OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Paul George never expected to end up in Oklahoma City.
The Thunder and their fans are already making the pitch to keep him for a while.
A day after hundreds of fans greeted George at the airport, the Thunder pulled out all the stops with a lavish, invitation-only welcome party Wednesday night. It was out of character for the buttoned-down Thunder to throw such a bash — general manager Sam Presti said he couldn’t recall anything like it.
Of course, George has just one year left on his deal, so now is the time to start making a lasting impression.
Seems to be working.
“I’ve been wowed ever since we landed,” George said at the celebration. “I got a real welcoming, and this feels like home.”
George said the Thunder weren’t on his radar while the Indiana Pacers sought a trade for the star small forward. He’s an Olympic gold medalist, a four-time All-Star and been first- or second-team All-Defense three times in his career. He’s coming off a career-best season offensively with 23.7 points per game.
He could get even better in his new setup — most notably, sharing the court with Russell Westbrook. George said he’s never had a teammate the caliber of the reigning NBA MVP, and he hopes to ease Westbrook’s burden to carry the franchise.
“He doesn’t have to have that pressure to shoulder it all, to have to feel that he has to do it alone,” George said. “I think we’ll work really well.”
George twice led the Pacers to the Eastern Conference Finals before losing to LeBron James and the Miami Heat. He thinks he and Westbrook can help each other win an NBA championship.
“All I wanted was the chance and opportunity to play for something special and to ultimately try to win a championship,” he said. “Right off the bat, we can get that here playing alongside Russ.”
The Thunder believe George’s game fits well with Westbrook’s skill set. Coach Billy Donovan is excited about the possibilities on the fastbreak, and what George can do as a ball-handler to take pressure off Westbrook. Presti said the addition of a player of George’s caliber helps the rest of the team, too.
The Thunder also like George’s intangibles — like the resolve that helped him return better than ever after a broken leg in 2014.
“He’s just a ferocious competitor,” Presti said. “His competitiveness, his will and his drive are the things that give him the chance to keep getting better. As talented as he is and as much impact as he has had in the league, when you have this intrinsic drive and intrinsic motivation to compete, that creates a significant upside and puts a launching pad to the talent level itself.”
While much of the talk has focused on what George can do for Oklahoma City’s offense, he could be equally dynamic as a defender. He’ll team up with Andre Roberson, one of the NBA’s top defensive wings, to form one of the league’s most formidable combinations.
George is impressed with Roberson, who was second-team All-Defense this past season.
“What impresses me is he plays the game on the other side of the ball how I do, and that’s just being a pest all over the ball, not taking anything,” George said. “He’s going to be all over you. He’s fiery, he has an edge. He reminds me of myself playing on the perimeter.”
Ultimately, the main connection will need to be with Westbrook. George said he could see the two stars teaming up long term.
And with this kind of reception, why not?
“If we love where we’re at and we feel like we can do something special here, I’m open to it,” he said.
Follow Cliff Brunt on Twitter: www.twitter.com/CliffBruntAP .