- Associated Press - Saturday, April 19, 2014

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) - 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.

It’s working.

He spent part of last Thursday with Papa John’s founder John Schnatter raising money for Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis, perhaps a sign of what his next big business venture might be. Three weeks ago, George made a splashy debut on the national advertising scene with a nifty crossover move and a spectacular dunk fueled in part by the rushing onslaught of Gatorade.

Those inside and outside his inner circle believe this is just the start of a booming business for Paul George Inc., and that many more deals will soon be announced.

“We track every sport and are looking at who the up-and-coming talent is and making sure we have connections across the board, Paul was doing those things,” said John Shea, senior director of Gatorade Sports Marketing. “When we sign athletes we’re looking at the long-term prospects.”

Finding major players in small markets is nothing new.

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