By: Brendon Kleen
It was late February 2008 when Bonzi Wells boarded a plane to New Orleans to join the Western Conference-leading Hornets. He didn't know it then, but his NBA career was winding to a close. That spring would be his last in the league. He had seen winning, having made the playoffs every season of his career after starting it off with two conference finals appearances in Portland. But a few days into practice after the trade, Wells realized there was something going on along the banks of Lake Pontchartrain that he hadn't seen.
“I always used to call home, and I was calling I think after the third day of practice, just talking to my family and friends,” Wells remembers. “And I literally said, 'I think I've seen the baddest point guard I've ever seen with my own eyes.' I said, 'I've never seen a guy like this who gets it at the point guard spot.'”
The baddest point guard in question was a young, budding star named Chris Paul. Right away, Wells could tell that Paul was on another level as a teammate and as a leader. Once he observed the ways Paul elevated the players around him, it made all the sense in the world that the Hornets were atop the conference.
“He made all of us look better than we was, because he put all of us in position to be successful,” Wells says. “He takes the guesswork out of it for a lot of guys.”
That was Paul's first All-Star season. Nearly 15 years later, Paul is in the running for his 12th appearance, and the resume looks mighty similar. Despite the lowest scoring numbers of his career, Paul leads the NBA in assists and has been arguably the league's most efficient clutch player. What Wells saw when he got to New Orleans has only been honed in the decade-plus since, and while he's already beaten the odds by caring on a Hall of Fame career into his late 30s, the way Paul is getting it done is more or less the same as it's always been.
'The Second Coming of a Head Coach'
Coming off a sluggish loss in Boston earlier this month, the Suns acquired veteran center Bismack Biyombo to help replenish their big man depth while multiple players waited out the health and safety protocol. Biyombo hadn't appeared in an NBA game all season, and he didn't quite fit the mold of other Suns centers like Deandre Ayton, JaVale McGee or even Frank Kaminsky.
Without the luxury of bringing him on slowly, the Suns pulled Biyombo into the rotation the next day. It was like he never left the league. Biyombo answered with 11 points on 5-7 shooting to go with six rebounds, helping the Suns pull out a needed win against Biyombo's former team in Charlotte. Paul finished with 16 assists in the W. And since Biyombo signed with the team, five of his 11 made baskets have been assisted by Paul.
This is just the latest and most surprising example of something Paul has done in effectively every game since coming to the Valley. He makes everyone around him better. Learning that magic trick only took Paul a little while.
Bobby Jackson, a journeyman scoring guard and former NBA sixth man of the year, was also in New Orleans in the early days of Paul's career. Despite being a decade older, Jackson took to Paul right away, and the two became close as Paul matured into a superstar.
“He just kept getting better,” Jackson says. “He was like the second coming of a head coach, and he had that in his second year. A lot of guys don't have that. You can play your whole life in basketball and you don't have the feel of how to get your guys shots and put them in great situations.”
Paul's development came together in the 2007-08 season to the tune of 21 points, 12 assists and three steals per game as the Hornets swarmed to a 56-26 record. More than his own stats, what might paint the picture of Paul's impact that season is that big man David West also put up a career best season and made the All-Star team as well.
“My third year, I knew the game like the back of my hand,” Paul recently told The Athletic. “We went 56-26, (and) I made my first All-Star game with David West and Byron Scott.”
Notice that Paul again opens up the circle, including others in his accolades. The same can be said in 2022, with the Suns on pace for 64 wins and as many as four Suns players up for All-Star nods. And just as in those early New Orleans days, Paul is impacting the team off the court just as much as he is on it.
'He Will Give You the Shirt Off His Back'
Since being acquired two falls ago, Paul has kept in constant contact with teammates, even if health and safety rules have sometimes made it tough. He, Devin Booker and head coach Monty Williams share a text thread where they share intel from the NBA games they watch on off-nights. The team goes out for dinner often on the road, including a Thanksgiving celebration in New York City last year. And Paul is a constant presence at the team practice facility, taking players under his wing to show them his routine and even guiding youngsters like Ayton through personal film sessions when they need it.
When he was first blossoming as a leader with the Hornets, Paul's touch may have been lighter but his effect on the people around him was just as grand. “What really impressed me about him is when we was on the road, Chris used to start bible study,” Wells says. “This is a young guy in his third year, and he's leading bible study.” After the trade, Paul would also often invite Wells over for dinner from his private chef, introducing the Hornets newcomer to his family and giving Wells a place to be other than the hotel Wells he lived out of. Not yet married, Paul made a point of bringing even older players like Jackson over to family gatherings, where Jackson met Paul's parents and his brother, C.J.
“I would say he's more genuine than any superstar that I know,” Jackson says. “He takes the time to get to know you, he talks to a lot of people, and he's just an open book once you get to know him. He has allowed himself to become a megastar and play at a high level but also build people up the right way and support them, and he's a regular person.”
The prickly reputation that followed Paul for a time was there then, too, but only as a byproduct of being highly driven and competitive. Older teammates felt encouraged and challenged by him the same way the Hornets' young core group did. Players who came through New Orleans in those days came away with a greater feel for the game and a fire under them to translate it onto the court. For people like Wells and Jackson then or Booker today, the pushiness wasn't a negative but a positive, another indication that he just wanted the best for the guys in his corner.
“A lot of people don't know, he's probably an a-hole on the court and he demands perfection, but off the court, he's probably one of the nicest guys you will ever meet,” Jackson says. “He will give you the shirt off his back.”
As for Paul, he's not one for reminiscing. For someone so driven and who is still chasing the ultimate goal of a championship, forward is the only place to look. He says he isn't thinking about what another All-Star appearance would mean for him at age 37, and that it's not necessarily a goal for him. Instead, Paul is still putting on for the people around him.
Asked this week what the opportunity would mean for him to head to Cleveland as an All-Star, Paul gently deflected. He said he wasn't focused on his own February travel plans, but where Monty Williams and his staff would be spending the break.
“The only goal right now is to get our coaching staff there,” Paul said. “Real talk. That's the only goal, to get our coaching staff there. The way they done built this program here and us being right there on the cusp of it, we've got to do our part.”
The team with the best record in each conference sends its staff to coach the game. New Orleans head coach Byron Scott and his staff got that honor in 2008. Amidst another brilliant season, Paul is once again driven in a never-ending quest to elevate those around him, bring them into his greatness, and succeed together.
Vote for Chris Paul and your favorite Suns players by visiting Suns.com/SunsAllStar.