Paul George has always been infatuated by what’s above the clouds. His hometown, Palmdale, California, is the location of Air Force Plant 42, which has assembled every NASA space shuttle orbiter fleet, and, since 2007, NASA’s Neil A. Armstrong Flight Research Center’s Building 703, which specializes in science platform aircraft.
He is certain there’s life outside Earth, too, though he won’t defend Kyrie Irving’s claim (that he later apologized for) that Earth is flat or Lonnie Walker IV’s belief that this planet is an illusion.
When asked why NBA players are obsessed with conspiracy theories during a Nike shoot at the Kennedy Space Center in August, George responded: “Because we’re not dumb. There’s people that read into what the government tells us, and that’s it. I grew up from a religious background. I just think there’s so much more than what we can see that the world won’t tell us.”
George has been balling out of this world this season in his quest to become the league’s MVP. His favorite song in high school was Lil Wayne’s, “Ride 4 My Niggas (The Sky Is The Limit),”a motivational track from his classic mixtape, Da Drought 3. That was until he came across a quote in class.
“Don’t tell me the sky’s the limit [when] there’s footprints on the moon.”
He doesn’t recall how he found it, nor who said it (country singer Paul Brandt). But it changed his perspective, causing him to believe there is more to be obtained than what the eye can see.
“I view the sky as being complacent,” says George, who has a modified version of the quote in his Twitter bio and etched on the heel of his Nike signature shoe, the PG3s. “What [people] can see, that’s what [people] want. I’ve always tried to exceed what the standard was.”
This has been at the root of George’s success and his continuous improvement over the years. It’s how he went from a kid out of Palmdale to a lottery pick out of Fresno State, and how he overcame a gruesome leg injury that could’ve ended his career.
Darron Cummings/Associated Press
This season, George is out to prove that his free-agency decision to re-sign with the Oklahoma City Thunder—and his desire not to return to Southern California and play for the Lakers—was the right move.
As he is going through the best year of his career, thrusting himself into the MVP conversation, it’s clear he made the right decision more than eight months later.
“Oklahoma City is where I feel comfortable at,” George says. “L.A. can hate me or love me. The decision was ultimately mine.”
To describe George as an L.A. kid would be inaccurate. He grew up in a sleepy city of 150,000 people an hour north of Los Angeles. While Southern California is a hotbed for basketball talent, Palmdale had never produced an NBA player before him.
George is more blue-collar than Hollywood. He inherited this mentality from his father, Paul George Sr., who worked two jobs—at a rim shop and as a carpenter. Every day, Paul Sr. would commute two hours one way to provide for George and his two older sisters. George’s mother, Paulette, had suffered a stroke when George was six years old, so she stayed at home.
“My dad was spending so much time at work to where being a star and making it, that’s where the motivation came from,” George says. “I want to do it for them. I want to make life easier on them.”
Oklahoma City is where I feel comfortable at. … L.A. can hate me or love me. The decision was ultimately mine—Paul George
George wanted more from life than the lack of career opportunities Palmdale provided. He wouldn’t be satisfied with just being in the NBA, even if nobody from his city had made it that far. George wanted to become an All-Star, even if Fresno State had never produced one before him. And if he was going to be a star, he also wanted to become a champion.
“Palmdale made me believe that if you can make it from there, you can make it from anywhere,” George says. “It kind of built me as a child to separate myself.”
The 10th overall pick in 2010 by the Indiana Pacers, George was selected to his first All-Star Game in his third season. Even after the horrific leg injury he suffered with Team USA in 2014, George bounced back to his All-Star form and remained the Pacers’ cornerstone.
Eventually, George grew unhappy with the organization’s direction. The team had been bounced from the first round of the playoffs in consecutive years. So George took it upon himself to make a change. During the 2017 offseason, he informed the Pacers of his intentions to become a free agent and his desire to play for the Lakers. A month later, the Pacers shipped him to the Thunder in a blockbuster deal that sent Victor Oladipo to Indiana.
