Paul George has packed enough drama in his first eight seasons in the NBA to last an entire career.
The 10th overall pick in the 2010 Draft, George started his career in Indiana, helping the Pacers to back-to-back trips to the Eastern Conference finals, where he shined on the big stage against Miami’s “Big 3” Heat squad led by LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
But a devastating injury, a trade demand and wild, free-agent summer that-never-was later, led him to his current situation as one of the faces of the Oklahoma City Thunder. George and Russell Westbrook are the leaders of a Thunder squad that is again a legitimate challenger in the Western Conference – both now and for the foreseeable future.
The timing couldn’t be better for George, the Southern California native who spurned LeBron and the hometown Lakers for an opportunity to find his own lane with the Thunder.
Overall, he’s in a great place, on and off the court.
One of the league’s top two-way players, George has emerged as a dark horse Kia MVP candidate this season while playing alongside triple-double machine/2017 Kia MVP Westbrook.
His family is comfortable in Oklahoma City, the midwestern city that embraced the Georges at what turned out to be the perfect time.
George spoke to NBA.com's Sekou Smith about all that and more.
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Sekou Smith: You’ve been a great player in this league for a long time, played in two Eastern Conference finals and competed against the best at the highest levels. But I’ve never seen you as good on both ends as you’ve been this season. Do you feel like your game has ascended to another level?
Paul George: Yeah, yeah. Definitely. I think you just get a feel, an understanding of the game that leads to where I am now. I know my pace, I know my game and what’s comfortable for me. And at this point in my career, I’ve seen every defense you can see. There’s nothing you can throw at me that I haven’t already seen, mentally or physically. And defensively I know every angle. I mean … I do my homework. I know what guys like to do, I know tendencies. I just know what an average basketball player would do in certain moments, and I just play to that.
SS: It’s almost like you’ve solved the matrix or something.
PG: It just feels honestly, man, like everything has slowed down at this stage of my career. All the years I’ve been in this league, it’s like … say a kid is being taught algebra. And he’s got all of these math problems going on. And everything, I’m just pulling from it and grabbing it and I can see through concepts and understand what’s going on out there. It’s a fun way to play, when there aren’t any crazy surprises that anyone can throw at you.
SS: I know when you come into this league, everybody is working to get there. Everybody wants to be on that list of truly elite players in this game. Does it feel different when you actually get there after all the years of hard work? And how do you know when you’ve gotten there? Is it a certain way teams deal with you, a respect level for you, that shows up when you get there?
Listen, life has been good. I’ve got two little ones and a beautiful woman at home. I’m close with my teammates here. I’m at peace, honestly. I’m at peace."
PG: It does, especially in the way other teams deal with you and come at you. I think the notion now is to “be physical and get into him.” And then a lot of times it’s like an emphasis to try and take me out of the game early, which again, I’ve seen every way I can be guarded. So it almost helps, in a way, for teams to start the game off aggressively coming at me and trying to trap me. That plays into my game. I like to play myself into a game. I’m never going to come out shooting, trying to get mine or anything like that. I like to let the game come to me and set guys up. And then I can pick and choose when I can be aggressive, when I need to be aggressive. So when teams play like that, when they are deliberate about trying to take me out of the game, they’re just playing into my hands.
SS: Are you as comfortable off the court now as you are on the court? You’re not the young buck anymore. You’re all grown up now, settled in Oklahoma City with your family and everything else seemingly in place.
PG: Listen, life has been good. I’ve got two little ones and a beautiful woman at home. I’m close with my teammates here. I’m at peace, honestly. I’m at peace. All I have to do is go out there and play. I don’t have to worry about trade rumors or things like that. I don’t have to worry about contract extensions or how things are going to work out. Everything is set in stone right now and I’m really comfortable, in the best way possible. I’m relaxed in that part of my life.
SS: Based on the conversations you and Russ(ell Westbrook) had in the offseason, do you think this team is where you expected it to be a little past the midway point of the season?
PG: Yeah, I definitely think so. With that being said, though, I think there is a lot of room for improvement for us. We knew where we wanted to be coming back off of last season. And we’re in that neighborhood. We wanted to be one of the best teams in the West.
It’s still Golden State as the team to beat, regardless if they are No. 1 in the standings or wherever they are seeded at. They’re still the team we have to go through, that everybody has to go through in the West. We just wanted to be seeded well come playoff time. "
SS: I know it started slow …
PG: It did, it started slow. But that’s expected when you consider what we were coming from last season. We started without Russ and we had to learn to play without Russ. I had to carry a little extra weight in trying to get us going offensively and defensively. And we played without countless numbers of guys being out of the rotation who play a lot of minutes for us. It was a little bit all over the place to start the season. But I think still, we’re right where we need to be.
SS: For years the Western Conference had its own hierarchy in terms of which teams fit where in the playoff picture. It feels a little different now with all these upstart teams challenging for playoff spots. Even with the Warriors, seeming as vulnerable as they’ve been in years, it feels different now. Is the chase different now as well?
PG: It’s still Golden State as the team to beat, regardless if they are No. 1 in the standings or wherever they are seeded at. They’re still the team we have to go through, that everybody has to go through in the West. We just wanted to be seeded well come playoff time. That’s when we have to be at our best. And that’s the team we have to be gunning for.
SS: Does the evolution of some of these younger guys on the roster, coupled with the veteran stars already established, make you feel better about the pursuit, whatever it is and wherever it ends, this season?
PG: Let me say this: I think Steven Adams is one of the best players at his position, and he doesn’t get a lot of credit for what he does. Terrance Ferguson is one of the young promising defenders and 3-point shooters in our league. And he has so much room where he can take his game to. I just wanted to point that out. And look, we rely on so many young guys, outside of myself, Russ, Ray (Felton) and a couple of our other vets, we lean on a group of guys who are basically three or four years and younger into their NBA careers. Even Jerami Grant, who has been great for us, is still a young guy. He’s just 24. But he’s been huge, the X-factor really. His ability to switch on defense, run the floor, play above the rim and then stretch the floor, as just been huge for us. And he’s still young. But I think that’s a good thing, that we really, really count on our young guys to help us get to where we are right now.
SS: That brings up a great point about where this team and really this franchise sits right now, in terms of the foundation. There aren’t many teams fortified at all levels, at so many positions, and with stars and role players and everything else in between. Does is it seem a little crazy in this league how things can seem so shaky one minute and then so solid the next?
PG: It does. It really does. It’s clear [GM] Sam [Presti] and our front office guys have done a hell of a job. And I can only think of how good we can be, especially defensively, once Andre Roberson is back in the rotation and the lift he’ll give us. We’re already one of the best defensive teams in the league and now we’re talking about adding one of the best individual defenders in the game back into the mix and our starting lineup. You just never know where we could be when it all comes together this season and into the future. You never know who’s going to want to come and join me and Russ and the rest of these guys on this journey. But I feel comfortable saying that we’re solid right now and in a really good spot.
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