George Enters Brave New World

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by Mark Montieth |

September 25, 2013

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Now that Paul George has a contract that pays him about as much as NBA rules and the Pacers' checking account allow, he faces a new challenge: keeping the moving vans at bay.

The 23-year-old man-child signed a five-year deal on Wednesday morning that will go into effect after the upcoming season. The exact dollar figure can't be determined until July 8, when the salary cap for the 2014-15 season is determined. It also will depend on whether George had been named to any of the league's honor teams. We know this much for sure, though. He's going to make a whole lot of money, probably more than $90 million, over the course of the contract.

The obvious question now is whether all the trappings smother George's dedication. He says no, of course.

“I'm going to do everything in my will to continue to improve and continue to be the face of this team,” George said following the press conference in the Bankers Life Fieldhouse lobby. “I really want to put everything that I have into this team. I'm not going to hold anything back on the court, or off the court. I'm really going to give all my time and all my dedication to this organization, as much as they gave to me.”

Those are nice words, and the sort of thing players usually say when a franchise goes all-in with them. No athlete has ever been quoted saying, “Now that I've got it made, I'm going to relax and stop working so hard.” George, however, deserves the benefit of the doubt. He was a college sophomore who had been named second-team all-conference at Fresno State when Bird took him with the 10th pick in the draft. He's become one of the most complete and promising players in the NBA by supplementing his physical gifts with a major league work ethic. This, remember, was the guy who, after going scoreless at Golden State on Dec. 1 last season, headed straight for the practice gym at the fieldhouse when the team's red-eye flight landed to put up 501 shots – and then scored 34 points in a victory at Chicago in the next game.

Remember, too, that after recording the second triple-double in the Pacers' NBA playoff history against Atlanta last season, he bluntly stated his career ambition: “I want to be a baller.” In other words, a complete player, who considers defense as much fun as offense. So, whenever he's asked how he wants to improve next season, George mentions things such as becoming a better leader, reducing turnovers and improving his ability to create shots for himself and create scoring opportunities for teammates.

“I feel like I'm nowhere close to being the player I want to be,” he said. “Every year I take a jump closer to where I want to be. Being 23, it's the start of where I want to be as a player and a person.”

Should George ever find his dedication flagging, he can find motivation from the instructive careers of Jalen Rose and Jermaine O'Neal. Like him, they had won the NBA's Most Improved Player award with the Pacers. Like him, they were young, accomplished players with plenty of upside remaining when they signed a max contract with the Pacers. Both, however, were later traded away, and became journeymen.

Rose signed for seven years and more than $90 million in the summer of 2000, after he had led the Pacers in scoring when they reached the NBA Finals. He followed up by averaging 20.5 points amid a rebuilding season, a career-high to that point. But with the Pacers still floundering in 2001-02, he was traded to Chicago as part of a seven-player deal that brought Brad Miller, Ron Artest, Kevin Ollie and Ron Mercer. He wound up playing for six teams before retiring in 2007.

O'Neal signed a seven-year deal worth $126 million in 2003. He averaged 20.1 points and 10 rebounds the following season, finishing third in the MVP voting for a team that won a franchise-record 61 games. He averaged a career-high 24.3 points the following season, when he played just 44 games because of the suspension that resulted from the brawl at the Palace of Auburn Hills. His performance then gradually declined because of injuries and turmoil surrounding the team, and he was traded to Toronto in 2008. He will play next season for Golden State, his seventh NBA team.

Bird coached Rose and was the team president who traded O'Neal – receiving the draft pick that landed Roy Hibbert in the process – so he knows the risks of the kind of contract that George just signed. He's not worried, however.

“I know we've had some in the past that didn't really work out,” Bird said. “This kid's different. He's really different. Every time he speaks, you know he's telling the truth, because you've heard him say it over and over.”

It's possible, of course, for a player to ride the waves of change every franchise endures over the course of a decade or two, but only if his performance and attitude are sufficient. Reggie Miller did it, playing 18 seasons with the Pacers through seasons both thick and thin because he maintained his professionalism and found ego-less ways to contribute as a supporting player late in his career.

Bird believes George can do the same.

“Before it's all said and done, he can be on a level playing field with Reggie,” Bird said. “That's hard for me to say, because Reggie was here 18 years. But he's got charisma, he cares, he's out in the community, he does (charitable) things all the time and he really wanted to be here.”

The next trick is to make the Pacers really want him to be here as well. For many seasons to come.

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