INDIANAPOLIS — Paul George put himself on the clock Thursday.
Almost seven months after a gruesome leg injury seemingly ended his season, the Pacers' star finished his first full practice — three days ahead of schedule. Now, the next countdown can begin: When will he play?
"I've got LeBron tomorrow night," George joked, referring to Indiana's game Friday night against Cleveland.
While there's no chance of that happening and no established timetable for his comeback, one thing is certain: The two-time All-Star has progressed faster than anybody expected when his right leg gruesomely snapped last summer after hitting a basketball stanchion. Doctors operated on the leg later that night in Las Vegas, where George was working out with the U.S. national team.
Even George knows he's not ready yet.
When asked if his vertical jump was back, he joked that it was fine in his left leg. He also noted he needs to be in better condition and move better than he did Thursday to regain his elite form.
Indiana is playing it safe with one of the NBA's brightest young players. The 24-year-old forward who led the Pacers to the Eastern Conference finals the last two seasons, spent the last portion of practice working on the wing and near the top of the key to avoid unnecessary contact.
In some ways, George already looks like his old self. He smiled and slapped hands with teammates when they ran plays. He worked out mostly with the Pacers' regular starters, took some long range and midrange shots and was one of the last players to leave the court after another round of individual shooting drills.
The biggest change Thursday, though, was that he participated in full-court drills — something he was prohibited from doing when he last spoke with reporters three weeks ago.
Back then, coach Frank Vogel said George had ramped up his activity and was working in half-court situations. But Vogel isn't going to risk the Pacers' future by pushing his top player too hard or too fast.
"Paul is not going to be out there unless he's Paul George," Vogel said. "He's eager to get back on the court, but not before he's ready. Once he's mentally cleared to play in a game, he's still got to be ready to (actually) play in a game."
George said he has passed tests on his running, jumping and cutting abilities. After practice, he also said the leg felt good though he admitted he does go through bouts of soreness, something that will continue to be monitored.
When fans do finally see George pull on his new number, 13, it might not be the only noticeable difference. He has added about 10 pounds to his 6-foot-9 frame, pushing his weight to the 230- to 235-pound range. During rehab, he also has been working hard on improving his shot.
None of it is a surprise to the Pacers brain trust.
Team doctors told president of basketball operations Larry Bird in August that George's leg should be fully healed by March 1, and nobody inside the organization ruled out George's possible return this season. Bird has even encouraged George to come back this season, if he's comfortable with playing, a clear signal that the Pacers have no intention of "tanking" to get a lottery pick in June's draft..
Instead, the Pacers (23-34) seem to be hitting their stride.
They have won six of their last eight and started Thursday as one of six teams within 2 1/2 games of the final two playoff spots in the East. With injuries taking a toll on other playoff contenders, notably Miami and Chicago, a healthy George could give Indiana a late-season boost and help the Pacers make a postseason run.
Of course, there's no guarantee George will return to the court in time to help or that he will be in top form if he does come back. He still has a noticeable bump on the lower right leg, is still trying to get comfortable pushing off the leg and is still trying to prove to himself that the leg can withstand the contact of NBA games.
That's why the Pacers and George haven't established a timetable for his return to game action.
But even George wants to be back sooner rather than later.
"Things are looking good," he said. "After it happened, I didn't think I'd be at this point right now, but I'm happy to be at this point now."