OAKLAND, Calif. – Someday, you would think, Stephen Curry will explode. Someday, you would think, he will go all Richard Sherman on everybody, talking about the doubters, rapping about the things he overcame, pounding his chest and crowing about the man he has become – the man he made himself when no one thought he could.
After all: How long can a man keep being underestimated and undervalued and understated and, well, just under-everything? How long can a man keep getting patted on the head and told in a patronizing way, “Yes, Grasshopper, you’ve improved, but you’re still not there?”
Everybody knows: Steph Curry was told he was too small and slight to play high-level college basketball. Remember that? He wasn’t THAT small, he wasn’t THAT slight, but nobody seemed to notice that part of him, maybe because of what the great Jerry West would call “that baby face of his.”
Did he ever make a big deal out of it? No. Not publicly. Privately, yes, he would spend hours and hours every day honing that extraordinary shot, developing a release so quick that the ball seems to lift off on its own, like magic. “It was mostly self motivation,” he would say. “But you hear what people say.”
Of course you hear. Duke didn’t want him. North Carolina didn’t recruit him. Virginia Tech, where his father and mother were stars, didn’t even want him. So he practiced. Get the shot off quicker. No, quicker. He worked on every kind of shot -– off the screen, stop and pop, fading away, floating toward the basket. Every shot. Quicker. He worked so that his shot never faded to the left or right –- that’s what his Pop told him. “Good shooters never miss left or right.”
Yes, he learned that shot watching his Pop. Dell Curry had learned his own jump shot by obsessively shooting on a cracking wooden backboard and rim nailed to a light pole by his grandmother’s house in Virginia. Dell had four older sisters, and they would boot him out of the house, tell him to “go play” and so he would go play for five, six, sometimes 10 hours a day. He developed one of the most gorgeous and lethal jumpers in the NBA. The son watched his father shoot while playing for Charlotte and Milwaukee and Toronto. He memorized every detail, copied it movement by movement.
And then, Steph Curry rehearsed the shot, again and again, over and over, until the shot was his. He went to Davidson College because it was the one place that would give him a chance. As a freshman, he averaged 21.5 points a game and scored 30 against Maryland in the tournament –- even Maryland fans stood in genuine awe when he fouled out. That was just the start.
As a sophomore, he carried Davidson to one missed shot away from the Final Four in one of the most mesmerizing runs in NCAA tournament history. He scored 40 against Gonzaga. He scored 25 points in the second half to beat Georgetown almost by himself. He scored 33 against a Wisconsin team renowned for defense, a Wisconsin team that would sometimes hold ENTIRE TEAMS to 33 points. He almost led Davidson to a victory over Kansas –- a Kansas team that would win the national title. Now the whole country was standing in awe.
As a junior he simply led the nation in scoring.
“And then,” Steph Curry says, not unhappily, “people said I was too small to play in the NBA.”
* * *
Everyone knows that LeBron James is the best player in the NBA, and everyone knows that Kevin Durant is the one player flying in his stratosphere. The NBA has a glorious history of great pairs –- Wilt and Russell, Jerry West and Oscar Robertson, Bird and Magic. James-Durant is a thrilling duo but who is third?
You look at the nominees for third-best player in the NBA -- of course, there’s the great Kobe Bryant but he has played six games all year. Chris Paul, when healthy, is extraordinary … but staying healthy is tough. Kevin Love does everything, but his team keeps losing. Paul George, Blake Griffin and James Harden are all nominees for that third spot.
And … Steph Curry. Doesn’t it seem like he still gets left out of these conversations? How? What more can he do? As his coach Mark Jackson says, he’s “in many people’s opinion the best shooter on the planet.” For the second straight year, he is taking and making the most 3-point shots in the league, this even as the world’s best defenders are geared to stop him. He’s averaging a career high 23.4 points a game. But this year, he’s also third in the NBA in assists. He’s having by statistical and subjective accounts his best year defensively.
