If you didn’t know he had a $90 million contract and celebrity status, if you swapped his Indiana Pacers jersey for his college one, if you removed the scarring that followed a horrific leg injury, you would think Paul George hadn’t changed.
And you’d be right in many respects – with George talking, working and inspiring as he did seven years ago when he last played at Fresno State.
Teammates – with the Bulldogs then and the Pacers now – marvel at George’s talent, especially as he fine-tunes his game after practices.
Swish by swish.
Always making it look easy.
On the morning the Pacers were to play the Sacramento Kings, George effortlessly drained 20 consecutive 3-pointers from the same spot to conclude his shootaround at Golden 1 Center.
“Damn,” a Pacers teammate said in envy.
Years before George reached basketball glory – heights few would’ve predicted based on his Bulldogs days – the former Fresno State star was doing similar things while discovering his potential.
Bulldog Born, Bulldog Bred. I’d never forget that. That’s where really my NBA career started.
Indiana Pacers All Star Paul George
“Bulldog born, Bulldog bred,” George said. “I’d never forget that. That’s where really my NBA career started.”
Only a few outside of the central San Joaquin Valley, though, might remember George went to Fresno State.
In fact, George’s two seasons with the Bulldogs (2008-09, 2009-10) weren’t that memorable.
The most decorated basketball player to wear a Bulldogs uniform – with an Olympic gold medal and four All-Star appearances on his résumé – never won a conference championship in college.
He never was named to a first-team all-conference team, let alone won a player of the year award.
Never enjoyed a winning season with the Bulldogs, either.
Former Fresno State star Paul George might be an All Star in the NBA and an Olympic Gold medalist. But he never earned all-conference, first-team with the Bulldogs while just tapping into his potential then.
How did this happen with a budding NBA star on Fresno State’s roster?
As any farmer in the fertile Valley knows: Even the most special seeds need time to grow.
Underground and out of sight.
In the right environment and sometimes with the most delicate handling before blossoming for all to see.
George wasn’t supposed to go to Fresno State.
If traditional powerhouse schools had accurately projected his potential coming out of Knight High in Palmdale, they might have signed George.
But few saw beyond his lean 6-foot-7, 190-pound frame.
“He didn’t have the ready-made body most of the big-time schools looked for,” said former Fresno State assistant Senque Carey, who headed the Bulldogs’ recruiting efforts. “Lucky for us.
“Everything he did, he made it look so easy.”
Still, Fresno State didn’t benefit from the slight of others right away.
Paul George played two years of college basketball at Fresno State. But initially, he signed to play for Pepperdine.
Instead, the lightly recruited, two-star prospect signed with Pepperdine.
George wanted to play for then-coach Vance Walberg and his up-tempo, offensive-oriented system.
George’s older sister Teiosha played for the Waves at the time, aiding Pepperdine’s recruiting efforts.
“You could tell he was a young pup, but he could grow,” said Walberg, a successful coach at Clovis West High and Fresno City prior to coaching Pepperdine.
“He could shoot it well,” Walberg added. “Taking it to the rack, he was OK, not great.
“But I felt he was going to be really good because he had such great work ethic and had the skills to get better. He was a perfect fit for us.”
Walberg, however, never got to see what George could do for the Waves.
A couple of months after George signed, Walberg abruptly resigned, citing family and health reasons. (Walberg later got back into coaching, moving on as an assistant at UMass for three years then four in the NBA before returning to Clovis West this season).
George, soon after, requested his release from the school.
“I was in the car driving to Palmdale as soon as we found out,” Carey said. “Might’ve been speeding to get down there, too.”
There haven’t been many times Fresno State has gone head-to-head with traditional national power Georgetown.
In fact, the programs have played each other just twice. Georgetown prevailed in both.
Fresno State, though, won the biggest bout when it came to head-on recruiting.
After George got his release from Pepperdine, he narrowed his choices to Fresno State and Georgetown.
Play for a basketball program located three hours from home, but in the midst of a massive rebuild and coming off probation?
Or go across country in Washington, D.C., but play for a program that’s made nine Elite Eight NCAA Tournament appearances and produced the likes of Allen Iverson and Patrick Ewing?
