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."