Long established as one of the NBA's premier point guards, Chris Paul has not simply rested on his laurels. He has given back to the basketball community in a variety of ways, notably serving as the President of the National Basketball Players Association and running his own youth camps. He has also "paid it forward" by mentoring the next generation of guards on his team to help them reach their full potential. It would be easy for him to simply focus on his own game and expect his teammates to learn by merely observing him.
Much ink was spilled over Dwight Howard's tenure with the Lakers, including the thought of how he might "learn" from Kobe Bryant. However, Bryant's idea of mentoring seems to involve tough love and a lot of "watch and learn," and the results were, to say the least, not a success. Paul takes the opposite approach. He seems to relish the opportunity to directly impart his wisdom unto younger players. This is a special attribute, and it betters the entire team when a superstar is unselfish.
For the most part, young, up-and-coming guards have always thrived when their job is to back up Paul. For example, Darren Collison began his career as Paul's understudy for the New Orleans Hornets, but he quickly asserted himself as a quality player when Paul went down with an injury during the 2009-10 season. Even then, Paul, who was just 24 years old at the time, was constantly in Collison's ear. According to a 2009 article by Broderick Turner:
Paul has become a mentor for Collison, showing him how to lead a team, how to facilitate the offense, how to take charge, how to be a professional.
Collison parlayed his success in New Orleans into a starting role on both the Indiana Pacers and the Dallas Mavericks, but he failed to capture the magic that he achieved as Paul's backup and ultimately lost both starting jobs. As we all know, he came to the Clippers last season to rejuvenate his career, astutely realizing that his most successful period in the NBA was when he was playing behind Paul.
Once again, he flourished in this role, and the two played well alongside each other. Collison was instrumental in the 2014 playoffs, essentially sealing the win for the Clippers in Game 4 of the second round against the Oklahoma City Thunder. With NBA executives again taking notice of him, Collison earned another starting job with the Sacramento Kings. He is currently having a strong season and his absence is definitely felt on this year's bench. It was clearly a luxury having him on the roster last season.
Paul's mentorship has also certainly benefitted Eric Bledsoe's career. Before Paul arrived in Los Angeles, Bledsoe started in place of Baron Davis for a stretch and acquitted himself well. Bledsoe was always an intriguing prospect, as he possessed mind-boggling strength, quickness, and athleticism. On the surface, he and Paul had very different styles, skills, and weaknesses.
The question mark with Bledsoe was always whether or not he could run an effective offense. He had a bit of whirling dervish in him, along with a tendency to play out of control at times. Everyone knew what a force he could be on the defensive end, but was he a franchise point guard? This question was finally answered with an affirmative when Bledsoe was traded to the Phoenix Suns to play alongside Goran Dragic, where he spearheaded a dynamic offense without losing his defensive intensity.
Although his playing time may have been stunted, Bledsoe was fortunate to have both Paul and veteran Chauncey Billups on his team. That must have been like attending the Harvard of point guard graduate schools. In a 2012 article after a preseason game where Bledsoe played 44 minutes, Arash Markazi described the tableau between Bledsoe and his teachers:
While Del Negro was vigilant of Bledsoe's minutes during breaks, Bledsoe's mentors, Paul and Chauncey Billups, were in his right ear and his left ear, like a couple of corner men in a boxing match, telling him what to do and what to watch.
Most young guards would give their right arm to have players like Paul and Billups at their disposal during their formative years in the league. To his credit, Paul does not seem to approach his mentorship of other players as if he has learned everything there is to know about basketball. He told Bledsoe just as much, according to an interview in a 2013 USA Today article.
"The only thing I want to do is get him a whole lot better and have him make me 10 times better...We were talking one day, and I was like, 'You know, I've learned a lot from you Chris.' And he was like, 'Man, I'm learning a lot from you.' It felt good to have one of the best point guards tell me that."
Bledsoe was finally given the opportunity to run his own team with the Suns, and he certainly looks every bit as good as promised. The team just barely missed the playoffs last year, and this season they're again in the thick of things in the lower half of the Western playoff standings. Bledose is currently averaging 16.9 points, 6 assists, and 5 rebounds. The Suns are a young team, and while he no longer has older and more polished players whispering in his ear, he's still thriving as a borderline All-Star.
No one will ever know what would have happened if Bledsoe went to New Orleans in the trade that sent Paul to the Clippers, but it is very possible he would have been seen as a disappointment when thrust into a starting role at that stage of his career. The time behind Chris Paul may have impeded his ability to be a starter earlier in his NBA life, but it also may have prolonged his career and helped him get the rich five-year extension he earned from Phoenix this past summer.
The Clippers' hope that Paul's willingness to tutor others may also help alter the course of Austin Rivers' life and career, as he now has the chance to learn from one of the best guards in the business and harness his untapped talents. He did not have this luxury during his two and a half years in New Orleans. Paul is already in the young guard's ear, urging him to "attack" and be aggressive. If Rivers can take that next step, the Clippers could have a nice young player on their roster going forward.