“When you look at the program perceptions at the time, why wouldn’t he go to Georgetown?” former Fresno State coach Steve Cleveland said. “But at the end of the day, there were some key questions you really needed to look at: ‘Do you want to see your son play? Do you want to play immediately?’
“Our circumstances really fit what he was looking for.”
It didn’t take long for George to gain national attention with the Bulldogs.
During George’s second game as a true freshman, Fresno State played at Saint Mary’s as part of ESPN’s College Hoops Tip-Off Marathon.
The sports network was televising college basketball games for 23 consecutive hours. Fresno State and Saint Mary’s drew the late game.
Less than an hour before that Monday turned into Tuesday, George woke up the crowd with his own midnight madness.
1 Where Paul George’s ferocious dunk against Saint Mary’s landed on SportsCenter’s Top 10 plays of the Day
George received a pass behind the 3-point arc and took two dribbles with his left hand.
Then as soon as he reached the paint, George soared toward the basket.
And rattled in a right-handed dunk over two Saint Mary’s players.
“Oh George! Oh my George. Wow!” the ESPN commentators exclaimed.
The Bulldogs ended up losing 99-85.
But George went off for 25 points and 10 rebounds – the first of 10 double-doubles in his career.
And he shot 56.3 percent from the field, marking one of 17 times George would top 50 percent during his freshman season.
His ferocious dunk was No. 1 on SportsCenter’s Top 10 “Plays of the Day.”
“That’s what put him on the map,” Carey said, “and got every scout’s attention.”
The pre-George years
Fresno State had fallen into despair.
Violations and sanctions, even a murder conviction for a former basketball player, engulfed the program.
A few years before Paul George’s arrival, Fresno was engulfed in violations and sanctions, even a murder by a former Bulldogs basketball player.
The program didn’t just need a change of direction. It needed a thorough cleansing.
So Fresno State turned to deeply religious and fairly successful Steve Cleveland.
“This is a statement to the community and to the nation that we’re going to change this program, “ Fresno State’s then-President John Welty said during Cleveland’s introductory news conference in April 2005.
At Cleveland’s previous stop, Brigham Young went to three NCAA Tournaments and finished 138-108 overall in eight years.
More importantly to Fresno State, BYU had no reported violations during Cleveland’s tenure.
But scholarship reductions, a postseason ban and limited practice time – penalties levied for violations committed before Cleveland’s arrival – added to Fresno State’s challenges in recruiting.
Talented high school players in particular.
Cleveland turned to transfers from the junior college ranks and other Division-I programs.
“There was so much negative recruiting,” Cleveland said. “It was really easy for people to blow up what we wanted to do.
“It was the toughest thing I did in my career, coaching and recruiting under all of those sanctions and penalties.”
The quick-fix approach led to mixed results.
A 15-13 record in Cleveland’s first season in 2005-06.
A 22-10 showing and third place in the WAC the next, with a disappointing first-round exit in both the conference and National Invitation tournaments.
Then the season before George joined the program, Fresno State dropped below .500, regressing to 13-19 overall and seventh in the WAC.
6 of 14 Number of Fresno State players on the 2007-08 roster who entered the program as a transfer from either another Division-I or junior college program
Transfers from either another D-I and JC program represented nearly half (six of 14) of that 2007-08 roster to start the season.
And the risk in relying heavily on transfers was evident after one was dismissed before the start of the season and another ruled academically ineligible for the second half of the schedule.
Two wasted scholarships, further depleting the Bulldogs’ talent and depth.
“That set us back a lot,” former Bulldog Sylvester Seay said. “That set the coaches and program back a lot.”
Cleveland knew if he wanted sustainable success, he needed to recruit fewer transfers and more high school players.
As the sanctions and penalties faded, hope returned to Fresno State in the form of additional scholarships and practice time.
“Once that shadow over the program started to go away,” Cleveland said, “we could recruit kids with high upside and guys who could help us immediately.”
Nothing offered more hope for Bulldogs basketball than George.
As a freshman, while averaging a team-high 34.6 minutes, George finished second in scoring at 14.3 points per game.
More impressive was his efficiency: George shot 47 percent from the field, including 44.7 percent on 3-pointers.
He also provided stellar defense, averaging 1.7 steals, 1.0 blocks and 6.2 rebounds.
