When LeBron James exchanged a low-five with Paul George during Game 2 of last year's Eastern Conference Finals, he was telling us everything we needed to know about the Indiana Pacers swingman's superstar potential.
Skeptics might argue that he was just being friendly, but there was something special about that hand slap. It was almost as though the King was giving his blessing to an eventual successor.
At the time, George was capably going toe-to-toe with James, trading highlights and earning LBJ's respect in the process. Indiana ultimately fell short in the series, but anyone who watched the entire seven-game engagement had to come away wanting to offer George an appreciative low-five of their own.
Before anyone gets carried away, it's critical to acknowledge that George isn't yet on James' level.
Kevin Durant is the only player whose overall skill puts him in the vicinity of the league's reigning MVP. But George is just 23, and he's already proved that he's not afraid to embrace the challenge of facing the NBA's best player head on.
The 2013-14 campaign will be a pivotal one for George as he'll look to take the next step in his James-sanctioned journey toward superstardom.
By looking at what he's shown so far—as well as analyzing how much more growth could be in store—we can get a better idea of exactly how high George's NBA ceiling might be.
Offense: Plenty of Work to Do
As a shooter, George struggled to maintain solid percentages as he took on a larger-than-expected role last season. With Danny Granger sidelined, the ball frequently found Indiana's third-year wing as the shot clock wound down. So-called "bailout" looks are usually death to a player's field-goal percentage, and they certainly did George no favors in 2012-13.
With a spike in overall usage rate, not to mention the increase in difficult looks that came along with his larger role, came a drop in efficiency.
On the whole, George posted a true-shooting percentage of just 53 percent, a figure that ranked 29th among qualifying small forwards last year, per ESPN (subscription required).
As he continues to acclimate himself to alpha-dog status, expect George's shooting numbers to improve. The upticks in accuracy that George enjoyed between his rookie and sophomore seasons were real, and his positive shooting trajectory would likely have continued were it not for Granger's absence last year.
Fundamentally, George's perimeter stroke is sound. He probably needs to cut out some of the right-leaning drift that keeps him from finishing square toward his target, but he gets good elevation, has solid form and will definitely benefit from better shot selection as he matures.
And even in a season that saw his shooting numbers dip a bit, George's 2012-13 shot chart shows that from most of his high-volume areas, he was still at least a league-average shooter.
Expect his perimeter game to improve, with a three-point percentage eventually approaching 40 percent—remember, he hit 38.5 percent from long range in 2011-12—and an overall field-goal percentage somewhere around 48 percent.
For all the talk of his perimeter game, a big part of George's potential growth as a scorer will have to come at the rim. Frankly, it's surprising that a player with such obvious physical gifts converted close-range looks at just a 59 percent clip in 2012-13, per NBA.com.
That number sounds good, but among players who made at least 100 field goals inside the restricted area last year, George's 59.4 percent conversion rate ranked 101st.
Don't worry, though. George is adept with both hands, can elevate with the best of them and is still just barely scratching the surface of his potential as a foul-drawing magnet in the lane.
Because we know he's capable of plays like that one, there's little reason to worry about George having a problem with interior finishes in the future.
Finally, guys who want to wear the superstar mantle have to be able to facilitate on offense. It can't always be about scoring.
In that regard, George is already well ahead of the curve. He averaged 4.1 assists per game last year, and though he offset that number with 2.9 turnovers per contest, it was clear from watching him that he's got the unselfish makeup necessary to become a very good set-up artist.
Stepping back for a moment, it's kind of incredible that George's offense—easily the weakest part of his overall game—figures to reach elite levels sooner than later.
Defense: Fully Formed
It's possible that as we continue to develop a firmer grasp on how to quantify a player's defensive contributions, we'll come to find out that George is already a superstar.
It has become a cliche to say so, but the fact that defense is literally half of the NBA game is too often forgotten when evaluating players. In theory, the best individual defender in the league should be valued as highly as the best scorer.
Unfortunately, we haven't yet reached the point where we have a metric that expresses defensive dominance as clearly as a points-per-game average. But by all of the available metrics—and the still-valuable "eye test"—George is a stud on D.
According to Synergy Sports (subscription required), he ranked in the top 20 percent of all NBA defenders last year. And it's not like George had the luxury of taking nights off or matching up with an easy assignment every once in a while. Quite the opposite, actually.
Whenever the Pacers took the floor, George handled the other team's most dangerous wing player. Despite that, he still rated as a terrific stopper.
According to 82games.com, the always-stingy Pacers were even stingier when George was on the floor. Indiana allowed 2.7 fewer points per 100 possessions when he was in the lineup.
It's no mystery why George is already on par with the NBA's most versatile perimeter defenders: His long arms, quick feet and savvy understanding of help positioning are all ideal components of an elite defensive player.
It's as though he was created in a lab to wreak havoc against shooting guards, small forwards and even smaller power forwards. As the league heads toward a future that features more and more stretch-4's, that defensive versatility is going to become even more valuable.
Defense doesn't count for much if a team can't end a possession by securing a rebound, though. And it's on the glass where George really shines.
Among small forwards who played as many minutes as George did last year, only James and Durant posted higher rebound rates, per ESPN (subscription required).
As he gains experience, George is almost certainly going to become an even better defensive player. But even if his development on that end stopped today, he'd still be on the very short list of the NBA's elite wing defenders.
Put simply, he has the ability to become the best perimeter stopper in the league. How's that for a superstar ceiling?
A King's Blessing
Appropriately, our evaluation of George ends where it began: with the low-five that signaled the arrival of a new star.
James had seen all he needed to see from George.
The then-22-year-old forward had shown that he was an objectively excellent player. He had also displayed the ability to lead his team when it mattered most by taking the tough shots at the end of Game 1, equally prepared to accept the roles of hero and goat.
Most of all, George not only refused to back down but actually raised his game against the league's indisputable King.
The numbers are going to catch up soon—perhaps as quickly as this season. But George already has all of the intangible qualities a true superstar needs. He's ready to join the league's elite right now.
Just ask LeBron James.