20130429-135523.jpgAs soon as he signed on the dotted line, it all changed for Paul George.

Before the ink dried on that five-year contract extension reportedly worth at least $84 million – the second-richest ever signed by a Pacers player – George’s world transformed from one of potential to one of production, from future to present, from expectation to demand.

Yes, he’s 23. Yes, he’s still improving. And yes, we still don’t know how good he ultimately will become.

But the bar just got raised.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen five or six years from now but my expectation is he’ll be one of the top players in the league,” said Larry Bird. “Right now, he’s proved from third team (All-NBA) he’s one of the top 15-20 players in the league. Do we expect him to be a first-teamer? Yeah, we do. And if he is, we both benefit.”

The impact of huge contracts on young players can be profound. That kind of money changes perceptions both internal and external. After signing his four-year, $58 million extension last year, Roy Hibbert struggled mightily for the first half of the season. Part of it was a wrist injury, but no doubt part of it was trying to live up to the money.

“I don’t know if there’s any way to really figure out if it was a factor or not with Roy,” Frank Vogel said. “Obviously he struggled the first half of the year, he had issues with his hand, he was getting more attention being an All-Star, he did have a bigger contract, so a lot of things may have contributed to his struggles.

“The thing I know about Paul is it’s not going to change his hunger, it’s not going to change his determination, his drive, his desire to get better individually and to push this team to greatness. I know that is not going to change.”

His wardrobe already has. George was sporting the chic “nerd glasses,” as Vogel called them, made popular by Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Dwyane Wade, among other postgame press-conference fashionistas. He also had on some dazzling bejeweled shoes to accent his tailored suit.

On that level, at least, George already has stepped up his game.

He may be cultivating the look of the modern NBA superstar but, deep down inside, George seems to understand what comes with the trappings.

paul george

Paul George signs his 5-year contract extension that reportedly could be worth as much as $101 million. (Photo: David Benner/Pacers)

“It’s a lot of responsibility now,” he said. “I know my role has stepped up tremendously as a leader on this team, being out in the community, being part of the community. I just see myself as our guy, our team’s guy, and whatever it is, it has to start with me.”

In 2003, the Pacers had a talented team that appeared to be on the verge of greatness built around a budding superstar. But after signing the biggest contract in franchise history (7 years, $126 million) at age 24 that summer, things never really developed according to plan for Jermaine O’Neal.

He remained a prolific stat producer while on the court but struggled to handle the expectations and responsibilities that came with the implied leadership role and, ultimately, his career – and the team – unraveled.

Now, it’s George’s turn, and he has a number of reasons to succeed where O’Neal failed.

For one, the team around him is not only talented and deep, but stable, with an existing base of veteran leadership and a dearth of knuckleheads. For another, George has shown no indications that he possesses the diva gene.

“I feel like I’m nowhere close to being the player I want to be but every year I seem to take a hurdle, take a jump to getting closer to where I want to be,” he said. “Me being 23, it’s really the start of me understanding who I am as a player, as a person. It’s going to be another hurdle, another step that I’ve got to take but I’m always open to getting better and I’m in that position again, to improve on everything I did last year.”

Before his career ends, George may well stand next to Reggie Miller in the team’s pantheon. He has the talent, the athleticism and the drive to become one of the game’s elite players for the next decade.

“We think he’s going to be the type of player that we all envision,” Bird said. “We know what he’s already accomplished. We also think that going forward he’ll continue to improve, do the things necessary to be the face of the franchise and take us to places we haven’t been for a long time.”

There really is only one place the Pacers have never been, at least in the NBA: at the very top. If George can get them there, he’ll experience a reward that makes this contract a pittance in comparison.

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