“Because he learned to defend so quickly, he had no problem guarding quicker guards,” Cleveland said. “His height and length gave him an advantage on those players.”
Paul George averaged 14.3 points and shot 44.7 percent on 3-pointers during his freshman season. But as dazzling and dominating George could look at time, he could easily disappear, too.
But while often dazzling and dominating, George could easily disappear.
In nine of his games as a freshman, George scored no more than eight points.
The game that followed his big night against Saint Mary’s: He scored two in 32 minutes of an 80-56 loss at San Diego State.
During the season’s final month, George was held to single digits in five of 10 games.
“He’s a pro now, but he didn’t have pro qualities right away,” said Don Slade, who was part of Cleveland’s staff as director of operations. “Paul was learning.”
The 2008-09 Bulldogs – with five freshmen and one senior – finished last in the WAC at 3-13 and 13-21 overall.
It’s the most losses in Fresno State history.
13-21 The Bulldogs record during Paul George’s freshman year, amassing the most losses ever in Fresno State history
The double teams and extra attention that came his way were new to George as a freshman.
And because Fresno State was light on talent and inconsistent throughout, George needed to learn how to attack despite the defensive focus of other teams.
“What I always admired about Paul was he wasn’t afraid to work on his weaknesses,” Carey said.
In the offseason leading into his sophomore year, George improved his conditioning after recognizing he had fatigued down the stretch.
He practiced becoming a real ballhandler, not just a player who took one or two dribbles before making a move.
He developed new shots and repeated old ones over and again. Some with his right shoulder facing the basket. Others with his left shoulder toward the rim.
Perhaps most importantly, George learned how to separate himself from a defender and get a shot off quickly.
His work ethic was unlike anything I’d ever seen. He didn’t come with an attitude like he was entitled or anything.
Former Fresno State coach Steve Cleveland
“His work ethic was unlike anything I’d ever seen,” Cleveland said. “He didn’t come with an attitude like he was entitled or anything.
“He loved basketball and he always worked hard. You could see the evolution of his game.”
On defense, George’s size, length and athleticism allowed him to guard multiple positions.
“He became a great defender before he became a lethal offensive threat,” Cleveland said. “He could really guard people.”
A more experienced and better-skilled George opened with 19 points, eight rebounds and four steals as Fresno State defeated San Francisco State 65-59.
The night was highlighted with 10-of-10 shooting from the free-throw line as George’s new moves and aggressiveness to the hoop paid off.
George’s performance and the Fresno State win were aided by the arrival of highly touted freshman center Greg Smith, who had 17 points and 10 rebounds in his college debut.
Now, Fresno State had a legit inside scoring presence in the 6-foot-10 Smith.
And with the senior Seay at power forward and George at small forward, the Bulldogs had a formidable front line.
The sophomore backcourt remained in flux, with primary guards Mychal Ladd and Steven Shepp slow to develop. But backcourt concerns were eased with George occasionally operating as a point forward.
“He’d been maturing with playing time and working on his game all the time,” Carey said. “But where he really started helping us as a coaching staff was by becoming a better leader.
“Now, Paul was more verbal. He could help direct where everyone needed to be.”
George finished in the WAC’s top 10 in five categories: Sixth in scoring (16.8 points per game), eighth in rebounds (7.2), second in steals (2.2), second in free-throw percentage (90.9 percent), and eighth in 3-pointers made per game (2.0).
He received second team all-conference honors.
And Fresno State climbed back near .500, finishing 15-18 overall and fifth in the WAC at 7-9.
16-18 Fresno State’s record during George’s sophomore season
Along the way, Fresno State defeated New Mexico State, the team that went on to advance to the NCAA Tournament for the 2009-10 season.
George went off for a career-high 30 points en route an 83-64 victory.
But the Bulldogs also had questionable losses to teams in the lower half of the standings, such as a 72-45 defeat at San Jose State.
George was scoreless for more than 27 minutes against a Spartans team that finished 14-17 overall and didn’t have an all-conference player.
“Honestly, I think we ran too much clock,” Seay said of the Bulldogs’ struggles. “We had guys who could play and jump out of the gym. We’d try to run off some clock because we didn’t have a lot of depth.
