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In two years with the Bulldogs, George lost more games than he won. He deferred to upperclassmen. He went scoreless as a sophomore against San Jose State. But Cleveland stuck with a man-to-man defense that allowed George to showcase his prowess on the ball. He was projected as a late first-round draft pick in 2010 when he started workouts at the 360 Health Club outside L.A. with former NBA sniper Don MacLean. During an early scrimmage George blew past then Wizards guard Nick Young but passed the next two possessions so as not to embarrass an elder.
"He was a really nice kid who came from a really nice family," MacLean says. "Not that your upbringing has to be bad to play like an em-effer but sometimes that's the case. He was not an assertive guy yet. I pushed him hard, and I don't think he'd ever been pushed that hard before. I told him, 'Paul, I'm going to ask you to dominate, and I wouldn't ask that if I didn't think you could.' "
Mintz sent him to train with another client in L.A., Indiana forward Danny Granger, and they grew so close that George celebrated his 19th birthday at Granger's house. The Pacers held the 10th pick and were interested in George, even though he played the same position as Granger and represented a potential quarterback controversy. "He was raw," said former Pacers general manager David Morway, "but you saw his athleticism and agility. He has all the attributes you want to build a team around." Seeking a scouting report from one of his own, Bird asked Mintz to have Granger call him. But by the day of the draft, at 1 a.m., Bird still had not heard from Granger, and he'd left two messages himself. Mintz called Granger and told him to put his phone on mute. Then he dialed George, and without telling him, looped Granger into the call. Mintz asked George, "Where do you want to go in the draft tomorrow?"
"Indiana," George replied.
"Why?" Mintz asked.
"I think I can learn so much from Danny."
Mintz hung up on George and asked Granger, "Can you call Bird now?"
Against his self-interest, Granger gave a glowing endorsement, and until this season George was little more than his tenacious sidekick. When George claimed over dinner as a rookie that he would be an All-Star by his third season, a teammate snickered. His dogged defense earned him limited minutes under coach Jim O'Brien, but he became a starter under Vogel, who took over in January 2011. "The teams winning championships then had big front lines," Vogel says. "The Lakers had Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum. The Celtics had Kevin Garnett and Kendrick Perkins, the Mavericks had Tyson Chandler and Dirk Nowitzki." The oversized Pacers, meanwhile, were jacking three-pointers like the Suns. "Guys around the league would tell me how easy it was to play us," says Hibbert. "We just shot threes all the time. And we lost."
On the day Vogel took over, he called the players together and outlined their new identity. "He told us, 'This is what I envision,' " recalls forward Tyler Hansbrough. " 'Smash-mouth, blue-collar, grind-it-out power basketball played around the rim.' " Vogel instituted his help-free defense, a system that wouldn't hum without George sealing the three-point line or Hibbert guarding the rim. The Pacers force scorers to pull up for midrange jumpers, the lowest-efficiency shot.
George was a proven stopper, but offensively he loitered along the arc, averaging just 10.0 points and 36.5% shooting in the series against Miami. When this season began and Indiana announced opening night that Granger was out indefinitely because of left knee troubles, president Donnie Walsh thought, We could be in for a long year. George had spent the summer working on his dribble with ballhandling guru Jerry Powell, his post-ups with MacLean and his stroke with Shaw. Shaw texted him during Lakers games to study Bryant. But Granger was Indy's leading scorer last season; George, with 12.1 points per game, was fourth. "Frank told me, 'You're going to have to take a larger role,' and that's exactly what I wanted," George says. "I wanted to be the go-to guy for our team."