Freshman Paul grows up in hurry for Wake Forest

Having met every test, poised point guard braces for Saint Joseph's Nelson

Ncaa Tournament

March 23, 2004|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

C.J. Paul used to tease his little brother, laughing when this pipsqueak said he was going to play someday for their beloved North Carolina Tar Heels. One day, after Chris Paul's sophomore year at West Forsyth High School outside Winston-Salem, the teasing stopped.

"He worked in the summertime on a Tim Hardaway move where he goes between his legs real fast and he crosses over," recalled C.J. Paul, who is two years older and starts at point guard for the University of South Carolina-Spartanburg, a Division II school. "When I saw him do that, it was like `Whoa!'"

Chris Paul has been getting similar reactions throughout his freshman year at Wake Forest, most recently in his team's first two games of the NCAA tournament. In leading the Demon Deacons to their first Sweet 16 appearance in eight years, Paul has taken his game to a level that has even surprised his big brother.

"I didn't think he would be able to go in the ACC and do what he's doing now," C.J. Paul said yesterday. "Especially in the two tournament games, he's pretty much taken over."

Going into Thursday's East Rutherford, N.J., Regional semifinal against top-seeded Saint Joseph's and All-American point guard Jameer Nelson, Wake Forest coach Skip Prosser is eager to see how Paul handles his toughest matchup to date.

"He may be playing against the best point guard in the country, perhaps the best player in the country," Prosser said in a teleconference yesterday. "I don't think he's played against someone with the combination of strength, quickness, ability and experience of a Jameer Nelson."

Said Paul: "I've heard so many different great things about him. I had the opportunity to watch him this year. He's a great leader. ... Those are things I'm trying to work on right now. As a point guard, you have to lead your team and your team can go only as far as you take them."

Had it not been for Paul, who is generously listed as 6 feet and 168 pounds, Wake Forest would likely have seen its season end with a first-round defeat to Virginia Commonwealth or a second-round loss to Manhattan last week at the RBC Center in Raleigh, N.C.

"I think considering the platform, he played pretty well," Prosser said after the Demon Deacons beat Manhattan, 84-80, in a second-round game. "Again, I wouldn't trade him for any point guard in the country."

Few point guards could put together the line of statistics Paul strung up against the Jaspers. He finished with 29 points, eight rebounds, six assists, three steals and two blocks. Not that Paul took much, if any, of the credit.

"My team helps me do everything I've done," said Paul, who is averaging 14.9 points and 5.8 assists on the season for 21-9 and 17th-ranked Wake.

What Paul has done this season in being named the Atlantic Coast Conference Freshman of the Year, the rest of the Demon Deacons have witnessed since he first began showing up on campus after his junior year in high school for pickup games.

Paul had already announced his intentions of playing at Wake Forest after his junior year, turning down a similar offer from the Tar Heels.

"That helped me a lot," Paul said of those summer workouts. "I would play with the guys every day. It's not the same as being on the court in [regular] games, but you learn what the other players' tendencies are."

He often attended practices and went to every home game. By the time he finished his senior year, Paul felt as if he were a part of the team.

"When they lost in the NCAA tournament," Paul said, recalling a six-point second-round defeat to Auburn, "it hurt me."

Still, there was a transition being a member of the team, particularly as its starting point guard.

"Coming in as a freshman, you don't want to step on anyone's toes," said Paul. "You want to get in where you can fit in. My coaches and my teammates let me know that wasn't what they needed me to do. They needed me to be a leader and play as much as possible."

There have been some bumps in this road. After the Demon Deacons won their first 11 games, the team lost its next four and six of eight. In the six losses, Paul averaged a shade over eight points, missing 23 of 40 shots, including nine of 12 threes.

Prosser went as far as to show Paul the team's record when he didn't score as much.

"I thought about that a lot, being a point guard, Coach looks to me to lead the team and when we were in that slump, I felt I was letting my teammates down," Paul recalled yesterday. "Throughout the season, my teammates have kept talking to me that I needed to be more assertive."

Said Prosser: "He's a very self-critical young man. I do think he probably blamed himself for that stretch. We had times during the season when he wasn't, in my opinion, being aggressive enough offensively. ... We are a better offensive team when he is aggressive."

Paul obviously learned well from those midseason struggles. What he showed in Raleigh last week was very familiar to his more experienced teammates, who have seen it in practice for most of the season.

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