There was a time, years ago, when Stephen Curry shot the ball like Shawn Marion.
His release wasn't quite as peculiar -- Marion can look like he's trying to play two-hand bocce with a basketball -- but it originated from the same navel-high location. This was during Curry's sophomore year in high school and, while effective, his flip shot was unsustainable: too easy to block, too methodical. Or so Dell Curry decided. Father forced son to remake his jumper during the core of his high school career, bringing the ball up over his head. It was a risky move. The result, as Steph says, was "the most frustrating summer for me." For a period of months, the kid who'd always been a deadeye shooter was stripped of his greatest skill.
"I really couldn't shoot outside the paint for like the first three weeks," Curry says. "All summer when I was at camps people were like, 'Who are you, why are you playing basketball?' I was really that bad for a month and a half [before] I finally figured it out."
Once the transformation was complete, however, the end product was, and remains, beautiful. Watching most people practice shooting is mind-numbing -- it's why rebounding for one's child is invariably framed as an example of abiding parental love in sports narratives. With Curry, you could auction off the chance to watch him hoist jumpers and people would pay good money. The quick release, the parabolic arc, the net-snapping finish. The whole process is complete, effortless. Shooting a basketball may be an imperfect art, one the best players succeed at only 50 percent of the time during games, but Curry makes one believe perfection is possible.
Now, at the age of 25 and as the leader of the playoff-bound Warriors, Curry is arguably the best shooter in the NBA. He's also making a case for being considered one of the best pure shooters of all time. If this seems a grandiose claim, consider the numbers.
The easy stat to cite is Curry's lifetime three-point percentage of 44.6, the second highest ever behind Steve Kerr's 45.4 (and without the benefit of the shorter 1990s-era line). That number does Curry a disservice, though, for the other players near the top of that list are guys such as Kerr, Hubert Davis, Jason Kapono, Steve Novak and Tim Legler. All are prototypical spot-up shooters, men whose NBA existence is/was predicated on playing limited minutes, standing at a certain spot on the arc and waiting for someone to pass them the ball, often once the defense has been sucked in another direction. Of the top 40 three-point percentage leaders, only Steve Nash and Mark Price were also primary ball handlers, and neither of them was counted on to score like Curry, who is the Warriors' first (and occasionally only viable) scoring option.
Rather, to truly appreciate Curry's skill, you have to look at how and where he takes his shots. This season, according to NBA.com, the 6-foot-3 Curry is shooting 65.9 percent on pull-up jumpers (in 176 attempts), 69.8 percent on step-back jumpers (63 attempts) and 72.7 percent on running bank shots (a smaller sample size of 11 attempts). For comparison, Novak has not attempted a step-back jumper. Or a running bank shot. He has, however, taken four pull-up jumpers, and no doubt each one scared the hell out of Knicks coach Mike Woodson.
Certainly, there are other players who sink crafty shots, or are devastating mid-range shooters -- Kobe Bryant, for example. What separates Curry from those players is his consistency and range. Curry doesn't just make a lot of threes; he makes a lot of deep threes. Whereas many of the spot-up specialists camp out in the short corner like gargoyles, Curry usually launches from the top of the arc, and often on the move. Even so, he's hitting 44.2 percent of his three-pointers from 25-29 feet this season. (For comparison, a one-trick, corner-shooting pony like Shane Battier is hitting only 31.3 percent from 25-29 feet, compared to 46.7 percent from 20-24 feet). If defenses are foolish enough to give Curry a corner three, he's deadly; he's made 62.1 percent from the right corner. Which is to say, he'd make a very good Shane Battier, at least on offense.
Then there are the contextual factors. Curry is often double-teamed. He plays heavy minutes (38.2 per game), leading to tired legs. He's endured constant ankle problems during his career, affecting his balance, quickness and lift. He's short, so unlike someone like Kevin Durant, probably the closest current analog in terms of range, consistency and shot-making ability, he often needs to release the ball from unusual angles, or with extra loft, or while off-balance. As a point guard, he's asked to create opportunities for his teammates (he's on pace to become the first player in NBA history to average three three-pointers and six assists per game). He's never played with a great passer. And he's rarely had teammates who draw double teams (to the contrary, offensively challenged big men such as Andris Biedrins and Festus Ezeli are double-team enablers). And yet, Curry's three-point percentage during his career is eerily consistent, and generally ascendant: 43.7, 44.2, 45.5 and 45.5 this season, just behind Jose Calderon for the league lead.
