The Rise of Saint Paul

All-seeing, All-America sophomore court general Chris Paul of Wake Forest has become the college game's best point guard--and one of its leading citizens
February 28, 2005

ll great point guards have superb court vision, and this season Wake Forest sophomore Chris Paul hasn't missed a thing. Sitting on a couch in his dorm room recently, Paul vividly summons up the images of a steal he made during the Demon Deacons' 74-70 win over Cincinnati on Jan. 22. He stares blankly at the opposite wall while replaying the sequence in his mind, frame by frame. ¶ "I was backpedaling down the middle of the court, and [Bearcats guard] Armein Kirkland was pushing the ball upcourt," Paul says, sitting up straight. "[Cincinnati guard] Nick Williams was on my left. I saw him, but I didn't let Kirkland know that because I could see in his eyes he wanted to get the ball to Williams. So I just backpedaled with my arms to my sides and looked to my right. As soon as [Kirkland] got his hands up to pass"--suddenly Paul lunges to his left and extends his arm--"Boom! Put my hand up, make the steal, go the other way." He leans back and reestablishes eye contact with his visitor. "I made him think I didn't know it was coming. But in actuality, I had seen it already."

Even at a time when college ball is teeming with high-quality point guards (chart, page 56), the 6-foot, 175-pound Paul has distinguished himself with his exquisite feel for the game. It's not only his ball handling (he keeps that rock on a string), or his agility (he can change directions on a dime), or his poise and leadership ability (you'd be hard-pressed to find another player in the country with more). It's all of those, plus--and perhaps most especially--that preternatural vision. "I think he's a child prodigy, like a concert pianist or a tremendous mathematician," says Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton, who watched Paul hand out seven assists in only 24 minutes of Wake's 87-48 blowout of the Seminoles on Feb. 12. "I'm not sure I have ever seen a player with that kind of poise at such a young age."

At week's end the homegrown Paul--he spent his youth in Lewisville, N.C., a dozen miles from the Wake Forest campus in Winston-Salem--was averaging 15.1 points, 6.8 assists (13th in the NCAA) and 2.42 steals. He was shooting 83.3% from the free throw line and 51.4% from three-point range, and his assist-to-turnover ratio was a stellar 2.62. Most important to Paul, though Wake lost 102-92 at Duke on Sunday (a game in which he scored 27 points but picked up--horrors!--a technical), the Demon Deacons were 22-4. They were ranked No. 6 and still had a shot at a No. 1 seed in next month's NCAA tournament.

"A lot of point guards are scorers--that's the trend," says one NBA scout, who rates Paul the nation's No. 1 pro prospect at his position. "Paul can score, but if he doesn't score, he can still help you win. That's the difference."

As his effort against Duke indicates, Paul can score. On Jan. 15 he put up 26 points (to go with eight assists, six rebounds and five steals) in a 95-82 win over then No. 3 North Carolina. When he's determined to get to the rim, there are few players who can stop him. A Paul foray to the basket is a blur of subtle hesitations, changes in direction and artful deceptions. "I'm trying to make the guy think I'm going right, but the whole time I'm going left," says Paul. "I always try to be one step ahead of my defender."

North Carolina forward-center Sean May got a sample of Paul's floor command last summer, when they were starters on the U.S. national team that won the gold medal at the World Championship for Young Men qualifying tournament in Nova Scotia. In one game, May recalls, he set a screen for Paul on the wing, only to have the point guard redirect him to the baseline. Once there, May took Paul's pass and buried an open jumper. "He yelled, 'Just go flip it,'" says May of Paul's stage direction for him to take the shot. "I had never heard a point guard [say] that. He saw the play before it happened. I knew then, if I ever got a chance to play with this kid, I could make a living off him."

He is held in equally high regard off the court--a veritable Saint Paul. A dean's list student majoring in communications, he dispenses sincere thank yous and yes sirs as generously as he does assists. "Tim Duncan, Grant Hill, Emeka Okafor made our game look good," says Oklahoma coach Kelvin Sampson, who coached Paul in the world championships last summer. "Chris has that kind of character."

Adds Demon Deacons coach Skip Prosser, "If Chris had never scored a point for Wake Forest, this university would still be a better place for his having gone to school here."

The notion of Paul as model citizen amuses his parents, Charles, who builds surveillance equipment, and Robin, who oversees the technical staff at a local bank. They recall him as a temperamental tyke. When Chris was about four years old, he bit the cheek of playmate Sidney Lowe Jr., son of the former North Carolina State guard (and current Minnesota Timberwolves assistant coach), because young Sidney had taken Chris's snack. Says Charles, "His teachers used to call us and say, 'Mr. Paul, Chris is a nice child, but if you tell him to do something he doesn't want to do, he'll give you a look like he wants to run you over.'"

Chris's passion for sports gave his parents a pretext to help keep him in line: All they had to do was suggest they wouldn't take him to practice. (Later, when Chris and older brother C.J. were at West Forsyth High, the boys were required to keep their grade point averages above a 3.0 if they wanted to play on school teams.) Chris quarterbacked his Pop Warner team to the 10-and-under national championship game in Texas. He was similarly dominant in basketball until his lack of size became an issue. When Chris played on an AAU 14-and-under team and stood but 5 feet, his coach, simply wishing to go with a bigger lineup, benched him in favor of a 5'5" player, even though Chris had led the team to three national tournaments. "I'm not going to lie," says Paul. "I was a distraction on that bench. I didn't like not playing."

