Saint Joseph's senior Jameer Nelson is the reigning king of point guards, and he'll carry his crown to East Rutherford, N.J., this week for the Hawks' regional semifinal against Wake Forest. But Chris Paul, a Demon Deacons freshman, will be waiting for him. And based on his national freshman of the year season and superb NCAA tournament debut last week, Paul is poised to inherit Nelson's throne, if not topple him from it.
Paul was merely workmanlike in helping fourth-seeded Wake Forest avoid a first-round upset to Virginia Commonwealth, scoring 22 points in a 79-78 victory. With the score tied at 73 and 1:03 to play, he fed forward Jamaal Levy for a dunk, then closed out the Rams by making four straight free throws. Two days later, as Wake beat Manhattan 84-80, the 6-foot Paul was a polyvalent marvel in confounding each of four Jaspers who tried to guard him, from 5'8" Kenny Minor to 6'5" Peter Mulligan. Paul committed only one turnover while leading the Deacons in points (29), rebounds (eight), assists (six) and steals (three).
How does Paul orchestrate Wake's prolific 83.7-points-per-game attack? A point guard must be able to go "north-south"—getting past his defender, and either scoring or drawing the defense in so he can kick the ball out to a three-point shooter, of which Wake has many. Paul is Mr. Longitude, with a game more north-south than the Civil War. "We just try to give him the ball," says Wake Forest coach Skip Prosser. "He usually gives it back to me in pretty good shape two hours later."
Yet Paul disputes that he's the team leader. "They really lead me," he says of his teammates. Small wonder that Prosser has fretted that his precocious star, an honor student at West Forsyth High in Clemmons, N.C., may be too deferential at times.
It's as much for Paul's local roots as his leadership ability that people around campus call him the Mayor. Paul lived just 13 miles from the Wake Forest campus, and shortly after orally committing to the Deacons in the spring of his junior year he began turning up and learning all he could about their system. "I was around the guys so much, I was almost part of the team," says Paul.
In fact, he still had his senior season to play, and it would be an unforgettable one. Paul's maternal grandfather, Nathaniel (Chilly) Jones, ran a Chevron station at which Chris worked over summers and vacations. At six each morning, after Papa Chilly arrived at work, he liked to call the Paul home to make sure Chris and his older brother C.J., now a point guard at Division II South Carolina- Spartanburg, were up and getting ready for school. In November 2002, on the day after Paul had signed his letter of intent to play at Wake Forest with his beaming grandfather looking on, Jones was robbed and beaten and left to die in his carport. Papa Chilly was 61.
Jones had been a church deacon and beloved community fixture, and some 2,000 people turned out for the funeral. What happened the following day, in West Forsyth's season opener, will consign all of Paul's present and future accomplishments to anticlimax. Paul had never before scored more than 39 points in a game, but that night he went for 61, intentionally missing a free throw so his total would stand for the precise length of his grandfather's life. Then Paul took himself out of the game and tearfully collapsed into his father's arms. Before every game, as the national anthem is played, Paul holds a laminated copy of his grandfather's obituary.
This week Paul has a chance to win a debating point for a former Wake guard, Billy Packer, and strike a blow for the hegemony of the power conferences by ending the run of No. 1 seed Saint Joseph's. But he now plays for a whole lot more. It's for reasons beyond basketball that so many people around Winston-Salem have come to put their trust in Paul, Prosser foremost among them: "I tell him, 'Follow your instincts. I'll live with your mistakes.' "