I'll admit it: I wanted Stephen Curry to play well last night.
Not because I like the way he plays (though I do), or because of fond memories of his dad (though his release was as quick and pure as they come), or even because -- full disclosure -- I grew up a Warriors fan.
Rather, I wanted him to play well because I don't want to forget the Stephen Curry I knew, if that makes sense. Let me put it this way: What's your opinion of Adam Morrison right now? How about JJ Redick? Had any discussions about the shooting prowess of Trajan Langdon lately?
If you don't follow the NBA too closely, maybe you've been spared watching these players stripped of the magical powers they possessed in college. But I can tell you from firsthand knowledge, there is nothing magical about watching 13th man Morrison -- who seemed so Bird-like at Gonzaga -- running through 45 minutes of one-on-one drills prior to every Lakers playoff game, as he did last spring. Matched up against the likes of Sun Yue and Jordan Farmar, Morrison would shoot floaters (yes!), but then get burned by 43-year-old assistant coach Brian Shaw (no!), all the while engaging in some really mediocre trash talking (double no!). Then, come game time, he'd put on a suit.
Of course, it's not Morrison's fault (or Redick's) that fans may be disappointed, at least not entirely. Our expectations for them simply outweighed their talents. But it doesn't make it any easier to watch them go from iconic players who embodied the best parts of the college game -- the passion, the precision, fundamentals over style -- to average NBA players.
But Curry will be different, right? Sure, he may be undersized (like Redick and Langdon) and lack great athleticism (like, uh, Redick and Langdon and Morrison). And yeah, he may be playing in a backcourt with another undersized guard (Monta Ellis), on a team not exactly known for its chemistry, and alongside a pair of "team leaders" who haven't exactly welcomed him (Stephen Jackson and Ellis). What's more, he endured a shooting slump during preseason -- enough so that I heard the Warriors asked him to stop lifting for fear it was skewing his shot. Which of course runs counter to the idea that, to body up NBA guards, he needs to bulk up. But other than that, things looked downright rosy.
So, with all that in mind, I headed to Oracle Arena last night for the Warriors season opener against the Houston Rockets. And with the enormous caveat that this was one game, and against a team with a pair of similarly slight point guards, here are some first impressions from Curry's 14-point, 7-assist, 4-steal performance in the Warriors' 108-107 loss:
1. The Rockets were impressed.
Afterward, I asked Trevor Ariza, Luis Scola and Shane Battier about Curry and all three had nice things to say (of course, it's easier to be magnanimous when you win a game you're not supposed to). "Honestly, I knew he would be good but I didn't know he'd be that good," said Ariza. "He showed a lot of poise." Scola thought for a second, then said: "He's pretty confident, which is a good thing. He's definitely pretty quick, has quick hands on defense." And Battier, in some ways a taller version of Curry circa 2001, also went the poise route. "He has the poise of, not a seasoned veteran, but you couldn't tell that was his first NBA game. A lot of times, looking at a rookie, you're like, 'Wow, this kid is just trying to figure out where to park his car.' But he looked composed, he knows the game, he has it."
2. He can pass.
This may be damning him with faint praise, but he's already the best playmaker on the Warriors. He found seams, passed off the dribble and moved the ball quickly and crisply. Young point guards are often prone to over-dribbling but Curry was mostly efficient with the ball. Twice, he tried to do too much -- the second time, attempting an ill-advised look-away lob to Andris Biedrins in crunch time -- but compared to the likes of Ellis and Corey Maggette and Kelenna Azubuike he's Magic Johnson. This bodes well not only for his future but also for the Warriors, who've lacked a playmaker since Baron Davis went south.
3. He looked like he belonged.
Before the game, I spoke with Idan Ravin, who trained Curry this summer and fall. I asked him how I'd know if Curry was comfortable during the game. "If he's not looking at the vets for anything," Ravin said. "If he's not looking for positive reinforcement, not looking for Stephen Jackson to dap him or Monta to shake his hand. Those guys are vets. They're not handing the reins of this team to this kid. If he's playing in his zone, he'll be fine. If he misses a shot and looks toward Nellie [Don Nelson] on the bench, then I'm worried."
