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April 23, 2013

Pacers' George named NBA's Most Improved

INDIANAPOLIS — Pacers forward Paul George spent the past summer turning himself into a better player.

Now he’s planning to dedicate himself to becoming the NBA’s best all-around player.

A few minutes after accepting the league’s Most Improved Player Award, the 6-foot-9 swingman promised to work even harder to attain the biggest rewards of all — an NBA title and perhaps an MVP.

“I think I can play at an MVP level. I think that’s very much within reach,” George said Tuesday. “For me, it’s all about being consistent and having that aggressive mindset.”

George has already emerged as one of the league’s top young players, which explains his runaway victory in the balloting. He received 52 of 120 first-place votes and 311 points, more than double the total of New Orleans’ Greivis Vasquez, who had 13 first-place votes and 146 points. Milwaukee’s Larry Sanders was third with 141 points and was one of three players to receive 10 first-place votes.

As part of the award, a 2012 Kia Sorrento will be donated to the Hawthorne Community Center, George’s hand-picked charity.

George is also expected to be one of the top vote-getters for the Defensive Player of the Year Award, an honor coach Frank Vogel lobbied hard for Tuesday.

The question is whether George has what it takes to challenge for the league’s top individual honor.

“With the physical talent he has, with the drive he has, there’s no ceiling for him,” Vogel said.

If 2012-13 proved anything, it’s that George is a man of his word.

Before leaving town after last season’s Eastern Conference semifinal loss to LeBron James and eventual champion Miami, George walked into Vogel’s office and promised to come back with a more aggressive mindset and as a more versatile scorer.

James’ guidance helped him reach those goals.

The two worked out together in Las Vegas as the U.S. team prepared for the Olympics, but all the while George was watching and learning from the best — not just James.

“It was huge. Me, growing up, idolizing guys like Kobe, watching his whole regimen, watching what time he got up to work out, watching what he was putting in his body,” George said. “The younger guys, we was totally the opposite, so I had to kind of take notes and follow what they were doing.”

The results impressed his teammates, coaches and many around the league.

George averaged 17.4 points and 7.6 rebounds this season, both career highs, and was the only player in the league with at least 140 steals and 50 blocks. He earned his first All-Star appearance, led Indiana to its first Central Division crown in nine years and became the fourth Pacers player to win the Most Improved Player Award since 2000. The others were Jalen Rose, Jermaine O’Neal and Danny Granger.

In 2011-12, George averaged 12.1 points and 5.6 rebounds and made just 19 of 52 shots from the field in the 4-2 playoff loss to the Heat.

The announcement came less than 48 hours after George played his most complete game of the season, too. He joined Mark Jackson as the only players in franchise history to record a triple double in the NBA playoffs. George finished with 23 points, 11 rebounds and 12 assists in the Pacers’ 107-90 Game 1 win over Atlanta — giving Indiana its first 1-0 series lead since 2006. Game 2 is Wednesday night in Indy.

After showing steady improvement through each of his first two NBA seasons, George finally got his chance to lead when Granger went down with a left knee injury. Granger, Indiana’s top scorer the previous five seasons, played in only five games.

So George took it upon himself to make up for the absence.

“He’s a rare breed with his purity for the game and his willingness to play team basketball at both ends of the court and his drive to get better,” Vogel said. “I think he was ready to explode whether Danny was in or out.”

Despite shooting just 3 of 13 from the field Sunday, George made his first 17 foul shots to tie Reggie Miller’s postseason mark for best free-throw percentage in a single game, then missed his 18th and final attempt.

Soon he was picking up his first big award.

He doesn’t expect it to be his last.

“A lot of players don’t get an opportunity to make the playoffs and have a team that can win the championship,” George said. “Coach says all the time that this could be your last time in the playoffs. So I’ve really not focused on where I need to get better or thought about the offseason yet.”

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