The Thunder took a necessary gamble. In its first year following Kevin Durant’s departure, the team lacked another star outside Russell Westbrook, who would average a triple-double during the 2016 season and win MVP honors. Oklahoma City was knocked out of the first round by the Houston Rockets in five games, a year after making it to the Western Conference Finals.
The small-market team needed another star to pair with Westbrook.
“It changed everything,” says former Cavs general manager David Griffin of the trade.
Oklahoma City wasn’t the change George had hoped for when he made his intentions clear a month prior, but he gave the city and the team a chance. When he arrived, he began to feel his way through the organization to get a better idea of his role on the team.
“I think he was trying to come at it like, ‘How do I fit in?‘” says Thunder coach Billy Donovan. “It just took him some time to figure out how to adjust and how to play with these guys. I don’t think he’s the kind of person that’s going to come in here and say: ‘This is the way I’m going to do it, and here’s how I’m going to do it. You guys need to adjust.’ It was kind of like, ‘How can we all work together and be the best version of ourselves?’ I think that takes a lot of patience and that takes a lot of reflection to say, ‘Where do I need to make the most sacrifices, and where do I need to do things to help the team?‘”
George fell in love with the organization, and the organization fell in love with him. Playing with another Southern California star in Westbrook had its advantages. So did living in a small-market city that fit George’s simple personality. He lacks an ego, which is rarely seen from a superstar of his caliber. And he lacks the desire to be famous for anything besides his profession or his love for fishing.
“He’s low-key as hell. All he does is fish, which is kind of weird,” says Thunder wing Terrance Ferguson, who has been George’s mentee for the last two seasons. “He’s the only dude I know that goes fishing. If he had the chance to go fishing every day, he would be on that lake fishing. I’m like, ‘How can you love fishing that much?’“
During the 2017-18 season, the Thunder quickly proved to be one of the best teams in the league, but their year ended on a disappointing note. The Utah Jazz knocked them out in the first round of the playoffs. During the final contest of the six-game series, George scored just five points on 2-of-16 shooting in 45 minutes. In the previous five games, he averaged 28.6 points. The ouster left a bad taste in George’s mouth—one that would steer his thinking entering free agency. He believed he could win a championship with Westbrook in Oklahoma City. That the dynamic duo never reached its full potential weighed heavily on his mind; it was enough to make him want to return.
“Looking back on it, if I would’ve made another decision, I would have looked back at that one year in Oklahoma and thought, What if?” George says. “That’s what made this decision a little easier—that I didn’t give everything I had.”
He struggles with indecision. “I’m very indecisive at times,” George says. “That’s a real problem for me. That’s where the ‘what if’ comes from sometimes. Well, what if I did that? Then you’re splitting in between. Once I get locked on to something, I try to stay there for that reason. If I think about any other decision, my head will be spinning. Once I got locked on to staying, I was all-in for it.”
He made it official during a private party he hosted with Westbrook and the rapper Nas. “I’m here to stay,” he told the crowd before committing to re-signing on a four-year, $137 million max deal the next day.
The decision surprised many in the sports world, including the Los Angeles Lakers, who remained spectators as George’s free-agency process transpired. Before being traded to the Thunder, George wanted to play for L.A., he admits now. But he never gave the team a meeting, even though he would have had a chance to pair with another All-Star in LeBron James.
There are Lakers fans on social media who still hold a grudge against George.
“I think my words kind of threw people off because they read one sentence, and it’s, ‘Oh, he’s going to L.A.,'” George says. “I wanted to go to L.A. I said that, and I voiced that ever since the Pacers were just about to trade me. But, it didn’t happen. I went somewhere else. I loved the situation. I was wowed by the situation. That’s where I feel comfortable at.
“I think people just got caught up in the situation a little too much. But it’s my life. It’s my livelihood. It’s my job, and I’ve got that right.”
