pacers shootaround before Friday’s game against the Los Angeles Lakers. “I just had a sick mind about basketball.”

But that’s one sickness from which George needs no cure. Despite not being selected to this year’s NBA All-Star game as a starter, the Pacers guard has enjoyed the best eight months of his career.

George was chosen to grace the cover of NBA 2K17, arguably the quintessential basketball video game for any hoops junkie. He also recently unveiled his first-ever signature shoe — the Nike PG 1, which features his video-game likeness on the insole of the shoe’s debut color scheme — during a game in London against the Denver Nuggets on Jan. 12.

Add his gold medal in the Rio Olympics this past summer, and it’s easy to see why George is having the time of his life.

“This whole year has been a heck of a year for me — from winning gold to being a 2K athlete to being Nike’s next signature shoe guy,” said George, who broke his leg during a USA Basketball showcase in August 2014. “This has been a very up year for me. This has been one of the best years for me. Every little thing I’ve had on that checklist as a kid, at this point I’m able to start scratching off.”

George became the fourth active basketball player — as well as the 21st ever — to receive a signature shoe from Nike. He said the shoe’s design was meant to incorporate both the look of a traditional sneaker and the innovation Nike has put in recent shoe designs.

As for putting his face on the insole, George said that idea came from Nike and 2K. But George doesn’t see anything strange about stepping on his own face when he puts on the shoe, he said.

“It’s a great reminder every time you put the shoe on to see yourself,” George said. “It’s an awesome realization of what’s in perspective. It’s dope to see yourself while you put your shoe on. And it’s not just myself. It’s the 2K athlete in which I was the 2K cover. All of it is just pretty awesome to me.”

In one of the annoucements for his new shoe, George posted a picture of a pair on his Instagram with the message, “From Palmdale! God you made this happen! #PG1.” He said he chose to include his hometown in the post because “there’s nothing in Palmdale.”

“To build a platform and build up to where I am now from literally no landscapes — small landscapes at that — of Palmdale, anything is achievable, anything is accomplished.”
George was mum on plans to release the shoes in Palmdale stores.

“Can’t leak too much info,” George said.

Tom Hegre, who coached George at Knight, praised the Pacers star for his work ethic in high school and said it was that determination that helped George reach the NBA.

“I don’t think there’s a person on the planet that deserves it more than him,” Hegre said. “Everything that he’s gotten, he’s worked for.”

When George heard his former coach’s remarks, he reminisced about how Hegre helped him become the hard-nosed, blue-collar player he is today.

“He would leave the gym open for me,” George said. “He would stay late after practices with me. He really helped me with my craft. He’s really the one that taught me a team-minded basketball approach — always playing for your teammates, always playing for one another.”

George has enjoyed a solid year on the court for the 2016-17 Pacers as well. He’s averaging 21.9 points and six rebounds per game, and is averaging career highs in effective field goal percentage (51.9%) and free throw percentage (92.9%), according to Basketball Reference.
Indiana currently sits seventh in the Eastern Conference at 22-22.

Pacers coach Nate McMillan said George has had a difficut year because most of his former teammates are now in other cities around the league, which has forced him to take on more of a leadership role. McMillan added that George may have been trying a bit too hard to be a leader early in the season, but has since gotten back to being himself on the court.

“That’s what we need from him,” McMillan said. “He’s a two-way guy as far as how he plays the game. And when he’s played…aggressive, our guys have followed and we’ve had success.”

McMillan felt George should have been voted an All-Star starter this season. But George said other players in the Eastern Conference deserved the accolade more.

“This has been a rough year for me,” George said. “It’s been a slow start. I’ve been battling a lot of injuries, trying to play through it. I’m not where I want to be as far as All-Star voting.”

George, however, is likely to play in the All-Star game as a reserve. Those players will be announced on Thursday.

While George has now achieved star-studded status as one of the best players in the NBA, he has not forgotten his roots. That much was clear in his Instagram post announcing his new signature shoe.

George said his message to the kids of Palmdale is that anything is achievable and accomplishable, and also had some words for the city in which he grew up.
“I just love where I’m from,” George said. “I love my city.”