Determining 'franchise' players

The ever-improving Paul George may have already earned elite-player status. Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

They call it "the leap," but maybe it should be called "the ascension." It's the season in which a franchise player declares himself. It sends all prior musings about potential into obsolescence. All that is left is production, lots of it, at levels of volume and efficiency that brings an NBA roster into focus. The ascension is a career transformation that few basketball players are ever destined to make. When they do, it's a breathtaking metamorphosis that lifts entire franchises into the championship conversation. It's a transformation that Indiana's Paul George appears to be in the midst of right now.

George's 30.6 PER through four games ranks third in the league behind the Clippers' Chris Paul and the Nets' Brook Lopez. Those numbers will go down -- LeBron James (three times), Dwyane Wade and Paul (once each) are the only active players to post a 30 PER season -- but George is likely to remain in the league's upper tier. That's because his responsibilities have changed. George is handling the ball more than ever, and is thriving in his heightened decision-making role. His combination of usage rate (30.1) and true shooting percentage (.667) is something you'd expect of Kevin Durant, but George is handing out a higher rate of assists while also supplying the same all-league defense he's provided the last two seasons.

What do we mean when we say "franchise player"? It's not just a player who has become the best on his team, or the focus of a marketing scheme. It means a player has reached a level of on-court value at which he can be the best performer on a championship-winning team. Obviously, such players are the great white whale for most NBA front offices.

George's improvement didn't just emerge from the ether, of course. We saw signs of it in the playoffs last spring and into the preseason, which is why we were hedging our bets on the Pacers even before we had real results to evaluate. That improvement we see with our eyes coincides with the knowledge that George is in a crucial phase for his career. As a fourth-year player who started to truly emerge during his third season, George is at the career juncture where, if he's going to become a franchise player, this is when it's going to happen.