Well, Curry did look to the bench a lot, but mainly to get play calls (he told me afterward that Nelson prepares 3-4 sets he thinks will work against a team, and then calls out which one he wants Curry to run. "By midseason, hopefully I'll see what he sees," Curry said, "And I can make those calls myself"). And yeah, he spoke with Jackson, but only to talk strategy during free throws (tellingly, Jackson came up in the locker room afterward while I was talking to Curry and gave him a big hug and said, "See you tomorrow -- alright boy," which may or may not have been theater for the benefit of the media but was still progress). And he wasn't afraid to call his own number; on one of the biggest possessions of the game, down seven with 1:55 left, Curry went one-on-one on the left side and hit a jumper on the move to cut it to five. It was a ballsy shot, especially considering he was 4-of-9 from the field at the time.
4. It's not going to be easy
As good as Curry looked at times, the Warriors looked just as bad. No ball movement, horrific passes when there was ball movement (especially when Anthony Randolph essentially fed Battier for a layup) and selfish play. It's hard enough to be a rookie point guard, but being a rookie point guard on this team will be an immense challenge. After the game, Curry was asked about directing his teammates -- in other words, telling Maggette to stop jacking bad threes -- and Curry answered diplomatically, talking about ball movement and looking for good shots. But that's going to be a recurring theme for the Warriors. At one point, Maggette went one-on-four while Jackson stood on the opposite wing, wide open, waving his arms and jumping up and down. Of course, Maggette shot it anyway (to his credit, he made it). And Jackson walked back to the bench, shaking his head. Welcome to the jungle, Steph.
5. He's not going to be a spot-up shooter.
First off, he's not a lights-out shooter to begin with, a misconception that might linger. On this team, that's Anthony Morrow (who clearly is psyched to have a point guard who looks for him on the wing). Second, he shoots a bit of a push-shot, and he uses both hands, so it's somewhat methodical, and his release point is so low that I can't imagine him getting it off unless he's wide open. That said ...
6. He's good at creating jumpers off the dribble
At one point Curry crossed over Kyle Lowry, a very good defensive point guard, then recrossed him and blew by him. He used high picks well from Biedrins and was able to get open shots in the 18-21 foot range. Granted, the Rockets were giving him that shot -- Battier told me the basic strategy was to make Curry earn it -- but he still needed to hit them, and did. And, because he's such a good seam passer, teams will have to make a call on whether to overplay him off the pick, in which case he can find Biedrins or whomever rolling, or sag off him and dare him to hit the J. In this respect, he has the opportunity to be like Steve Nash. Which, come to think of it, is the player Curry most resembles, in a best-case scenario way. He doesn't have Nash's variety of moves to the basket, or deadeye shot, but then again, neither did Nash at Curry's age.
Finally, and perhaps most important:
7. He's going to play. A lot.
Nellie started Curry and didn't take him out until deep in the second quarter (after Jackson). He played him in crunch time, let him handle on big possessions. For the game, Curry played 35 minutes; on the Warriors, only Ellis played more.
And that says a lot. Because while he looked tentative at times, and got lost on the floor for stretches, and had the look of a defensive liability in the post, Curry still had the opportunity to take over the game late, which he could do for the simple reason that he was in the game. Know how many minutes Redick played in his first game? Three (he scored two points). Langdon played two (and scored two). Sure, Morrison played 31 (14 points on 5-of-13 shooting), and continued to play big minutes, but he never did much with them.
In this case, Curry has obviously earned Nelson's trust. When asked about his rookie before the game, Nellie began beaming like a proud grandfather, then talked about how he "doesn't make a mistake second time," and "he's more ready than most rookies I've had." When I asked how much bigger Nelson would like Curry to get -- he's listed at 185 but that's dubious -- Nellie answered that "he's just fine," and that "I like skinny players."
In other words, this is Curry's team, for the time being. And I, for one, will be watching.