Three days after a crushing loss to Saint Joseph's in the Sweet 16, coach Skip Prosser got a phone call from point guard Chris Paul, the ACC rookie of the year and the unofficial mayor of Winston-Salem.
"Coach, I just want to thank you for recruiting me," Paul said.
"Well, thanks for coming, Chris," Prosser replied. Then the two men discussed what Paul had learned during his brilliant freshman season. While Paul had established himself as a deadeye shooter (46.5% from three-point range), a dynamic passer (5.9 assists per game) and a tenacious defender (he was named to the All-ACC defensive team), Prosser says his point guard was "just scratching the surface of his potential." In particular the coach thought Paul was too deferential on offense and needed to get stronger. So Paul went to work and also focused on improving his midrange jumper. "Last year I said I wouldn't trade him for any point guard in the country," says Prosser, "and nothing so far has caused me to alter that stance."
If Paul can cajole his teammates into altering their stances--as in defensive--then the Demon Deacons will go far. Wake was the worst defensive team in the ACC last season (opponents shot 44.5%), which mitigated the Deacons' 83.5 points per game, third most in the nation. "Our defense looks a lot better than last year," Paul says. "Guys are talking more and guarding the ball a lot better." Nearly the entire roster returns intact, but Wake's ultimate fortunes may depend on Paul's leadership in motivating the team's front line, including Eric Williams, a talented but enigmatic center, and power forward Vytas Danelius, who backtracked last year while battling knee and ankle injuries.
Despite Paul's youth, nobody questions his leadership and on-court judgment. "I trust him to follow his own instincts," Prosser says. After all, they proved correct throughout last season and again last summer, when Paul and fellow Deacons guard Justin Gray led a U.S. national team to the gold medal in Canada. And if anyone doubted Wake's togetherness, consider that during his only week off last summer, Paul and his family joined the Grays and Williamses for a cruise in the Bahamas.
You must really like these guys, huh, Chris? "Oh, just a little bit," he says with a laugh. If things break the right way for Wake, that infectious grin may not disappear all season. --G.W.
2003--04 RECORD: 21--10 (9--7, 3rd in ACC)
TOURNAMENT: Lost to Saint Joseph's in Sweet 16
The big men are slow, but the Deacons can dash: Paul's dangerous in transition, and Levy's rangy on D.
ENEMY LINES an opposing coach's view
"There's a good reason so many people are picking these guys to win the ACC: They've got everybody back, and Chris Paul is a difference-maker. He was so poised last year, and he single-handedly won games for them scoring, passing or sometimes just by taking control.... Justin Gray is a heck of a scorer who doesn't get enough attention.... Eric Williams is a load down low.... If Vytas Danelius plays like he did two years ago, he'll be tough to handle.... They change their defenses a lot: Sometimes they press, sometimes they zone, sometimes you'll see a triangle and two. That can be tough to deal with."