Eight years later, Paul George and Kawhi Leonard are together. The Clippers forwards were almost teammates when George played for the Indiana Pacers and the team drafted a 19-year-old prospect from San Diego State in 2011.
Instead, George watched Leonard grow from afar after the mild-mannered wing player was traded to San Antonio, transformed from a defensive specialist to all-around star and won two NBA championships. Getting to bear witness up close this year hasn’t disappointed.
“Everything is true about his makeup,” George said of Leonard. “Works hard, great teammate, great locker room guy.
“He actually does talk,” George added with a laugh. “He’s a fun guy. The legend’s true.”
George, who is coming off a most-valuable-player-caliber season in which he posted career bests in points (28), rebounds (8.2), assists (4.1) and steals (2.2) for Oklahoma City, soon will get to write a story alongside Leonard. When George returns from two shoulder surgeries, the combination of him and Leonard has beautiful possibilities for the Clippers, in search of their first championship.
“Their game has its similarities,” said Clippers forward Patrick Patterson, who played with George in Oklahoma City the last two seasons. “You can see everything Kawhi is doing, Paul can do as well, but Paul is just another equal, beautiful option out there.”
George, who participated in live drills Saturday for the first time since undergoing shoulder surgeries in May and June, won’t play Monday against the Toronto Raptors (6-2) after the team ruled him out Sunday. Patterson said George already showed “flashes” of the player who finished third in last year’s MVP voting. It was in his defensive prowess, ability to get steals and hit “nothing but net” jump shots.
George said he hopes to transition easily into the team’s system when ready. He doesn’t want to interrupt the flow that’s gotten the Clippers (6-3) to fifth in the NBA in offensive rating and seventh in net rating. When he is not managing his workload and sitting next to George on the bench, Leonard has averaged 29 points, 8.1 rebounds, 5.4 assists and 2.1 steals.
Coach Doc Rivers said he believes the stars will align with their high basketball IQ and serious approach to the game. But it will take time.
“The only thing to do is just play,” Leonard said. “It’s hard to do it any other way. You got to go out there, play, like I said, make mistakes, argue, having great communication and moving forward.”
The Southern California natives maneuvered their way to L.A. together after Leonard led the Raptors to their first title last season and George manufactured a trade from the Thunder. They’re two players who are as tenacious on defense as they are on offense. George, who led the NBA in steals last season, will give the team an option for a larger lineup on defense, Rivers said, although the coach did not know definitively whose role George would fill upon his return.
While the six-time All-Star forward said he doesn’t want to disrupt the team, a shakeup is guaranteed nonetheless.
“Anybody who thinks they’re going to keep their minutes and Paul’s not going to get them is probably not very rational, anyway, when you think about it,” Rivers said. “That’s why teams work, because you have to understand that.”
VS. TORONTO RAPTORS
When: 7:30 p.m., Monday.
Where: Staples Center.
On the air: TV: Prime; Radio: 570.
Update: The Raptors are 7-2 after defeating the Lakers 113-104 on Sunday evening without star point guard Kyle Lowry (fractured thumb) and forward Serge Ibaka (ankle sprain), who were both injured during a 122-104 victory over the Pelicans in New Orleans on Friday night. Forward Pascal Siakam had 24 points and 11 rebounds in the defeat of the Lakers.