- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Paul George valued the opportunity to botch a layup. He didn’t gather his feet in a coordinated way, and released the shot at an incorrect angle, but he at least received the chance to do so. After breaking his right leg in the summer of 2014, being back on an NBA court with the Indiana Pacers in early April retained a different value. The game had a fresh scent to George, who admitted he was previously in the well-populated camp of young athletes that feel invincible.

So, after a steal, George cruised down the right side of the floor alone in his first game back. He gently put the ball off the glass. It bounced off the rim. The clang was followed by a slight smile after he ventured back on defense. His body had randomly betrayed him when he fell into a basket stanchion during a Team USA scrimmage eight months earlier and his lower right leg had fractured. He took a glance, saw the damage, then felt cool air breeze by his exposed bones. He had a compound fracture of the tibia and fibula. Missing a layup was not a concern.

“That layup, I was going so fast, I didn’t know how to slow myself down and control that at that time,” George said Tuesday. “It was taking baby steps. I was gradually getting better by the week and to the point I am at now.”

The healed version of George appears to be an upgrade. Indiana, like the Washington Wizards, has decided to increase its offensive pace and spread the floor. Those choices have made George more lethal. He clobbered the Wizards with a season-high 40 points Tuesday night. George was 14-for-19 from the field and 7-for-8 from behind the 3-point line. He also added eight rebounds and four assists in the Pacers‘ 123-106 win.

“He’s a whole ‘nother animal,” Wizards guard Bradley Beal said.

Entering the teams’ game on Tuesday, George was averaging 24.8 points, 8.5 rebounds and 4.8 assists. As an early-season comparison point, LeBron James was averaging 25.8 points, 7.1 rebounds and 6.7 assists.

“I feel like I’m better,” George said. “I think a year away from the game, you learn, you grow, regardless if I was on the court or not. You just get a chance to really observe and just be a student of the game at that point when you’re sitting out. I think that was the little bit that I needed. The push that I needed. I worked hard that summer going into the season. Granted, I got hurt. But, I felt like that year away was what I really needed to just learn.”

Just returning to the norm would have been significant for George. His upswing since entering the league in 2010 was steady. His scoring average almost tripled from his first year to his fourth. George also rebounded well, passed the ball efficiently and was a 6-foot-9 gangly nightmare on defense. Twice he was an all-star. He was placed on the all-NBA defensive second team in 2013, then the first team in 2014. In 2013, George was named the league’s most improved player.

His injury was so stunning, it launched discussions about whether teams should allow franchise stars to play in scrimmages, or at all, for the Olympic teams. Even players reconsidered the value of playing for Team USA. One odd fall, one break, it all could be gone.

Counter conversations rapidly followed. Players could be injured in any situation. If they went through the year or a practice fretting about the uncontrollable, that was when injury became more likely to occur. The reactionary talk calmed. But, its level was representative of George’s rising stature in the NBA. He was chasing the Durants and LeBrons as future league anchors. George was a 24-year-old who excelled on both ends and improved grandly each season. Then, snap.

Playing six games last season jettisoned the jitters. George was mildly effective, and well short of his prior stardom level, but the games made him realize he, and his leg, were stable.

“I felt good enough to get out on the court and I knew I wasn’t going to get hurt so I felt good coming back last year,” George said. “It was good coming into this season, having that confidence, so I could focus my mind on other stuff.”

He’s needed to rebound more because of the Pacers playing a wing-oriented lineup. George will point out he is not a “stretch four” or playing the power forward spot when Indiana uses a small-ball lineup. He’ll say C.J. Miles, who is three inches shorter, is “holding down” that spot.

Whatever the label, George’s resurrection has been constructed on trust and patience. He worked with Indiana’s trainers to make incremental progress. The time his leg needed to heal provided a chance for him to work on shooting mechanics.

“Everything was on trust,” George said. “Trusting the training staff, trusting myself, trusting my body; that I was going to be able to do the things I used to do.”

George jumped off two feet for a dunk in pregame warmups on Tuesday. He danced with a teammate in line, provided a hard bounce pass so another player could push through a dunk while getting loose. He opened the game by making his first three shots, consecutive 3-pointers and a double-pump reverse dunk. Missing a layup in April seemed more distant than seven months ago. The exposure of fractured bones appeared even further in the past. Though, his perspective is current.

“I just know this game isn’t guaranteed,” George said. “At any point, it could be over. That’s the reason, this year, I wanted to play every possession, every play like it’s the last one. You don’t get second chances too often. Very fortunate to have a second chance to be able to come back and play and pick up the pieces where they were left.”

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