Chris Paul picks up only a handful of offensive rebounds these days. He’s one of the shortest guys on the court, isn’t an elite leaper and NBA players seem to be getting taller, quicker and more athletic at every position.
There was a time, though, when second chances were the only way Paul was able to score.
Paul’s father, Charles, was his coach in his youth basketball days and he had a rule – Chris wasn’t allowed to shoot until he first passed to a teammate and then they shot it. Once the ball hit iron or backboard, Chris was able to go for it.
The Pauls lived in Winston-Salem, N.C., which during Chris’ childhood of the late ’80s and early ’90s was a receding old tobacco town. Off in the distance, about 90 miles to the West, were the Appalachian Mountains. Take I-40 instead to the East and you’ll hit Chapel Hill, then Durham, then Raleigh – the cities that form North Carolina’s research triangle.
Winding, strip mall-lined streets crisscross and swerve to the west side of town, down the Avenue of Oaks and onto the campus of Wake Forest University, the jewel of Winston-Salem. That’s where Paul went to college, staying close to home. He had become a local legend after a high school career at West Forsyth, where he played quarterback and point guard and was the senior class president.
In 2002, Paul sent shockwaves through his community with an emotional 61-point performance to honor his 61-year-old grandfather who, just one day earlier, was murdered in a horrific mugging. After scoring on an and-one layup late in the game, Paul, sitting on 61 points, intentionally airballed the free throw, walked off the court and collapsed into his father’s arms.
One year later, Paul, a North Carolina kid through and through, moved just down the road to Wake Forest, playing under the late Skip Prosser. The hometown kid led the Demon Deacons to the No. 1 spot in the rankings during his sophomore year, a first in Wake Forest’s history.
After being drafted fourth overall by the New Orleans Hornets in the 2005 draft, Paul’s destination was re-routed Westbound on I-40, through the Appalachians clear across Tennessee and Arkansas and then into Oklahoma, past Sallisaw and Henryetta and Shawnee, all the way to Oklahoma City. Escaping the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, the Hornets found sanctuary in OKC for a year and a half before heading back to New Orleans. That initial stint in Oklahoma was Paul’s crucible as a point guard.
All his life, Paul had known one town. He’d had a knack for leadership in school, on the court and on the field, but now he’d have to be in charge of an offense and a locker room. He’d be doing that alongside grown men in a city that had never seen professional basketball before.
“I had a lot of responsibility, but I’m grateful for it, too. It gave me the opportunity to learn and play at the same time,” Paul said. “(Hornets Coach) Byron Scott came and gave me the ball and was like, ‘Go play.’ So, that’s an unbelievable luxury to have, and I’m not the player I am now without the confidence he had in me.
“The NBA is all about opportunity, so you prepare yourself for when you get that opportunity and you try to capitalize on it,” Paul continued. “But there’s a ton of those stories where guys didn’t get their shot.”
FINDING THE OPEN MAN
In those early years, Paul was immediately an impact player, but truly surged in his third season, 2007-08, when he became an All-Star for the first of nine times so far in his career. That year he averaged a career-best 11.6 assists per game, and on a trip to Utah, his eyes started to wander toward the rafters.
“I looked up and I saw the stats. All-Time leader in assists: John Stockton. All-Time leader in steals: John Stockton,” Paul recalled. “I was like, ‘I’m going after that.’ ”
Some injuries and a shortened 66-game 2011-12 season have limited Paul to an average of 68 games played per season, so catching Stockton became out of reach. Still, the 14-year veteran has reached the NBA’s Top 10 all-time list in both categories. With more than 9,300 assists in his career, Paul ranks seventh all-time behind only Oscar Robertson, Magic Johnson, Mark Jackson, Steve Nash, Jason Kidd and Stockton.
“One of the talents that I do have is to get somebody an open shot,” Paul said with a grin.
For a decade and a half, across multiple teams – the LA Clippers, the Houston Rockets and now back in Oklahoma City with the Thunder – Paul has made his teams better with the pass. Putting his teammates’ shot attempts first and his second, just like his father taught him, Paul has helped the Thunder offense to 46.4 percent shooting from the field, 10th in the NBA this season.
“That guy is an amazing passer,” said Thunder assistant coach Mo Cheeks, who ranks 13th on the all-time assists list. “He sees the game before it actually happens.”
“Magic used to make passes like that, Isaiah (Thomas) too,” Cheeks continued. “They would see things happen before anybody else saw it, then people would converge on them and then they’d make the pass.”
For Paul’s whole career the NBA has revolved around high pick and rolls, with him out at the top of the key and springy big men at his previous stops like Tyson Chandler, DeAndre Jordan or Clint Capela diving down the middle of the lane for a lob.
This year with Steven Adams and Nerlens Noel, Paul has tossed up alley-oops, but also opted for more simple plays. NBA defenses are now frequently keeping their center back at the rim in a drop coverage to deter such lobs or are pressed up high on the floor to block Paul’s vision. The ever-crafty Paul sniffs out other ways to feed his big men.
