LAS VEGAS – The apprenticeship ended earlier than expected for Paul George. It ended earlier than anyone expected, facilitated no doubt by his breakout 2012-13 season and the Indiana Pacers’ spirited run to the Eastern Conference finals.
The end of that process, however, gave way to another even more unexpected transition for George the past two months. He went from a promising young NBA talent, an All-Star even, to a player atop almost everyone’s hot list of the next wave of superstars the league has to offer.
Fans in his native Southern California have already tagged him as the current star capable of soothing the burn for Los Angeles Lakers’ faithful still suffering from the shock of Dwight Howard bolting for Houston. That pipe dream was one George all but dismissed publicly after his first workout during the U.S. Men’s Senior National Team mini-camp this week on the campus of UNLV.
“It’s certainly more notoriety,” George said of the wicked increase in attention he has received since going to toe-to-toe with and holding his own against Miami’s LeBron James on Eastern Conference finals stage. “It’s not the same. Everywhere I go it’s just not the same. But it’s something I wanted. I wanted to be a franchise guy, a household name guy in this league. It’s like they say, it comes with the territory. And it’ll only make me better in the future for going through this.”
George is entering the final season of his rookie deal as arguably the best bargain in basketball: he’ll make $3.2 million this season, but he is eligible for a long-term extension. The Pacers have until Oct. 31 to get a deal done. And that shouldn’t be a problem, not with Pacers’ president Larry Bird already making it clear to Pacers fans that a “major” offer for George is on the way.
(Bird said his first order of business upon coming out of retirement to take over running the show he built in Indiana was to make sure then-free agent David West was taken care of, and he did that, so he should be taken at his word.)
George insists that he’s not worried about anything and that his camp and the Pacers’ front office are “on the same page and we’ll get the job done.”
The headline on that page has to be about George coming of age and moving into the role of ringleader for a Pacers team that is poised to challenge the Heat — and anyone else in the Eastern Conference — for the right to play in The Finals. What looks like a challenge from a distance (avoiding a tug of war between Gorge and returning Pacers swingman Danny Granger) is a non-issue to George, whose ability to manage the mental and emotional aspects of the game rank right up there with his devastating blend of skill and elite athleticism.
“It’s easy, with our team we don’t have ego guys,” George said. “It’s all about getting the job done. It doesn’t matter if it’s me, Danny, David or the big fella (Roy Hibbert). It’s all about who has the hot hand anyway. I think you could see that in the way we’ve played the past two years. I’m a free player and I’m open to sacrificing. Everybody on our team is sacrificing in one way or another. I think our chemistry will be great with Danny in the lineup.”
In each of those past two seasons, the first with Granger and last season without him, the Pacers took the incremental steps needed to build towards making that Finals leap. Pacers coach Frank Vogel talked about it after that Game 7 loss to the Heat and George said it has come up during nearly every conversation he’s had with any and all of his teammates since then. The time for this team to strike is now.
The Heat will be attempting to complete the arduous task of making it to The Finals for a fourth straight year, something only the Celtics (a mind-boggling 10 straight trips during the Bill Russell/Bob Cousy era from 1956-57 to 1965-66 and again by the Bird-led crew from 1983-84 to 1986-87) and Lakers (Magic Johnson‘s Showtime Lakers from 1981-82 to 1984-85) have done.
George knows the history of the game. He knows that if the Heat are going to be vulnerable, and that’s a legitimate “if,” it’s going to be next season.
“Who knows? This could be the last opportunity we have a team well put together like this,” George said. “Nothing is ever guaranteed in this league. Everybody has to sacrifice coming into training camp and really put their minds to it. We have a great opportunity. And I think now it’s about finding a way to get over that hump and making The Finals. And as we all saw [with the Heat and the Spurs], when you get there anything can happen. But I think this is our year … I really think it has to be our year.”
For George individually, he’s ready to enter that ring with the best of the NBA’s best. He earned his respect with his actions and not his words last season. And now he’s ready for more.
“That’s definitely the next step. And LeBron and those guys are obviously are obviously getting a little older, so …” George said and then laughed. “It’s a part of the league, the young guys coming in, and obviously I’m the young guy. Just being a part of this class, with all of these talented young guys here, yeah, it is about trying to make a mark and establish yourself as one of the up and coming young stars in this league. I don’t think there is a guy in this gym right now who doesn’t think he’s ready for that.”
There’s only one, though, who has resume to back it up.