Because Curry makes so many tough shots, and because he takes many of them from unusual angles, those who don't watch him regularly are often surprised to learn he's not a low-percentage shooter (his career field-goal percentage is 46.5 and his true shooting percentage, which takes into account free throws and two- and three-pointers, is an excellent 58.5). When Curry scored 54 points against the Knicks on a succession of crazy-ass threes earlier this season, it looked like a classic flukey hot streak. But, as Warriors general manager Bob Myers says, "Those of us who see him every day weren't surprised. Those are shots he makes all the time."
Last week, I watched Curry follow his usual gameday shootaround routine at the Warriors' practice facility. Lining up at seven spots around the arc, he alternated between shooting three-pointers and deep twos until he hit 10 out of 13 from all seven spots, restarting at a spot if he missed more than three. By my watch, he finished the drill in eight minutes. Afterward, Curry said his time was about average. Says Myers: "He shoots a lot but, to be honest, there aren't many shots he takes that I'd consider a bad shot."
Such testimonials are common. One Western Conference executive said he thought Curry was "the best shooter in the league, and it's not even close." And that was in November, before this breakout season. Kenny Smith regularly bangs the drum for Curry on TNT. During his seven seasons in the league, Warriors combo guard Jarrett Jack has played with Brandon Roy, Chris Paul, Eric Gordon and a host of others, and he's unequivocal. "I've never played with someone who can shoot it like Steph," says Jack. "He's the best shooter at his position by far." (This may be a tad hyperbolic considering that Nash, one of the best shooters ever, also plays point guard, or at least did before he teamed up with Kobe).
Given his unique skill set, it's a bit surprising that Curry isn't already more popular outside the Bay Area, for it's hard to imagine a more relatable, familiar player. He is relatively small and can't jump all that high, just like most of us who aren't in the NBA. He's the son of a former pro, a smooth spot-up gunner who was a joy to watch. (Dell remains tied for 29th all time in three-point percentage at 40.2.) He is easily remembered, with a tinge of warm nostalgia, from his NCAA tournament run with Davidson. He's a smart player and an underrated passer who bests quicker, stronger, springier opponents with guile and finesse. He's even great for your fantasy team.
Then again, maybe it's because Curry is so relatable -- the quintessential suburban kid -- that he's not overwhelmingly popular. He doesn't throw down crazy dunks or pin balls on the backboard. He doesn't do anything, really, that many weekend warriors don't believe they could do on their best day. The difference is that Curry shoots the ball every day like we did that one day, in that one rec-league game 10 years ago when everything somehow found the bottom of the net. It's easier to be in awe of people who are clearly dissimilar -- to marvel at LeBron James as he soars through the air or Durant's freakish combination of length and dexterity. Curry's greatness seems somehow within reach, even if it's not.
Curry's also in the strange position of being both an underdog and an overdog. On the one hand, he has an NBA bloodline enhanced by the fact that his mother, Sonya, was also a good athlete. He lived a comfortable life and enjoyed all the advantages conferred by wealth, fame and class. On the other hand, Curry faced the same challenges that Battier, Grant Hill, Bryant, Joakim Noah and other gifted players from means did. Because of who he was, and his background, he was assumed to be soft (though, interestingly, one could make a case that some of the toughest players in the NBA, most notably Bryant and Noah, came from privileged backgrounds). Unlike those players, though, Curry was also small in stature and played for the type of school that small, rich kids attended, a private Christian institution near Charlotte.
"We had 300 people in the whole student body and by high school, the league we played in wasn't that talented," Curry says. "I'm pretty sure that if you watched my league play and you [went] to Chicago and watched that league play, you would see a difference. I definitely see that being a question mark for me coming out of high school."