This season, George has made a serious case to be the NBA’s next MVP. This idea had largely been an afterthought for fans and the media, who considered George a dark-horse candidate at best during the start of the year. The NBA had been consumed with James Harden’s absurd 32-game streak of 30-point outings and his quest to win the award in consecutive years, and Giannis Antetokounmpo’s sheer dominance in Milwaukee as the next face of the league.
The recognition slowly arrived after he averaged 30.1 points in December, but George finally had his moment Jan. 19 on the road against the Philadelphia 76ers, during the league’s first nationally televised Saturday night game of the year. After Westbrook fouled out with 14.9 seconds left, Philly rallied, scoring five unanswered points in eight seconds to take a two-point lead in a game Oklahoma City dominated until this collapse.
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On the inbounds play, George sprinted from the paint to the top of the key, gaining separation from Jimmy Butler off a ball screen from Steven Adams. Then upon catching the pass, he set his feet and drained the three—all while Butler fouled him.
It would prove to be the go-ahead bucket, the second in George’s career with 10 seconds left in the fourth quarter or overtime. The first also came this season, in a December game against the Brooklyn Nets. Up to that point, he had developed a reputation of being a player who couldn’t hit the big shot, going 0-of-14 in his career on go-ahead attempts.
More big shots would follow. In fact, George has come through in so many ways for the Thunder during clutch moments that it’s not a surprise anymore for his teammates. “I don’t think they can say that no more, ‘cause he’s had so many game-winners this year,” says Thunder guard Raymond Felton. “And there’s more to come for sure.”
Four games later, George scored 36 points and grabbed 13 rebounds against the Milwaukee Bucks—including seven points in the final two minutes and a poster dunk over Antetokounmpo to secure the victory.
“He’s playing at a high level right now,” says Antetokounmpo. “His confidence is at an all-time high. He’s helping his team be great. He’s a tough guy to guard right now and go against.”
Seven games later, George posted a 47-point triple-double that was so impressive Westbrook labeled him the MVP “front-runner” following the performance.
“He’s been spectacular,” says Westbrook. “He’s just finding ways to make the game easy for all of us, compete at a high level on both ends by defending and scoring and putting us in a position to win games.”
Others agree. “The things he’s doing right now, I think him, Giannis and Harden are the best prospects for MVP,” says Sixers center Joel Embiid. “How he’s playing right now is at an extremely high level.”
He’s been spectacular. … He’s just finding ways to make the game easy for all of us—Russell Westbrook on Paul George.
George, who was named Western Conference Player of the Month in February, has a legitimate shot to win not just MVP but also Defensive Player of the Year honors. He is second in offensive efficiency, trailing only Harden, and second in defensive win shares, per the NBA, trailing only Antetokounmpo.
“I think the commitment it takes from you physically and mentally to really be dominant on both ends of the court in our league is really, really hard,” says Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer. “He’s been gifted with those skills, but he’s applying himself every night. It’s rare when you have a guy that is that physically gifted and does it.”
George says he’s become comfortable in his second season with the Thunder. He knows his role on the team, which has grown offensively as he’s averaging almost four more shot attempts per game. His laid-back personality has paired well with Westbrook’s desire to be the alpha. Where George is vying for MVP, Westbrook is on pace to average a triple-double for a third consecutive season.
“Coming in last year from a totally different team, different coaching staff and different organization, I think it took him a while to figure things out,” Donovan says. “I think the biggest thing is that he’s figured out how to play with Russell, how to play with Steven, how to play with Jerami [Grant] after having a year under his belt.”
Winning the MVP will solidify the effort George has put in over the years to prove just how talented this kid from Palmdale truly is, but his sights are set on hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy. The Thunder sit fifth in the Western Conference as a result and are one of the few teams that could challenge the Golden State Warriors during the playoffs.
Meanwhile, the Lakers sit below .500 and are all but eliminated from the playoffs.
It’s safe to say, George ultimately made the right choice.
“I truly felt I picked the place that I can succeed and take it to the next level and be the best player I can be,” George says.
Master Tesfatsion is a senior writer for B/R Mag. He was previously a Washington football beat writer at the Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter: @MasterTes