INDIANAPOLIS — No one has to remind Paul George about expectations. He knows all about them.
Widely regarded as the Indiana Pacers player with the most untapped potential, and possibly the gateway to their lofty playoff ambitions, George is the center of the expectations universe heading into his third NBA season.
But he doesn’t mind.
Coming off his first season as a full-time starter, the versatile shooting guard/small forward expects to deliver results.
“I’ve got a lot of pressure going into my third year,” said George, the Pacers’ first-round draft pick in 2010. “People are expecting me to really get out of the shadows of Danny Granger or Roy Hibbert, or whatever, so I’m ready for the task.”
George isn’t the only one who thinks so.
Coaches who monitored his offseason work and teammates who worked out with him over the summer insist they saw an improved version of a versatile player who wasn’t exactly bad last season.
Possessor of rare physical gifts and an array of offensive and defensive skills, the 6-foot-9, 215-pound George started all 66 games last season and averaged career-bests of 12.1 points, 5.6 rebounds, 2.4 assists and 1.6 steals per game. Hardly sorry numbers, but the Pacers are convinced his ceiling is much higher.
“I’m very pleased with his development. To go from being a rookie to doing what he did last year was a huge step,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. “We think he’s capable of taking another huge step, at both ends of the (court). If you watched those pickup games in September, most guys don’t play any defense in pickup games in September. He’s coming out looking to dominate.
“He’s got an in-your-face mentality, and he’s all over the place with his hands. Offensively, he’s just looking to be more assertive.”
George’s challenge is to do it in an offense in which last season he typically was the fourth, and sometimes the fifth, option in a lineup of Granger, Hibbert, David West and George Hill. In light of the veteran company, George admits he often deferred to teammates, and other times was simply too timid to look for his own shot.
But with not-so-subtle encouragement from coaches and the supporting cast, George expects to be less bashful when presented with scoring opportunities.
“I improved a lot. I think it’ll be noticed. During training camp, it’ll be noticed,” George said. “I grew with confidence, ball-handling, just on-court savviness. I’m feeling confident this year.
“I think it’ll be a big year for myself, as well as the team.”
Granger, citing George’s playoff experience the past seasons as reason for optimism, agrees.
“Paul, he really is a rare talent, a guy that’s 6-9 who can guard and defend and shoot and (can) pretty much do everything,” Granger said. “I think what he experienced last year in the playoffs was great for him. It really got his fire going. He’s driven. I’ve seen him doing things in a way that he hasn’t done before.
“When you’re a rookie or in your second year, sometimes you’re kind of hesitant about things, but now he’s a veteran in this league. He’s playing that way.”
Hill, the Pacers’ starting point guard and George’s backcourt mate, has noticed the same.
“He worked very hard this summer, especially on his ball handling,” Hill said. “I just have high hopes for him this year. I’m sure he’s going to come out and have a breakout season.”
George has the same expectation. His objective, though, is to do it in the context of a long playoff run.
Playoff participants the past two seasons, the Pacers advanced to last year’s Eastern Conference semifinals, where they jumped to a 2-1 series lead against the Miami Heat before succumbing to the eventual NBA champions.
With the return of the entire starting lineup, and the offseason acquisitions of point guard D.J. Augustin, swingman Gerald Green and center Ian Mahinmi to shore up the bench, George shares a collective Pacers opinion that they are poised for a run at the East title.
“I think we can. The people upstairs made sure that we can compete with the Miami Heat. I think we’re up there,” George said. “We’ve got a good group and a team that’s going to compete.
“The next step was improving on our second unit, and we took a huge step in that direction.”