Before Chris Paul ascended to “Point God”—a nickname that reflects his status as one of the greatest floor generals in NBA history—the nine-time All-Star was more like the rest of us earthbound mortals than one might suspect. He was a JV basketball player.

The story goes like this: As a sophomore at West Forsyth High School in his hometown of Clemmons, North Carolina, Paul had the opportunity to join the varsity basketball team—but, instead, opted to stay on the junior varsity team where he would get more playing time. His choice offers an early window into his approach to basketball and his lifelong dedication to the game.

“Everybody wants to be on varsity because you get to walk around campus and you’re swagged out with your letterman jacket,” Paul said. “But why go up to varsity if I’m gonna sit on the bench? A lot of people would see it as, ‘He’s playing JV,’ but I averaged 30-something, 10, like 10 steals a game. For me, I look big picture and it was all timing.”

On a Monday afternoon in March, Paul was seated in a conference room in the Michael Jordan Building at Nike World Headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon. He sported a black hoodie, black joggers and a pair of Air Jordan X “I’m Back” shoes—the same kicks Jordan wore in his return to the NBA 23 years prior, almost to the day. It was a restful moment before his highly-anticipated Rockets showdown against the surging Trailblazers , a team that was riding a 13-game winning streak (it would be snapped, in part, due to Paul’s statsheet-stuffing 22 points, 5 3-pointers, 8 assists and 6 rebounds).

“I used to go to bed at night praying for height,” Paul remembered. “I just wanted to be taller and, as you can see, it didn’t necessarily come. Even though I grew a little bit between my sophomore and junior year, I just lived in the gym. In this day and age, everybody has trainers, but, for me, a lot of the things that I learned came from just playing.”

There’s a lesson here for everyone, whether a JV player or a deified basketball legend. “Don’t shortcut the process,” Paul advised. “My love for the game never, never wavered.”

For most of his career, Paul has played with the artful precision of someone building a ship in a bottle: every movement deliberate, every detail impeccable, every lever guided by the hand of one man. But now, after being tasked with micromanaging the Los Angeles offense for six seasons, he’s found the Rockets’ uptempo, 3-happy system to be a breath of fresh air (especially with a bearded All-Star sharing ball-handling duties in the backcourt).

“Being in a leadership position pretty much my whole life, it’s been cool to adapt in different ways,” Paul said. “It’s been fun to not have to dribble the ball up the court every time and to actually get an opportunity to appreciate greatness.”

Although some of Paul’s counting stats—currently at 18.6 points, 5.6 rebounds and 8.0 assists per game—have dipped from his gaudiest career highs, Houston has attempted to minimize wear and tear by giving him more rest than usual. And when one dives deeper into the numbers, Paul has been every bit his dominant self. He’s having his second-most efficient season ever, leads the NBA in assist percentage, is among the league’s top tens in steals and dominates more advanced metrics like RPM, BPM and Win Shares per 48 minutes.

More importantly, the Rockets have the best record in basketball and are on the verge of securing home-court advantage throughout the post-season’s grueling slog. As strong as Paul’s teams were in Los Angeles, this appears to be the most dangerous squad he’s ever been part of.

“It’s our first year together, but we expect a lot from each other,” Paul said of the Rockets. “We know that our success will truly only be measured by the playoffs. Our chemistry is unbelievable and that comes from spending real time together with each other. A lot of people say that they play for each other but they’re just talking. I think we got a real team and that’s what gives us a real chance.”

The Rockets have already set a franchise record for wins in a season, but they’ll likely enter the playoffs as underdogs—a consequence of playing in the same conference as a rival that has gone to the Finals three years in a row. Paul knows there will always be doubters, but the teenager who chose the experience of JV over the prestige of varsity has never squandered much emotional currency on the opinions of his skeptics.

“I always feel like I’ve got something to prove, every time I step on the court,” he said. “It ain’t for nobody else—it’s more so to myself.”

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