LOS ANGELES, (Reuters) – With each pull-up jump shot and polished offensive move, Indiana Pacers forward Paul George resembles his childhood idol Kobe Bryant, yet he has managed to carve out his own identity as one of basketball’s rising stars.
There are times when the similarities between George and Bryant, the guard for the Los Angeles Lakers, are uncanny: from the footwork and mid-range jumpers all the way down to the number 24 on both their jerseys.
But this is all by design, as the 23-year-old George has used Bryant as a basketball template en route to fulfilling his own limitless potential.
“Paul grew up idolizing Kobe,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel told Reuters. “So much of the last two years (George has heard) stories about Kobe; about how Kobe works. They’re legendary, we all know them. It’s helped to establish (George’s own) work ethic.”
It has also established George and the league-leading Pacers as arguably the most formidable threat to the reign of the two-time defending National Basketball Association (NBA) champion Miami Heat.
Indiana’s latest victory, a 105-100 road win over the Los Angeles Clippers on Sunday, ran their record to a near-flawless 16-1.
George left his imprint on the game with an array of dunks, fadeaways and play-making that resulted in 27 points, six rebounds and five assists.
As Bryant remains sidelined recovering from a torn Achilles’ tendon, George’s performance in Los Angeles was a fitting imitation of the city’s biggest star.
It was also a reminder of George’s basketball roots. Having grown up just outside Los Angeles, George watched future Hall of Famer Bryant collect acclaim and five NBA championships and dreamed of matching his feats.
After being drafted 10th overall by the Pacers in 2010, George received his strongest link to Bryant in 2011 when Indiana hired then assistant coach Brian Shaw.
Shaw, now a head coach with the Denver Nuggets, arrived in Indiana armed with countless Bryant tales as Shaw played alongside him and also served as a longtime Lakers assistant.
“I had a lot of growth from having (Shaw) and hearing about how Kobe prepares and gets ready for games,” George said. “(Kobe) is somebody that plays both sides of the ball. He’s willing to put everything on the line. I’m going to give everything I have, and try to affect the game in every way I can.”
George has been an intriguing talent since he reached the NBA, but his coming-out party occurred last season when Indiana pushed Miami to a decisive seventh game in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Going one-on-one with league MVP LeBron James, and holding his own with averages 19.4 points, six rebounds and 5.1 assists, George served notice to the NBA that he was an emerging force. Following an off-season of dogged training that would make even Bryant proud, George has made good on his promise.
The 6-foot-9 George is an improved player in every facet, and is guiding the Pacers with 23.8 points per game, 6.1 rebounds and 2.1 steals.
He is also the team’s unofficial leader in confidence.
“Paul has brought back a demeanor (this year) where every time he shoots it’s going in,” said Indiana big man Roy Hibbert. “He brings it on the defensive end as well.”
The Pacers made George the face of their franchise and this past off-season rewarded him with a five-year contract extension that could be worth more than $90 million after incentives.
But George’s foremost incentive is to claim an NBA championship, and the Pacers seem to have the foundation to accomplish it even if they are not yet a finished product.
“We have something special here,” George said. “We had a big emphasis over the summer to have everyone bring something back and be better.
“We can (still) become a lot better.”