“But then we’d turn it over or something else would go wrong. We’d be thinking too much. We just were inconsistent. I was. Greg was. Paul was.”
Within the first eight games of George’s sophomore year, the Bulldogs’ coaching staff realized it could be the final college season for their key building block.
A number of NBA scouts and at least one front-office executive were in attendance when Fresno State played at Pepperdine as George faced the school with which he initially signed.
“It was either Jerry West or Mitch Kupchak in the stands,” Slade said. “A lot of agents also at that game. I told Senque afterward, ‘You know Paul’s gone, right?’ ”
Slade pegged his assumption to George’s second-half performance.
I can still remember Senque sitting next to me and saying ‘This is probably not good for us in building this program.’
Cleveland after George’s big game at Pepperdine before several NBA scouts
After the Bulldogs trailed at halftime, George responded with 24 of his then-career-high 29 points and Fresno State rallied for an 80-72 victory.
“I can still remember Senque sitting next to me and saying, ‘This is probably not good for us in building this program,’ ” Cleveland recalled while laughing. “We shook our heads. We knew what was coming.”
A month after his second season ended, 19-year-old Paul George declared for the NBA draft.
“I don’t think fans know how hard a decision this is,” George said then. “They probably think it’s easy.
“This is tough. I look at it as an opportunity to take care of my family … both now and for the future.”
Seay recalled George calling him to ask if he was making the right move.
“Hell yeah, you are!” Seay said. “But why you gonna call me and ask? You know you ready. Go out there and prove it.”
Questions whether George was ready for the NBA vanished after his performance at the pre-draft combine.
Any reservations George had about leaving early for the NBA or questions he faced as to whether he was ready for the pros vanished at the pre-draft combine.
“I’m looking around at the other scouts and we’re all amazed,” an NBA scout said. “He couldn’t miss.
“He’s sinking 3s. Looks impressive driving to the hoop. He could defend. He measured out a legitimate height and wingspan as listed. He’s exactly what you want your 3 (small forward) to look and play like.”
Carey remembers getting a call from an executive with the Toronto Raptors, who were picking No. 13.
“They’re telling me they’re going to pick Paul at 13,” Carey said. “I kind of laughed. My response was ‘He’s not going to be there by 13. I guarantee.’
“If it was up to me, I’d take him No. 1. I compared Paul to an up-and-coming Tracy McGrady. He’s going to be that good.”
Life in the NBA
Invited to New York City for the draft, George went 10th overall to the Pacers.
It was the highest a Fresno State player had been selected.
“We’re very happy to select a player who is very talented,” Pacers President Larry Bird said. “Paul is multiskilled, he can play two positions and with his work ethic, he has a chance to be a very good player in this league.”
Those taken before George: John Wall (Washington), Evan Turner (Philadelphia), Derrick Favors (New Jersey), Wesley Johnson (Minnesota), DeMarcus Cousins (Sacramento), Ekpe Udoh (Golden State), Greg Monroe (Detroit), Al-Farouq Aminu (L.A. Clippers) and Gordon Hayward (Utah).
By his third season, in 2012-13, George averaged 17.4 points, 7.6 rebounds and 4.1 assists as Indiana reached the Eastern Conference finals before losing in seven games to LeBron James and the Miami Heat.
George’s Pacers would return to the conference finals in 2014, but again fall to the Heat.
Among the top 10 picks, only Wall matches George’s four All-Star nods.
Guys (like George) to me are at a very premium level in this league right now. He’s a 3 that you’re supposed to be.
Kings coach Dave Joerger, who has coached in the NBA for the past 10 seasons
“Guys (like George) to me are at a very premium level in this league right now,” said Kings coach Dave Joerger, who has coached in the NBA for the past 10 seasons, including as a head coach for the past four. “We have a lot of guys in our league that are just spot-up 3-point shooters.
“They don’t know how to play; they can just stand there and hit an open shot,” Joerger added. “He’s a 3 that you’re supposed to be. Post up. Run pick and rolls. Ball handle. Run the floor in transition. Get to the rim. Get to the free-throw line. Defend the other team’s best players.”
But in the summer of 2014, during a Team USA scrimmage, George fractured his tibia and fibula while trying to block a layup.