“I’m 6 feet, 6-1 on a good day,” Paul quipped. “So even though I like to throw lobs, sometimes I can’t because the big guy is right up in my face. That’s why some of my passes are bounce passes.”
When beginning an offensive set, Paul is tracking the defender on the opposite block, initiating the entire play’s sequence in his mind while in real time keeping his dribble alive and his eyes up for unexpected opportunities.
“I sort of made a career in the ball screen,” Paul noted. “Anytime I’ve got the ball and a guy is guarding me in the ball screen, I’m never thinking about the guy that’s guarding me.”
If the help-side defender is hugged up into the corner to keep close to a dangerous shooter like Danilo Gallinari, Paul knows that he’ll have an open pass to his rolling big man in the lane. If that same help defender is pinched in toward the paint, Paul knows he’ll just need to drive a little further, freeze the defense for an extra second then fire an on-time, on-target pass into the corner for a three.
“I think the game defensively too, and your defensive principles,” Paul said. “It’s not always the right decision, but for the most part, it’s an educated decision.”
“(Paul’s) pace and his reading of the angles of the defense make it really fun to play with him in the pick and pop,” said center Mike Muscala, a player often on the receiving end of those kickout passes.
It’s one thing to be able to see the potential pass before it happens. It’s a whole other thing to actually be able to do it. The precision of every behind-the-back, underhanded or one-handed dish requires a level of skill that is astronomically high.
Cheeks, a Hall of Famer, elbows fellow Thunder assistant Vin Bhavnani on the plane as they’re breaking down film, making sure he sees the newest highlight-reel pass Paul distributed. Years of ballhandling and passing drills, relentless work on his body in the weight room and the discipline to adopt a plant-based diet in his mid-30s are all reasons Paul continues to be a savant not just in his mind, but on the floor.
“I always talk about being in the NBA is a privilege and not a right,” Paul said. “I'm going to continue to work because there's only 420 of these jobs and you're not going to take my job by outworking me.”
The biggest thing with me is making sure I give it to the guy where they can shoot it. That's my job.
Even this deep into his career, Paul is brutally hard on himself, picking out the tiniest of mishaps and trying to correct them next time. One example came on a sideline out of bounds play where Paul bounced a backdoor pass to Terrance Ferguson one too many times. The low pass forced the Thunder wing to squat down, scoop it up and hurriedly kick it out to the corner. The play resulted in a made 3-pointer for OKC, yet days later Paul still not only remembered, but lamented the miscue.
“One of the biggest things with me and passing is trying to make sure I give it to the guy to where they can shoot it,” he said. “That’s my job, to put you in the best situation possible. It matters whether people realize it or not.”
Not everything has to go exactly to plan for Paul to be happy with an assist. Part of the game is making decisions on the fly, but the work and communication that goes into it on the front end is what makes an assist all the more delicious. In an overtime game against Philadelphia with Paul weaving down the court, hiding behind the burly Adams barreling ahead, Gallinari shouted out, “C! C!”
Paul had loaded up to hoist a jumper, but at the last moment bailed out, dishing a pass from his hip to the right for a wide-open transition 3-pointer.
“That’s where we talk about communication and talking,” Paul noted. “Even though I can make reads and all that, that doesn’t mean I don’t want to hear it. Let me know when you’re open.”
The dagger sealed the win. Paul had passed up a good shot for a great shot, and Thunder fans at Chesapeake Energy Arena went home happy because of it.
“We believe in him 100 percent,” Ferguson said. “When he’s out there, he is a general for all of us. He’s making calls, always talking, telling guys where to go, facilitating, and getting the guys open shots.”
Every night, Paul goes home and watches more basketball. Like a financial analyst checking his stocks app, Paul is constantly monitoring scores around the league. He’s sitting down to analyze how teams are defending and what new creative concepts they’re utilizing on offense. According to Paul, film study has meant “everything” to his NBA career.
“Experience is the best teacher, the best tool. But watching film is studying,” he said. “So even when we’re not at the gym, when games come on and I’m at home at night, this is my way of studying and learning people’s tendencies and what plays teams like to run.”
That’s the type of example he’s provided to this young Thunder squad, with nine players on the roster with two or fewer prior years of NBA experience. One of them is Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, the 6-foot-6 point guard prodigy who is the inverse of Paul in so many ways – from height and length to age and demeanor. Yet the language of the assist translates. Paul has helped Gilgeous-Alexander show marked improvement as a facilitator even less than a third of the way into his second NBA season.
“(Paul) helps me through everything. Things on the court, off the court, every day,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “Whether it be manipulating a play or a pick and roll in the game or showing me things outside the game.”
Paul doesn’t just set up his teammates for open shots, he sets them up for long-term success, too.
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