Paul George Primed for Stardom as Pacers Win Season Opener

David Murphy@@davem234Featured ColumnistOctober 30, 2013

Oct 29, 2013; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Indiana Pacers forward Paul George (24) is guarded by Orlando Magic forward Maruice Harkless (21) during the game at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

For Paul George, entering a pivotal fourth year in the NBA, the question is whether he can make the jump from star to superstar.

George signed a well-publicized max contract extension this past September. Indiana Pacers head executive Larry Bird didn't want to wait until the end of the season, when George could have become a restricted free agent. Instead, he pulled the trigger on a deal that will net the 23-year-old forward between $80 and $90 million over five seasons. The numbers could soar even higher through an escalator clause.

Clearly, the Pacers are all-in.

On Tuesday night, George presented a compelling case for management's commitment as the Pacers opened their season at home, beating the Orlando Magic 97-87. George gave the crowd a show with 24 points. It wasn't a perfect game by any stretch, though.

The Pacers started strong before careless turnovers allowed the Orlando Magic back in. The league's worst team last year at 20-62 actually went to the half with a four-point lead.

The Pacers settled down in the second half. The third quarter ended with George nailing a classic step-back buzzer-beater. Indiana pulled away in the fourth and won comfortably. George was the game's leading scorer and also filled the stat sheet with six boards, five assists, three blocks and a steal. Among the highlights was a crowd-pleasing swat against Orlando's overall No. 2 draft pick, Victor Oladipo. 

Signed as the 10th overall pick in the 2010 draft, George has progressed steadily for the Pacers. His glow-in-the-dark 360 in the 2012 Sprite Slam Dunk Contest showed he had some showman in him. In George's third season, he won the league's Most Improved Player award to go along with All-Star status, plus second-team All-Defense and third-team All-NBA honors.

All-Star honors and accolades are nice, but it was last year's playoffs that truly put the league on notice. George scored a triple-double in the first round against the Atlanta Hawks. The Pacers won that series and advanced to the second round against the New York Knicks. With a team depleted by injuries, George stepped up and helped power the Pacers to their first Eastern Conference Finals in nine years.

And then came the Miami Heat. An epic series with George battling mano a mano against LeBron James, the best in the game. It's an almost impossible task, but it's also a challenge that can propel a career. In an epic Game 2 win against the Heat, George threw down a monstrous dunk on James. In the end, the Heat went on to win the series as well as the NBA Finals.

George and the Pacers had served notice on the league however. George wasn't a star in waiting, he had already arrived.

The question for George this season is whether the hard-working forward can take the next step in his trajectory to be one of the league's truly elite players. On the heels of signing his new contract, the forward went through a rough October, sidelined by a bronchial infection after returning from the team's Asia trip.

The long road ahead will tell if Paul George is ready for the big time. There will be bigger challenges than knocking off the Magic at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Still, if the forward's season debut is any indication at all, he appears ready to move onward and upward.