At about the same time Chris asked Charles, who is 5'11", if he would ever get taller. "I told him, 'I can't help you with that,'" Charles recalls. "That's between you and God." So that night Chris got down on his knees and beseeched the Great Point Guard for an assist. "Lord," he said, "please give me some height." And that's how he ended his prayers every night for several years.

Whether it was divine intervention or his mother's cooking--in particular, the tuna-beans-and-hot-dog casserole Robin made every Thursday night--Chris grew to 5'2" by his sophomore year, and spurted another eight inches by the end of his junior year. He walked into the kitchen one day when he was 16, looked down at his 5'6" mother and said, "I've got you now."

"I knew God wasn't going to get carried away and make me 7'2"," says Chris. "He just gave me enough to get by."

As he was growing, Chris was also honing his competitiveness on the basketball court in the family's backyard. A heated sibling rivalry developed. "We didn't finish most of our games, that's how bad it would get," says C.J., who is two years older than his brother. "Sometimes my mother would leave work early, just so she could control us."

"My big brother and his friends tried to pick on me a lot, but I was always ready to stand up for myself," Chris says. "I can't stand to lose. Even today, I'll be playing one-on-one against my cousin, who's 11. I'll let him have his fun, but in the end I'm going to win. That's just the way it is."

paul didn't make the varsity at West Forsyth until he was a junior, but as a senior--now possessing the size that enabled him to make the most of his talent--he was named a McDonald's All-American. Off the court Paul was elected president of his sophomore, junior and senior classes. As head of the junior prom committee he got up at sunrise on the day of the event to help decorate the ballroom. Then he and Charles hustled to Charlotte, where Chris led his team to an AAU state championship before they sped back to Lewisville so Chris could attend the prom.

"He wasn't one of those kids who delegated, either," says West Forsyth's principal, Kurt Telford. "He was involved with everything. Kids get pigeonholed a lot--they're jocks, they're nerds, they're skateboarders. Chris could talk to any of them."

"I always had something [to do]. If it wasn't a practice, it was a meeting," Chris says. "It made me feel like I was a part of something besides just basketball. My parents beat it into my head that this is just a game. It can be taken away from you in an instant."

So can life, as Chris learned during the autumn of his senior year. The day after he had signed his letter of intent to play for Wake Forest, his maternal grandfather, Nathaniel Jones, was beaten to death outside his Winston-Salem home by five teenagers who were robbing him. The day after the funeral, in a game against Parkland High (the school Jones's assailants attended), Chris honored his grandfather by scoring 61 points (his previous career high was 37)--one for each year Jones had lived. He got to 61 on the first of two free throws. On his second shot Chris tossed up an air ball, went to the bench and collapsed in tears.

The story behind his big scoring night drew national attention, just as his performance (10 assists and the sportsmanship trophy) at the McDonald's All-Star Game did four months later. That winter he spent many hours at Wake Forest watching the Demon Deacons practice. "My son, who at the time was an assistant at Wofford, heard about it and asked him once why he came all the time," Prosser recalls. "Chris said he was trying to learn the plays so he could get a head start on next season."

Attending college so close to home can be burdensome at times. While some joke that Paul could run for mayor of Winston-Salem, Prosser has become increasingly concerned about Paul's overextending himself as he tries to be, as the coach puts it, "a man for all seasons." For example, after Paul gave a talk at West Forsyth last fall, one of the teachers told him that his son, a freshman at Wake Forest, was struggling in Spanish. Chris, who was a four-year member of the West Forsyth Spanish club, gave the teacher his cellphone number and said the son could call him for help. "Last year I spoke at my old high school, my middle school, my elementary school, all my little cousins' schools," Paul says. "I like doing it, but sometimes people try to make me feel guilty if I say no."

The student managers at Wake say Paul asks them if they want anything before he makes a Burger King run. Last summer in Nova Scotia, Sampson recalls, Paul often volunteered to help carry water bottles and duffel bags from the U.S. team's hotel to the arena. The day after the Demon Deacons lost to Saint Joseph's in the Sweet 16 last March, Paul called Prosser to thank him for recruiting him. And whenever his parents summon him home to cut the grass, "I can't say no," says Paul, "because I'm right down the street."

Being down the street does have its perks, too, especially when Paul needs his laundry done or has a hankering for his mom's casserole. So it was that Chris was back home on a recent evening, eating Robin's cooking and then hanging out in his bedroom amid his trophies, plaques and pictures. Sitting at the end of his bed, the spot where he used to say his daily prayers, Paul was asked if he believed God had blessed him by making him taller.

Paul paused in thought, then proffered a favorite memory of his late grandfather. Whenever Chris would ask Nathaniel Jones how he was doing, Nathaniel would answer, "Just fine, Christopher Emmanuel Paul. Blessed and highly favored in the Lord." Chris took the response to heart. When the Lord favors you with a boost toward your goal, don't question it or seek to have it explained. Just make the most of it. ■

COLOR PHOTOPhotograph by David E. Klutho BASKET CASE Befuddling foes with multiple feints and keeping them honest with his outside shot, Paul is nearly unstoppable on the drive. COLOR PHOTOBILL FRAKES SKIP PASS Prosser put the ball in Paul's hands. COLOR PHOTOJEFFERY A. SALTER COMFORT ZONE With home but 12 miles from campus, Paul can repair to the bedroom where he once asked God to make him taller.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
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HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
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Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)