There are many people who quarrel with the NBA’s plus-minus statistic – the point differential when the player is on the floor – but Curry is third in the NBA and that must at least somewhat mean something. Hey, he’s usually the one handling the ball and directing the game when Golden State is outscoring opponents.
In all, he leads the best Golden State basketball team in more than 20 years. Last year, he led the Warriors to the playoffs for only the second time since 1995. This year, the Warriors are better, they are playing .600 basketball, they are playing a blend of high-scoring offense and tenacious defense unlike anything they’ve seen in the Bay Area since the Al Attles-Rick Barry days of the 1970s.
“I think frankly Stephen is building a new breed of fan in the NBA because of his shooting,” Jerry West says. “It’s not all about dunking. He’s making great shots. He’s dribbling the ball all over the place. He’s really clever.”
This is part of what makes Curry so joyous and perhaps what makes him so easily underestimated -– he’s really not like anybody else. He’s a point guard who shoots better than anybody. And he’s a shooting guard who is brilliant at setting up teammates. Nobody seems entirely sure what position he’s playing; as he points out with a hint of a smile on his face, last year NBA general managers last year named him the league’s third best shooting guard even though he played point guard all year.
Mark Jackson says the one guy who played this sort of point-shoot game was two-time MVP Steve Nash –- he developed into this wonderful hybrid point guard-shooting guard. It took Nash longer than Curry -– in Nash’s fifth year, he was really just breaking in as a starter while Curry started in the All-Star Game. But in time Nash’s three-point shot and brilliant passing made him a star. Curry’s playmaking skills are still developing –- he does lead the NBA in turnovers. But shooting?
“Steve obviously shot the ball very well,” Jackson says. “But this is a different level.”
* * *
Athletes tend to use doubts to propel themselves. How many times have we heard or read THAT story? Tom Brady famously broke down when recalling how he was drafted in the sixth round of the NFL Draft -– being taken low in the NFL Draft might not seem a tragedy to you or me but it was obviously one of the greatest disappointments of his life. And that disappointment drove him to extreme levels of effort and dedication and hunger. Would Tom Brady be the player he is now if he had been taken in the second round? We don’t know but it’s possible the answer is: no.
Then athletes and teams are always talking about how the doubts inspired and compelled them. There is rarely ever a championship team that does not play the “We got here against all odds” card. You know: I shocked the world. We proved everybody wrong. Nobody believed in me. Nobody believed in us.
“I’d like to also say something the a-hole fans on Twitters and Facebooks and Instagrams that talk crap,” Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman said in the most colorful recent version of the “nobody believed in us” quote. “Because we appreciate the motivation. We appreciate it. You helped us win this game, so thank you very much.”
Stephen Curry, though, doesn’t seem to carry any of the anger or irritation that comes from being doubted for as long as he can remember. You just can’t see him playing the “nobody believed in me” game, even though it’s truer for him than almost anybody else. This is the thing everyone notices about him right away: He’s so nice. He’s so calm. He seems no different than the day he showed up in the Bay Area after leaving Davidson.
“He just doesn’t look like he ever gets frustrated,” says Jerry West, referring specifically to Curry on-court but it is true off-court too. “Some people would. Stephen just doesn’t look like he fights himself much. He doesn’t even change faces much.”
There are numerous remarkable things about Curry’s game but perhaps most remarkable is the depth of it. As West says: He never looks off-balance. He never looks like he is facing a challenge or a situation or a defense that he did not prepare for. Mark Jackson believes Curry is unique as a shooter –- unique in the textbook definition of “being the only one of its kind.”
“I don’t think we’ve ever seen anybody on that level,” he says of Curry’s shooting ability. Jackson played with some of the greatest shooters in NBA history -– Reggie Miller, Chris Mullin, Dale Ellis, and, yes, Dell Curry. He played against Mark Price, Ray Allen and Steve Kerr and so on. He says Steph Curry is different.
