It’s been a whirlwind season for Paul George. Last summer, he was the centerpiece of one of the biggest blockbuster deals of free agency, a move that sent him to Oklahoma City in exchange for what initially appeared to be spare parts. While it seemed terribly lopsided in favor of the Thunder, Victor Oladipo has since turned into an All-Star and, given OKC’s early struggles, some wondered whether the Pacers might’ve gotten the better end of the bargain after all.
Looming large over all of this is both George’s pending free agency next summer and previous reports about his desire to play in his hometown of Los Angeles. Yet throughout the transition to a new team and all the expectations that accompanied it, George has continued to play at an All-Star level and was retroactively awarded that honor over the weekend after DeMarcus Cousins’ season-ending injury.
In addition to averaging 21 points per game, he leads the league in steals at 2.2 per contest and is shooting a career-best 42 percent from behind the arc. OKC has also been on a roll lately, winning seven straight and holding down the No. 5 spot in an unrelenting Western Conference.
We recently caught up with George via telephone while he was on set filming a new ad for Gatorade Flow, and the Thunder star opened up about what he learned from his devastating leg injury, why there’s so much tension on the court this season, how the movie Saving Private Ryan taught him leadership, and more.
It’s been nearly four years now since your devastating leg injury. What were you able to learn about yourself through that experience, and how do you feel about it now looking back?
It doesn’t weigh on me as much. I obviously know it changed me as a player. I lost a little bit of athleticism from it. But what I’ve learned most about myself is just the fight, the hunger, the passion, how much I love this game.
Being sidelined, being away from it, was like a reality check, so it almost gave me that chip and that hunger again. To cherish this game and to enjoy playing this game on a daily basis. It’s tough when something is taken away from you. You don’t know how much you miss it. And I think that’s what I took away from it the most.
It’s just past the midway point of your first season in OKC. What’s been the most surprising thing about playing alongside Russell Westbrook as opposed to playing against him?
The surprising thing to me is the guy doesn’t … being on the other team you would think this guy takes energy drinks, he’s drinking coffees after every quarter. You know what I mean? You would think there’s something that is giving him this edge to be lights out and going a hundred miles per hour on every possession.
But honestly, he doesn’t take anything. It’s a natural energy that he has. He’s just an energetic guy, from practices to playing games. I knew who he was as a competitor, but he wants to win at all costs, and he goes hard like that every day. So, it’s great to be alongside a guy like that.
In a Twitter Q&A from a few years back, you mentioned that Saving Private Ryan was your favorite film. What is it about that movie that speaks to you as a person?
I’m a huge history guy. I really love history. I really love like reading and hearing about the war. Even old Roman history. I just love history. And that movie is like a tell-all. It shows all what happened, what went down. I know that movie’s not a true story, but true events. You know what I mean? I would take Tom Hanks’ role as the captain in the movie, he’s got this mission of going and grabbing this guy and getting him back home safe, and it’s just his role in that movie is what you expect out of a leader. To really put his life aside for another man’s.
And yeah, you could just carry that out through basketball with a team. You set your goals aside for what is best for the team, and that’s what that movie portrayed and displayed to me.
Last week, Kevin Durant earned his fourth or fifth ejection of the year, and in general, there seems to be a lot of tension between the players and the refs this season. What do you think is fueling that, and how does the league go about finding a solution?
I’m not sure. I could definitely be on that end of things. I think on some nights, I’m not getting the best treatment on the floor. But I’m not sure. It’s been happening a lot from LeBron and KD multiple times. I know DeMarcus [Cousins] been thrown out before during this season. Russ has been thrown out, so I’m not sure what it is.
I honestly, personally, don’t agree guys should be thrown out. This is our livelihood, what ultimately we get paid for and take care of our families for it. Of course, we’re going to be passionate; we’re going to be emotional at times. It’s part of the game. It’s a competitive game that we’re part of. So yeah, if a guy or official is not making the right call, that results in how the game is going to be played or the results of that game. I’m not sure why the trigger is so quick to be pulled on officials ejecting guys.
There’s also been a lot more tension between players, as we’ve seen what feels like an inordinate amount of altercations this season, the most recent being the Rockets-Clippers debacle that spilled over to the locker-room after the game. Why all the chippiness lately?
It’s all heat of the moment. At the end of the day, we’re men. We’re grown men out there. It’s a testy game, guys get physical and get chippy from time to time. No one is intentionally trying to hurt guys or intentionally cause problems. It’s all heat of the moment. Somebody hits somebody hard, or somebody fell hard, and at the end of the day we’re all men and get it, so we’ve got to get our point across.
It’s never anything that goes off court. Every day it’s on court, it happens, your guys get into it, and we move on, and it’s on to the next play. But that’s always been part of the game. You can’t play this game and go a full season never getting into an altercation. At some point, it’s going to get a little chippy for these players. That’s all that comes down to.
Russell Westbrook came out strongly in your defense after you weren’t named to the All-Star team on Tuesday (Ed. note: George has since been named an injury replacement for DeMarcus Cousins). How much does that affect you at this point in your career with what you guys are trying to accomplish in OKC this season?
At the end of the day, I know who I am. It’s not like I’ve been on the bubble, and I haven’t been an All-Star in my career. I’ve been an All-Star multiple times. I know that feeling. Obviously, being an All-Star is a huge accomplishment, but it’s not the end of the world. I still have half of a season left in this season. There’s more basketball to be played, more games to be played, and there’s bigger goals at the end of this year than getting an All-Star nod.
The only thing that was … why it’s an emphasis is because it’s in L.A. That’s home. It would have been fun playing in front of family and it being my first All-Star in L.A. That was the emphasis, but at the end of the day, again, it’s a game that means nothing in terms of my career. I would have been happy to make it. I’m not going to sit here and say that it wasn’t nothing to me. I would have for sure liked to make it, but again, it is what it is. I didn’t make it. Congrats to the guys that did. They deserve it. I’ll be fine.