by Nima Zarrabi / @NZbeFree
Paul George is hot right now.
The 23-year-old Pacers star has improved tremendously during his three years in the NBA and is coming off a phenomenal season that peaked under the hot lights. George’s post-season performances against the Knicks and Heat have catapulted him into young star in heavy demand. George made his first All-Star team this past season and his per-game averages of 17.4 points and 7.4 rebounds earned him the League’s Most Improved Player award.
George will be in Las Vegas next week as one of the 27 invites to the USA National Team mini-camp, another step toward the stardom that waits. “I’m looking to set my mark,” he says. “This is the best of the best of the up and coming stars of the League. There’s no better place to show my leadership, show that I can lead and play well.”
George was at the W Hotel in Hollywood on Tuesday night making an appearance on behalf of Gatorade at the brand’s fantastic annual High School Athlete of the Year awards. High school standout Andrew Wiggins was awarded the honor on the boys’ side, continuing a rich tradition of basketball winners. George rocked a very colorful fit to the event and was extremely engaging and friendly throughout. I had a chance to sit down with him for a few minutes following the first-class affair.
SLAM: Your people tell me this is actually your low-key outfit. You have something more special in store for us for tomorrow night’s ESPYs?
Paul George: This is the undercover, trying to be sleek, real smooth low key outfit right here.
SLAM: Please take us through it.
PG: I’ll start off with the shoes and work my way up. You’ve got the black Christian Louboutins. I put these spikes in there myself. Just playing [laughs]. It’s a smooth look to go with the outfit. I’m very into color. I like colors that pop out. And there’s no other color to pop out on a guy, like the color pink. So I went with the pink pants. With the top, I think leather is real popular in fashion today, so I went with something that will keep me cool and be stylish at the same time. And a skinny tie. It’s not as popular, but I think it’s getting there. And a Hublot watch to set it all off.
SLAM: Don’t forget the frames.
PG: I can’t forget the frames! [Removes glasses]. I don’t even know what these frames are! I don’t know, but they work fine.
SLAM: The pink has to be the Cali in you.
PG: This is straight Cali, man. This is straight out the closet of Russell Westbrook! [Laughs]
SLAM: Do you know much about Andrew Wiggins?
PG: I don’t. But since he’s been on the main stage, I’ve been following him. I like his skill set. It’s very similar to mine: A wing that can do everything on the floor for his team. So I’m a big fan of his game.
SLAM: Behind you is the logo of the Gatorade brand. Your career on the court is on an upward trajectory and now you’re affiliated with a global brand like this. It must feel good to be rewarded off the court with partnerships like this.
PG: It does. At the end of the day, I want to be someone that organizations want to deal with and be a part of. It’s great to come out and build relationships by doing events like this. I think it’s great for my career.
SLAM: Speaking of career, man, what are you going to do for an encore? You had me out of my seat a bunch of times during the Playoffs this year.
PG: [Laughs] Well, hopefully this is just the beginning. I won’t say hopefully, because only I can determine that. This is the beginning. There is a lot more in store. I don’t think I’m even close to reaching my prime or scratching the surface. There’s going to be a lot of fun years ahead.
SLAM: One of the great aspects of your game is that you are a fantastic two-way player. You take playing defense seriously. Has that always been a part of your makeup?
PG: It hasn’t. I wasn’t a great defender until I got to the NBA. I was a terrible defender in high school. I couldn’t guard in college. I would almost be nervous when I had to matchup and guard the good guys. So it was something I had to grow with. The only way for me to get on the court in the NBA was to play defense so that was something I had to hang my hat on.
SLAM: I’m a little surprised; I wouldn’t have thought that after watching you defend Carmelo and LeBron in the Playoffs this year.
PG: Yeah, I wasn’t near the defender I am now. I was always good playing the passing lanes and reading the passer. But as far as on-ball defense, I wasn’t quick footed and I didn’t have the instincts to keep up with guys.
SLAM: What are you trying to take away when you guard guys like Carmelo and LeBron?
PG: You just try to make it tough. When it comes to guys like LeBron and Melo, they’ve faced every defense in the world—double-teams, guys who play good defense. So you’re not going to slow their rate down. The thing I wanted to do is make it difficult for them. They’re great scorers; great passers with a great feel for the game. I just try to make it tougher for them.
SLAM: You rocked the Petros and Money radio show when you interviewed with them last year. I loved some of the things you had said about Larry Bird. How influential has he been on your growth?
PG: He’s had a lot of influence. Larry was the first person I really talked to when I was struggling in the Playoffs last year (2012) against Miami. We had at least a one-hour or two-hour phone convo about what I need to improve on, what areas I can get better at. How to attack, how to play within the team. He’s been someone in my corner during my career.
SLAM: I believe you had talked about seeing Larry shoot in the gym.
PG: He picked a ball up that had rolled over. He rolled up his sleeves and made about 15 in a row and just walked out like nothing just happened. It was the craziest thing I’ve seen.
SLAM: How did you and the rest of the team react?
PG: We were speechless. We didn’t know whether to keep shooting or just to end practice. It was sweet, man.