OKLAHOMA CITY — Chris Paul spent his summer jetsetting all over the country and halfway around the world. Now, his journey from NBA unknown to budding star has taken the New Orleans Hornets to the top of the Western Conference standings.
Paul's off-season took him from the Big Apple to Tinseltown, from El Paso to Japan, and only briefly back home. Along the way, the reigning rookie of the year reunited with LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony, teamed up with Dwyane Wade and attracted the first sponsorship deals of his young career.
One theory was that the 21-year-old point guard would be too worn out from a summer of globe-trotting to lead the Hornets to the playoff berth that eluded them last season. However, that's hardly the case so far. He averaged 17.5 points and 10.8 assists to push New Orleans to its first 4-0 start in franchise history, and then had a career-high 34 points in the team's first loss -- 121-116 at Golden State on Thursday night.
The Hornets were the last remaining undefeated team in the NBA.
"If I sat here and started thinking about everything I've done and decided I wanted to be tired, I'm sure I could be tired," Paul said. "But I don't think about it."
In the offseason, Paul held basketball camps in Oklahoma City and back home in Winston-Salem, N.C. He visited troops at Fort Bliss in Texas, stopped by the Hornets' summer league in Las Vegas and was a celebrity host at two NBA draft parties in New York.
He also went through tryouts for the U.S. national team and was named the breakthrough athlete of the year at the ESPY Awards in Los Angeles.
Amid all that, he passed up a trip to the Bahamas with his family, just so he could relax at home.
"He's a guy that's in demand right now, and that's great," Hornets Coach Byron Scott said. "It's great to see that so many people want to get to know him and want him around. And once they have him around, they fall in love with him."
It's that quality, combined with his on-the-court skills, that impressed Jerry Colangelo, the managing director of the U.S. men's basketball team.
"He's got great character. He's effervescent. He's always got a smile on his face," Colangelo said. "He's a natural born leader. Players gravitate to him."
That's the kind of player Paul was at Wake Forest, where he helped the Demon Deacons to a school-record 27 wins during an All-America sophomore season before declaring himself eligible for the 2005 NBA draft.
"You could tell he had it in him just because of his knowledge of the game and his ability to dominate a game without scoring points really," said Justin Gray, a former Wake Forest teammate and a longtime friend. "He doesn't have to go out and score 30 to dominate the game. He could have 10 points and 10 assists and five steals and eight rebounds and you say, 'Dang! That Chris Paul, he really took over the game.' "
Even before that, Gray remembers Paul playing at an Amateur Athletic Union tournament in Utah.
"He was the smallest one on the court," Gray said. "I don't really remember how tall. I just know he was the smallest one on the court but you could tell he had the biggest impact. Everybody on his team just fed off Chris."
Paul's stature was the main knock on him when he came out of college. At 6 feet tall, some thought Paul was a little undersized for the NBA. That made last summer all work and no play.
"Last summer before the draft, he worked hard," said Paul's older brother and manager, C.J. Paul. "A lot of teams said he's probably the best player in the draft but they were all, 'Maybe he's too small.' I think he took that as a challenge. I think he had a little bit of a chip on his shoulder."
It all paid off, first by being selected as the NBA's top rookie, then by being named a starter for the U.S. basketball team at the world championships in Japan.
"He wasn't really on the radar screen when this whole process started -- I'm talking about a year ago -- because we couldn't project where he would be," Colangelo said. "But [last] season, he certainly established himself in the NBA as a rookie. The antenna went up and we kind of watched his progress."
After returning from Japan, Paul hosted a bash in his hometown to raise money toward his foundation's goal of creating a scholarship for a student from Paul's native Forsyth County to attend Wake Forest. The scholarship is named after Paul's late grandfather, Nathaniel Jones, who was murdered at age 61 during Paul's senior year of high school. Paul honored Jones in his next game by scoring exactly 61 points, missing a free throw on purpose at the end of the game.