Sans Danny Granger, who was once considered to be their best player, the Indiana Pacers are on the verge of advancing past the New York Knicks and into the Eastern Conference Finals. And while they depended upon the underrated talents of George Hill, the leadership of David West and the inconsistent stylings of Roy Hibbert, it's George who they have ridden into prominence.
Operating as Indiana's go-to everything, George had the best regular season of his three-year career by far. He closed out 2012-13 averaging 17.4 points, 7.6 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 1.8 steals. He converted on just 41.9 percent of his field-goal attempts, but that didn't matter. Not nearly as much as everything else he was able to do.
At only 23 and now with an All-Star selection to his name, George was considered a rising star. And rightfully so.
He had become just the 10th player in NBA history to average at least 16 points, seven rebounds, four assists and 1.5 steals per game before his 24th birthday. It was a feat that put him in the company of Larry Bird, Kevin Garnett, LeBron James and Magic Johnson, among others. It was special. And he was rewarded for it.
George was named the NBA's Most Improved Player, much to the surprise of any Jrue Holiday supporters, but generally applauded all the same. That, along with his All-Star credentials, should have been enough. We should have been sold.
But not everyone was.
Although his accomplishments gave him star status, there was still something (unjustly) separating himself from the rest of the league's superstars—postseason success. Not in the sense that he had to win a championship (see Carmelo Anthony), but that he had to prove he was worth building around.
Could the Pacers contend in the postseason with him as their primary identity? Could he lead his team to some measure of postseason success? Was he worthy of a max contract, or was he perhaps a prolific facade?
Paul George is the NBA's next max player— Brian Windhorst (@WindhorstESPN) May 15, 2013
The latter is a fair question. George is due to enter restricted free agency after next season, which means he's eligible for an extension.
This side of the lockout, it's become common practice to scrutinize the potential of any players entering the last legs of their rookie contracts. The Denver Nuggets (Ty Lawson), Golden State Warriors (Stephen Curry) and Philadelphia 76ers (Jrue Holiday) all exercised extreme caution when it came to assessing the market value of their prized prospects.
No such trepidation is needed when it comes to George, though. He's not on the cusp of stardom; he's there. What he's actually on the precipice of is being compensated like one.
Anyone who watched George knows he wasn't feigning stardom or was some flash in the pan that would disappear overnight, or even next season. George was for real. Playoff success now in hand, arguments to the contrary are less than feeble.
For the postseason, George is averaging 18.3 points, 8.8 rebounds, five assists and 1.9 steals per game. If those averages hold, he'll become just the 15th player in NBA history to post at least 18 points, eight rebounds, five assists and 1.5 steals per game through his entire playoff run.
Once again, we find George pitting himself next to Hall of Famers like Magic, Bird, Scottie Pippen and Clyde Drexler, as well as future Hall of Famers like LeBron and Garnett.
It's not just his individual numbers either, but what he has meant to the Pacers all year, especially now.
Thanks to George, Indiana is in a position of power against the Knicks. New York's offense has spent most of the series wallowing in ineptitude because of the Pacers' stout defensive sets. And George has led the cause on that end (both ends, really) by shutting down the Knicks' greatest weapon—Anthony.
Anthony is averaging 26 points per game in the series, but is shooting just 40.9 percent of the field. And he's fared even worse when George is defending him.
Per ESPN Stats & Information (via Brian Windhorst of ESPN.com), 'Melo is shooting just 32 percent from the floor when being defended by George, a number that has aided in the debilitation of the Knicks offense.
'Melo's shooting woes attest to George's superior length and overall defensive capabilities. Few players in the league can legitimately be considered two-way stars, yet he's one of them, which shouldn't be a surprise.
George has been amongst the most elite of defenders all year. It's what truly separates him from the pack. The NBA is laden with scorers and playmakers, but George's unbridled effort on the defensive end has put him in a class shared by a select few. His teammates recognize this.
"He's got length and good feet and he's never really out of position even when he gets beat he's in the rear view contesting the shot," West said of his teammate (via Windhorst). "Melo is the best 1-on-1 player in the league, he can get shots from anywhere and he can make shots from anywhere. And PG embraces that challenge."
He's always embraced "that challenge." But because he doesn't play in Miami, New York or Los Angeles, he hasn't garnered the same praise as some of peers. And it's left many surprised at how complete a player he really is.
Is Paul George worthy of a max contract?
Refer to the postseason as George's coming-out party if you must, but understand this is nothing new. His ceiling was always this broad, his future always this blinding. He played at this level the entire season.
Any who have believed otherwise have missed out. Those who disagree are still missing out and depriving themselves the opportunity to embrace the NBA's next max superstar.
That's what George is, after all, a superstar—a warranted status his next contract is destined to reflect.
*All stats in this article were compiled from Basketball-Reference and NBA.com unless otherwise attributed.