Paul George returned to Thunder because they were 'authentic’ — now he has to make them genuine contenders

<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nba/players/4725/" data-ylk="slk:Paul George">Paul George</a> is determined to take his game to another level. (Getty)
Paul George is determined to take his game to another level. (Getty)

OKLAHOMA CITY — As an interview wrapped up, Paul George returned to a favored topic: fishing. An avid fisherman, George spent his first season in Oklahoma casting lines in a pond on a nearby golf course. After signing a four-year, $137 million contract with the Thunder last summer, George bought a new house — and the two-acre pond that came with it.

“I had it stocked, too,” George told Yahoo Sports, laughing. “Some bass, some carp. It’s dope. It took the fish a couple of days to get acclimated. I’ve got plenty of food in there for them, so the biting is kind of slower. But over time, the fishing will get really good. I’m out there. Nice day, nine times out of 10, I’m out there.”

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With the season opener looming, there is a decidedly different vibe in Oklahoma City. Russell Westbrook is happy. George, too. Gone is the uncertainty that came with an elite player entering a contract year. In its place are questions about the Thunder’s ceiling — and just how much better a player George can be.

“The ceiling is so high,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan told Yahoo Sports. “He’s a [five]-time All-Star. And he can still get so much better.”

This is Donovan’s focus now. At George’s exit meeting, the two didn’t talk much basketball. “He wanted time to digest the year, and I wanted it for him,” Donovan said. But since George committed to the Thunder, Donovan’s mind has been flowing with ways to better utilize the sinewy 6-foot-9 forward.

An example: Play angry, often.

“Every time he is annoyed or upset, he shifts it to a different level,” Donovan said. “How do you create that mindset all the time?”

George agrees.

“Absolutely,” George said. “Sometimes it takes that for me to really get to that potential.”

Last season was a strong one for George. He averaged 21.9 points while shooting a career-best 40.1 percent from 3-point range. But his field-goal percentage slipped three points to 43 percent and his free-throw percentage dropped into the low 80s for the first time in three years. Some of the slippage George attributed to shoulder and elbow discomfort, both of which he addressed in the offseason. Some of it was adjusting to a new role.

“In Indiana, I knew the offense in and out,” George said. “I knew spacing, I knew personnel. I knew the offense, how coach wanted to play me. So when I just wanted to take over and control the game, I could. Here it was learning how to control the game with a new coaching staff and new players. It was an adjustment. It’s still an adjustment. But I’m a little bit more comfortable.”

In the late spring, about a month before George hit free agency, Donovan flew to Southern California to meet with him. It was less a recruiting trip than an opportunity for player and coach to talk basketball.

“I love talking to him,” Donovan said. “He’s so bright, open, honest. And we just talked about things we could do differently. We talked about leadership; it’s hard to step into that role. Russ has been here for 10 years. We talked about things we can do better. Things I thought he could do better. Things he thought he could do better. He said, ‘Anything you’re seeing that you think I could be doing better, push me to do those things.’ ”

Among the topics: Be more selfish. It’s a message George received from Westbrook all season, and one he admits he was never fully comfortable with. “I don’t really classify myself as a scorer,” George said. “I’m a ballplayer, I’m a playmaker, I like to set people up and make the game easy for everybody. But Russ is out there telling me, ‘I need you to be a scorer, I need you to be a scorer. I’m going to set everyone else up, I’m going to get everyone else involved. I need you to be a scorer.’ That was an adjustment for me.”

Indeed, George takes pride in his ability to find his offense in a variety of ways. Donovan recalled times when he approached George at halftime if he didn’t feel George was getting enough shots. George would tell him not to worry about it. “He’s so wrapped up in playing defense and guarding people, he knows that offensively he will get it in so many different ways,” Donovan said. “I love that about him.”

Carmelo Anthony formed a bond with Westbrook and George, but his offseason exit should create more opportunities. They speak positively about Anthony in OKC, while noting that on the floor, the trio never quite meshed. “They were all trying to fit in together,” Donovan said. “They were all trying not to step on each other’s toes, because I think they had so much respect for each other.”

As George told Yahoo Sports this summer: “It just didn’t work.”

And George and Westbrook? Now, they have to work. Oklahoma City is all in on a George-Westbrook-Steven Adams core, which will gobble up the team’s cap space for the foreseeable future. To better prepare himself for a season with Westbrook, George spent the offseason working on becoming a better off-the-ball scorer.

“Just finding ways to get open, which I actually did a lot in Indiana,” George said. “The thing here was being ready when the ball was kicked to me. Because a lot of times Russ creates so many mismatches, so many opportunities just off his pace and his push. When I get the ball, I have to be ready to be in scoring mode.”

There are questions about why George decided to remain in Oklahoma City, spurning the Lakers and other bigger-market teams to remain in the Great Plains. To George, the answer is simple. Oklahoma was where he felt the most comfortable.

“The reason I stayed was because the relationships I gained were authentic, they were genuine,” George told Yahoo Sports. “It was a good base. There was nothing more I needed to know about anyone. Otherwise, I would have went elsewhere and tried with a new team, new organization. I felt I had a really good base and had a good relationship with the guys here. I felt like we were all on the same page from the start.”

And while there are individual improvements he hopes to make — “The only number that ever sticks out to me are turnovers,” George said — George is comfortable with those accomplishments. He’s been called an All-Star, All-NBA, one of the league’s most complete players. There is only one thing left.

“A champion, a winner,” George said. “I know what I bring to the table. I know my game offensively and defensively. I think I’m one of the best, if not the best playing two-ways. I just have to prove it playing on this stage and on the highest levels.”

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