December 24, 2014

OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) Golden State Warriors point guard Stephen Curry was driving in a car with his wife, Ayesha, over the summer when they put on a song by a popular rapper that everybody had been telling them to play.

''Been Steph Curry with the shot,'' Drake called out in the song ''0 to 100.''

The stunned couple looked at each other, smiled and broke out in laughter.

''It was pretty cool,'' Curry said.

Sure, fans voted him into the All-Star Game as a starter, media selected him second-team All-NBA and a major car insurance company created a fictional twin for a popular commercial series last season. But the shoutout from a renowned recording artist might have been the moment Curry realized he had truly made it big.

As his stardom continues to rise, Curry is still surprised by the celebrity treatment - even though nobody else is.

Coaches, players and executives have taken notice of the growth in Curry's game by strategizing everything they do around him. Marketers in the NBA league office and sponsors across the country have, too, putting his boyish face on national television and social media advertisements to promote their brands.

And with the Warriors (23-4) atop the NBA standings, Curry's case for MVP is starting to echo around the league as loud as the chants do nightly at rowdy Oracle Arena.

Another chance to showcase his skills comes Thursday night, when Curry and the Warriors visit Chris Paul and the rival Los Angeles Clippers on Christmas for what might be the best game on the biggest day of the NBA regular season.

''There's big moments throughout the course of the season that you enjoy,'' Curry said, ''and you have fun showing what you can do.''

This is one of them.

Paul, the lead man in those commercials, has been considered among the best point guards for years. Curry, long labeled ''just a shooter,'' has added to his repertoire - and stayed healthy - each of the past three seasons to enter the debate alongside Tony Parker, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Mike Conley and others.

While the qualifying criteria might be a matter of preference, this much is indisputable: nobody is running the show the way Curry is for the Warriors now.

In a game dominated by big men and played by some of the world's greatest athletes, the 6-foot-3, 190-pound Curry controls the flow without physically overpowering defenders. His shooting stroke can seem unstoppable at times, and when he gets going, nobody can seem to slow him down.

''His range is unlimited. Like, literally, when he crosses half court - 30, 35 footers are like layups,'' Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks said before Curry had 34 points, nine assists and seven rebounds in a 114-109 win over the Thunder last week.

Cleveland's LeBron James and reigning NBA MVP Kevin Durant are among those who already have called Curry the best shooter of their generation. In the next breath, they also credit Curry for improving his all-around game.

The process began when Curry returned for his senior season at tiny Davidson College. He has gone from a shooting guard who dazzled during the NCAA tournament to a polished professional point guard who can dribble and distribute with the best of them.

Even before Curry's evolution, first-year Warriors coach Steve Kerr saw the potential. As general manager of the Phoenix Suns, Kerr tried to orchestrate a draft-night trade in 2009 to acquire Curry from Golden State.

''We were watching Steve Nash every night in Phoenix as a 6-1 point guard who could shoot and pass, and Steph looked like another version of Steve,'' Kerr said. ''They're different. Steph's more offensive-minded. Steve was more of a playmaker first. But the skillset is very similar, just the incredible hand-eye coordination and the ability to beat you with the pass, the dribble and the shot is a pretty rare combination.''

Nearly three years since the Warriors sent combo guard Monta Ellis to Milwaukee for center Andrew Bogut, Curry has blossomed with Klay Thompson to form arguably the NBA's best backcourt.

Curry is averaging 23.4 points, 7.7 assists, 5.0 rebounds and two steals this season. He's also becoming a pest for Golden State's smothering defense after being challenged by Kerr to guard his position - a major shift from the past few years under former coach Mark Jackson, who usually used Thompson to defend elite point guards.

''He's awesome to play alongside with, he knows when to pass and take the big shots,'' said Thompson, who teamed with Curry to help the U.S. win gold at the FIBA World Cup in Spain this summer. ''He should definitely be mentioned in the MVP talks with the way he has been playing.''

Getting to that level often requires attention away from the court, and Curry is starting to get his share of it.

He left shoe giant Nike for a lucrative deal with Under Armour in 2013. He moved into the top five of the NBA's most-sold jerseys at the end of last season. And in November, Sports Illustrated named Curry one of the top 100 sports figures to follow on Twitter.

Henry Schafer, executive vice president of The Q Scores Company, said Curry's popularity stacks up with the NBA's most notable names.

Q Scores measure awareness and likability, assigning an overall value that provides a gauge for marketers who are seeking celebrity endorsers. In the latest figures taken this year, Curry had a 53 percent awareness among sports fans and a 26 Q Score, Schafer said.

Only Durant and San Antonio's Tim Duncan had a higher Q Score (29) for an NBA player. James had the highest awareness at 82 percent among sports fans with a 25 Q Score.

Curry also had a 21 percent awareness rating and a 19 Q Score among the general population, Schafer said. The average general Q Score is 15 for sports personalities.

''What that signals is as his awareness grows in and out of the sport,'' Schafer said, ''he looks like he has the potential to become more of an athlete that's transcending basketball.''

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Antonio Gonzalez can be reached at: www.twitter.com/agonzalezAP

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