“We haven’t seen anybody with his ability to be a great shooter across the board” Jackson says. “Across the board meaning stop-n-pop, meaning coming off motion action, meaning pick and roll, meaning split pick and roll, shoot it off one leg, meaning step back with guys trapping. Any way you name how to shoot a basketball, he’s a great shooter. … This guy has no limits.”
Some of it is a natural gift (“Looks like he woke up as a great shooter,” West says) but most of it comes from countless hours in the gym, from imagining every scenario, from learning after every failure, from figuring out how to counter every move.
Steph Curry has the quickest release in the NBA -– why? Because only that quick a shot would allow him to get his shot off against bigger defenders.
Steph Curry seems to favor no particular kind of shot -– why? Because at Davidson he would often get double- and triple-teamed. and so he had to be able to make whatever open shot he was given.
Steph Curry has become one of the NBA’s elite passers –- why? Because after his sophomore season at Davidson, he decided to stay another year (against a lot of loud advice) so he could develop his play-making skills. He seemed to understand that if he wanted to become a great NBA player, he would need to do it as a point guard.
And so on. Curry has anticipated every challenge and prepared for it. “That’s definitely a conscious thing,” he says. “It’s human nature to get a little complacent when things are going well. It’s not that you don’t work as hard, it’s more that you see your own ceiling. I haven’t reached my potential yet.”
What’s next? He talks about going to his right more. He talks about getting to the free throw line more. He talks about just seeing the game a little bit better. And he talks about improving his defense – this is one area where Jackson and others are most impressed already. One of the many doubts hung on him when he was drafted was that he would not be a good defensive player.
“He has always been a good defender for us,” Jackson says. “He understands the gameplan, he understands what we are trying to accomplish, he competes on a high level. … He’s an underrated defender.” This year Golden State is in the Top 10 in the NBA in points allowed.
“I can definitely get better at sticking to the gameplan, guarding my position, reading the angles,” Curry says. “That’s so important, especially at crunch time of the season and as we go into the playoffs.”
And, yes, that’s the other thing he wants to do -– lead Golden State to some more playoff success. He certainly made new fans last year when he led the Warriors to an upset victory over Denver and then gave San Antonio something to think about in a tough six-game series. But he also knows that in the mind of the world taking a team to the NBA Finals and winning a championship is what separates the great from the good.
Not that Steph Curry ever expects some people to see him as great.
“Everyone has opinions and what have you,” he says. “All you can do is play your position, do what you can to help the team out and continue to get better. You have to do yourself justice in that regard and not try to prove other people wrong. It’s a good feeling when you get better.”
* * *
Someday, you would think, Stephen Curry will explode. He wasn’t recruited and he became a legendary college player. He was doubted entering the NBA and he has become one of the best players in the game. Now what? A few weeks ago, TNT analyst and basketball Hall of Famer Charles Barkley announced that Curry, while a true All-Star, is not a true superstar. Not yet.
“That maturation of Steph’s game is going to come when he learns to make the people around him better,” Barkley said. “He does have assists, but not the right kind. There are a lot of very good players in the NBA, but to go from very good player to All-Star to a superstar, you have to start making the players around you better. That’s the next maturation step for Steph Curry.”
When Curry is asked about this, it seems like this might be the time.
“Yeah, I’m still confused on that one,” he says. “I don’t know what he meant on that one … I have assists but not the right ones or something to that effect? I guess they’re saying I’m making good passes but guys still have to make plays to make those passes look good? I don’t spoon feed them buckets, I guess. Very interesting.”
He smiles, and, yes, it might be the moment. He doesn’t have to put up with this anymore. He’s an All-Star. He’s the star point guard for an ascending NBA team. He might shoot a basketball better than anyone who ever lived. This is it, his chance, finally, to knock the doubters, use them to his benefit ....
“Next time I see Charles I’ll have to ask him about that,” he says with a smile. And then points out that Barkley was actually in his corner last year when he said Curry deserves to be on the All-Star team.
“Hey,” he says. “You just kind of take the good with the bad.”