In Curry's case, the family name couldn't overcome the perceived weaknesses. There was no recruiting war. The ensuing events are well documented -- the (minor) growth spurt, the success at Davidson, the selection in the lottery in 2009.
Curry's NBA career has been unusual, but for different reasons. Drafted by an enamored Don Nelson, he was paired with Monta Ellis, who wanted nothing to do with Curry, casting doubt on the rookie before the two had played a game together. He was switched between point guard and 2-guard, beset by ankle injuries, stuck on a team in turmoil that cycled through three coaches in three years. Through it all, Curry remained even-keeled, at least publicly, no doubt due in part to growing up with an NBA father.
When I interviewed Curry two years ago -- for a story that regrettably never came together -- he explained away the Ellis stuff, saying he saw no reason to "have a pity party, like, 'Oh, he doesn't like me, so what am I going to do?'" Said Curry: "It kind of made me even more focused on what I was doing, to just stay focused on only that and not let distractions get in the way of me enjoying my rookie season because there were a lot of good things that happened." (For this story, I've incorporated quotes from that interview with recent interviews.)
This past week when I asked Curry the biggest difference in his game this season, he didn't hesitate: "I can't overstate how important it is to be healthy and not have to worry every day how the ankle feels and have to have minute restrictions."
This is undoubtedly true, but anyone who's been lucky (or unlucky) enough to watch the Warriors the last few years sees another factor. During Curry's tenure before this season, the Warriors' primary guards were, in no particular order: Ellis, C.J. Watson, Klay Thompson, Nate Robinson and Reggie Williams. Not exactly a murderer's row of playmakers.
Thus when Myers brought in Jack last offseason, it appeared a long-overdue revelation. Hey, how about we pair Curry with another passing guard who can defend 2s if need be? Granted, Jack is not a "true" point guard like Jason Kidd or even, on a backup level, Steve Blake, but the effect has been noticeable. According to NBA.com, during Curry's rookie season he was assisted by Ellis on 48 baskets (to provide context, Corey "I Shall Not Pass Unless Absolutely Necessary" Maggette assisted Curry on 35 plays that year). In 2010-11, the last time Ellis and Curry played a full season together, swingman Dorell Wright fed Steph for more buckets (62) than Ellis did (55). This season Jack, a reserve, has already assisted Curry on 85 baskets. When informed of this stat, Jack smiles and says, "Oh, man, I'm definitely going to tell Steph that."
Of course, Curry has his weaknesses. He is not, and may never be, a complete player. Synergy Sports ranks him as average to poor in most every aspect of defense (though, watching him this season, he has become much better at getting over picks and is a decent post defender for his size). He is still turnover-prone at times. His injury history remains troubling. And he has yet to demonstrate the late-game killer instinct that marks the great ones. But he's young. Some of that may come.
What Curry does possess is the most precious commodity of all for a shooter: confidence. How many other marginal college prospects would remake their shot during high school? How many other players of his physical stature could become low-ballot MVP candidates based primarily on their outside touch? (Warriors coach Mark Jackson has a bet with his staff that Curry will get a least one vote this season.)
Clearly, Curry is aware of what got him here. Last week, he talked about how his (healthy-ish) ankle gave him confidence, how his teammates gave him confidence, how his dad gave him confidence. He talked about how, "as long as I'm taking a good shot, I feel like I always have a good chance of making it." And when asked which player's brain he'd like to pick, past or present, he chose the most self-assured of all: Michael Jordan. "Obviously he was the most efficient as far as winning no matter the situation and there is some kind of mindset he has that's not normal," Curry said. "It makes me want to know what it takes to produce that."
Of course, Curry has his own not-normal mindset, one neatly demonstrated in the two games that followed our conversation. That night, after telling me he "felt great" about his shot in the morning, he went out and had one of his worst games of the season, shooting 5-of-18 from the field, and 2-of-9 on threes, against the lowly Kings. So shaken was Curry's confidence that in the next game, last Saturday against the Trail Blazers, he scored 39 points on 14-of-22 shooting, including 7-of-12 threes.