Paul George is getting plenty of MVP buzz this season alongside James Harden and Giannis Antetokounmpo. He’s done it through an incredible leap on both ends of the floor, elevating him from a top-15 player into one of the five or six best players in the league today.
Of course, he’ll have to perform at this level in the playoffs in order to solidify his place among the league’s elite, but it’s been the type of year that Oklahoma City dreamt of after giving him a max contract this past summer. There are plenty of aspects of his game to break down, from his all-world defense to his J.J. Redick-like off-ball movement and shooting, but today we’re going to take a look at an under-appreciated part of his game: his scoring acumen in pick-and-roll.
George is a patient scorer in pick-and-roll situations, which gives him time to read his opponents and make the right decision with the ball in his hands. In combination with his improved handle and a nearly fully optimized role next to Russell Westbrook, he’s putting up the lowest turnover rate of his career and is an elite pick-and-roll creator, both for himself and his teammates. The threat of his top-tier three-point shot keeps defenses flying over ball screens, where he has the strength and ball control to keep his defender behind him and attack the paint. Sending defenders over ball screens isn’t particularly rare — in fact, it’s the base defensive scheme for most teams — but George’s multifaceted skill set makes pick-and-roll defense nearly impossible for the Thunder’s opponents.
Like all the best pick-and-roll operators, George’s focus in ball screen actions isn’t on his defender, but on the big man, who has a few different choices when his offensive counterpart sets the ball screen. You often hear players tell the media, “I just take what the defense gives me,” but it really couldn’t be truer for George, who reads the defensive big man and makes the correct decision more often than not.
When the defense is playing more conservatively and drops their big man deep into the paint to deter rim attacks, George has become adept at curling over the screen and sidestepping into a mid-range jumper.
This technique, often called “snaking” a pick-and-roll, puts the defender out of the play temporarily as George cuts in front of him after taking the screen. The big man is too deep to do anything about George’s jumper, which is going in at a good rate. He’s posting a 108.7 offensive rating on these sort of pull-up jumpers, which include snaking for mid-rangers and finding openings beyond the three-point line.
Speaking of that three-point shot, George’s improved handle has opened up a whole new world of threes he can take and make in the pick-and-roll. When faced with “ice” or “down” defense, the opposing team cuts him off from taking the screen in an attempt to funnel him toward the dropping big man. In previous years, George would take the opening and attack, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but becomes predictable after so many instances of a repeated choice.
This year, George’s left-to-right crossover has gotten so good that he’s able to take one hard dribble toward the rim, then lurch back to his left after his defender reacts, opening up the three-point shot.
In the above clip, Portland’s Moe Harkless jumps over Steven Adams’ screen in an attempt to force George to take the baseline drive toward a dropping Jusuf Nurkic. George jabs toward Nurkic and Harkless follows, only for George to break out his left-to-right between-the-legs crossover to get back to the middle of the floor, where Nurkic is nowhere to be found. George nails the triple as Harkless stumbles away toward the corner, a common occurrence whenever George handles in pick-and-roll.
When George is unable to cross back up to the middle for that jumper, he uses the same principles as he does in normal pick-and-rolls to keep his defender on his back. He’ll still cross back over once or twice to set up his defender, then burst toward the rim to ensure they can’t get back into the play.
George is having a wonderful season for the Oklahoma City Thunder, one that will garner him all kinds of consideration in awards voting at the end of the regular season. After his fourth third-team All-NBA appearance last year, George has made the most difficult leap in the NBA, going from a star to a superduperstar. Already a max player worthy of consistent All-NBA consideration but rarely getting into the MVP conversation — he has one top-ten MVP finish to his name — he’s in line to finish at least third in MVP voting and earn his first appearance on one of the top two All-NBA teams.
There is a lot of competition at the top for the two first-team forward spots, and with one almost certain to go to Antetokounmpo, George is in for a fight for the second spot alongside Kevin Durant, LeBron James, and Kawhi Leonard. George has to be the favorite at this point for that spot, given his spot in the MVP conversation compared to the others, but it remains to be seen just how high his otherworldly improvement will push him.