INDIANAPOLIS — Paul George already has a winning resume.
He’s played in two All-Star Games, been the league’s Most Improved Player, reached the conference finals and led his team to the best record in the East. He is revered by teammates and coaches and has been rewarded with a max contract. He finished third overall in this year’s All-Star voting, appeared on two major magazine covers and may be on the verge of becoming a major endorser, too.
At age 24, George looks like he’ll become the next big small-market star.
“I want to crack the top five,” George said earlier this week, referring to jersey sales. “This playoff run should definitely do it.”
The truth is George never has defined success by numbers alone. Ask why the jersey sales mean something to him and George explains it’s the stamp of approval from fans who like his simple, honest style.
Corporate America, which does look at the numbers, has started noticing, too.
A year ago, George’s strong postseason performance helped Indiana push Miami to seven games in the conference finals and turned an overlooked high school and college player into an emerging star. He’s now the fifth player in league history to improve his scoring average by four or more points in three consecutive seasons while participating in 50 percent or more of his team’s games. Plus, the Pacers (56-26) finished No. 1 in the East, giving them home-court advantage through the conference finals.
Duplicate that performance in this year’s playoffs and lead the Pacers on a deep playoff run, and George could emerge as this postseason’s biggest winner. Indiana opens its first-round best-of-seven series Saturday night against Atlanta.
“There really isn’t a ceiling because each athlete can take it (the endorsements) as far as they can take it,” said Ken Ungar, president of U/S Sports Advisors, an Indianapolis-based sports and entertainment marketing agency. “I’ve seen estimates that LeBron James makes $42 million a year off endorsements. So how far can Paul take it? That’s up to him.”
George leaves the financial details to agent Aaron Mintz and a team of advisers who are aggressively trying to promote George as a prime-time pitchman.
Clearly, there is plenty to like about him.
George is still one of the last players off the court at practice and acknowledged that the Pacers’ second-half struggles taught him how to look for shots in a different way.
There are also questions. Despite rumors about his relationship with a Miami-based exotic dancer and a report last month that George had been “catfished” into providing revealing photos of himself to a man who had posed as a woman on the Internet, George has tried to stay above the fray and emphatically denied both stories.
Could that hurt George’s image with the public or with the businesses that might hire George to pitch products?
Ungar doesn’t believe it will.
“When there are accusations involving physical violence, it’s different than something embarrassing to the athlete and then it depends on whether it’s true, it’s not true,” Ungar said. “I think Paul’s charisma, his leadership on the court, all those things shine through.”
But the biggest part of making this pitch is that George needs to keep winning and perhaps even bring home a championship to cement his status as the best emerging star in basketball.
“All eyes are on you in a small market, and when you’re really the only show in town and you are the marquee player, the community looks to you,” Miller said. “PG has had a coming out party this year, third in all-around votes, an All-Star starter and rightfully so. He should be in the top five in MVP voting, and he’s one of the best two-way players in the game.”