The gruesome injury, captured on TV and viewed on YouTube millions of times since, was career threatening.
Family and friends were left saddened and confused.
“I’d just talked to Paul before the game courtside,” Seay said. “We were supposed to go out and celebrate my birthday later that night. Live it up in Vegas.
“Seeing that injury, there was no way I could celebrate. I didn’t know what to do.”
After rigorous rehabbing, George returned for the final six games of the 2014-15 season.
23.1 points George’s career-high points average, accomplished the season after he suffered a horrendous leg injury
The following season, George returned to All-Star form and averaged a career-best 23.1 points, 7.0 rebounds and 4.1 assists while playing in 81 games.
“You could see his growth and confidence,” said Walberg, who served as an NBA assistant from 2012 to 2016 with the Denver Nuggets, Philadelphia 76ers, and Kings. “He was back. He was a tough one to game plan for defensively.
“And knowing Paul’s history, as long as his body could handle things, you knew he would get better and better and better.”
With his return from injury to All-Star form, George’s popularity took off.
He began this season on the cover of the popular video NBA 2K17.
In January, Nike released George’s first signature shoe.
And New Era created a line of Paul George hats, including a Fresno State cap with “Bulldog Born, Bulldog Bred” embroidered inside.
“That’s how I feel – everybody has that love and passion for Fresno,” George said.
George’s popularity also has benefited the Bulldogs, with men’s basketball coach Rodney Terry able to sell recruits on the program by reminding them of George’s success story coming out of Fresno State.
“The exposure Paul brings to Fresno State by being who he is and the player he is,” Terry said, “it’s invaluable.”
In January, when the Pacers played at Sacramento, a hundred-plus fans watched and loudly cheered from the bottom rows as George took warmup shots.
As he finished, George stopped to high-five and quickly chat with a teenager wearing his Pacers replica jersey.
Just before George retreated to the locker room, he signed an autograph for a 7-year-old boy. A year earlier during the Pacers’ previous visit, the boy received George’s shoes after the game.
“It’s an honor to be in an opposing team’s arena and you’ve got guys and kids there to see you,” George said. “I can’t be great at my job and not expect the spotlight.”
Many who knew George at Fresno State and stayed in contact with him say the fame and fortune hasn’t changed him one bit.
“Every time we’ve talked to Paul since,” Fresno State Senior Associate Athletic Director Paul Ladwig said, “it’s like it was yesterday.”
There are times that George can’t help but think of what would’ve happened had he stayed longer at Fresno State.
Cleveland lasted only one more season.
Smith, the center who was supposed to be the primary building block after George left, declared for the NBA Draft after that 2010-11 season. He eventually made the NBA as an undrafted free agent.
And Fresno State’s NCAA Tournament drought would not end until the 2015-16 season, spanning 15 years between appearances.
“Honestly, it was one of the hardest decisions I made,” George said of leaving early for the NBA. “We were so talented. We were really good. But we didn’t accomplish what Steve Cleveland brought us in to do.
“I felt like we all owed it to push ourselves, really elevate Fresno State with the group that we had.”
What would’ve happened if George stuck around one more season?
“Ideally, that would’ve been great,” Carey said. “Then, who knows? We all would’ve been head coaches somewhere.
“But we’re all happy for Paul and what he’s accomplished.”
Added Cleveland: “I just know it was a great privilege for us. He’s earned and he’s worked for everything that’s come his way.”
George believes the Bulldogs would’ve contended for a conference title and maybe gotten to the NCAA Tournament.
“I know my junior year I would’ve exploded,” George said. “We were going from being a young team to an upperclassman team with like four, five of us going into our junior year.
“So we weren’t going to be the young guys being pushed around and getting run over. We were going to be the older guys in the WAC.
“Just unfortunately,” George added, “I just had to make a difficult decision.”
But ultimately that decision benefited George and Fresno State.
“Paul George is one of the best basketball players in the world, and he came from Fresno State,” Cleveland said. “I’d say that’s a win-win.”
Paul George file
- Age: 26
- Years at Fresno State: 2008-2010
- Drafted: 10th overall by the Indiana Pacers in 2010
- Accolades: Four-time All-Star, Olympic gold medalist, three-time All-NBA team, three-time All-Defensive team