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Fine tuning: Coaching Stephen Curry, best shooter in the universe

Stephen Curry and Steve Kerr have perfectly toed the delicate line of finding a winning formula while coaching a star in today's NBA. 

Stephen Curry saw the white flag wave. It danced before him in a taunt as he went bullied and beaten, made to second-guess himself as he never had before. The wispy guard was put through the wringer in one-on-one workouts against bigger, stronger, more experienced players lined up one after another by Davidson coach Bob McKillop. This was Curry’s first day and McKillop intended to test the freshman’s mettle.

“I was tired and kind of frustrated and he came out and waved this white towel in my face,” Curry said. “He kept saying, over and over again: 'You wanna surrender, don't you? You wanna surrender? Go ahead, surrender.’”

Curry played on but never triumphed. Instead, he endured just as McKillop hoped he might—standing up, again and again, to be humbled.

“It was pretty embarrassing what they were doing to me out on the floor,” Curry said. “I was pretty confident going into school that I was ready and that all I needed was the ball and to let me play. I went through the workouts and those juniors were killing me. I finished, somehow, and that was a moment of realization.”

Curry surrendered to the process.

Nine years later, Curry’s coaches in Golden State don’t have the same luxury. Pit a bigger defender against Curry and they’ll get lost in his handle. Try to overpower him and Curry will slink into open space or sneak out a steal by using his mark’s strength against them. Veteran know-how is all but meaningless when Curry can get to his shot on a whim and hit from most any range or angle. You can teach a quick and memorable lesson to a 165-pound freshman. But how does one humble the best shooter—and one of the most outstanding all-around players—in the known universe?

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Things have gone so smoothly in Golden State this season that it’s easy to forget Curry and Warriors coach Steve Kerr have worked together for less than a year. Their relationship began in earnest last summer. Although the two had met previously, Curry and his new coach were reacquainted over a few rounds at Pebble Beach alongside Curry’s father, Dell, and Warriors owner Joe Lacob. There was much to discuss—the vision Kerr had of Curry’s future, the systems that would come to guide the 63-14 Warriors to a historic season, and the culture Kerr hoped to soon define. But all of that could wait. Their first meeting would be a bit more human and, as is inevitable given the competitors involved, focused on the game at hand. Curry impressed.

“[Curry’s] golf game is unbelievable, as you might suspect,” Kerr said. “His hand-eye coordination is as good as anybody I've ever seen.”

This is a common theme with Curry. Ask around about the superstar guard and you’ll hear the expected awe of his shooting stroke and floor game. Dig deeper into Curry’s skill set and you’ll often find reference to that same underlying quality that struck Kerr. The fluidity of his movement speaks volumes. Other guards may explode to the rim or contort through tight quarters, but Curry’s impossible coordination guides his every move to balance. He dribbles and collects precisely as he means to. From that, Curry has even more specific access to the array of shots he’s worked diligently to perfect.

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Every night the Warriors play, Kerr can find something like peace—were coaches allowed it—in the fact that his star can do things with a basketball that no one else can. Based on that ability, however, Curry will also attempt maneuvers that few would even try. There are unwritten rules in basketball as to what constitutes a quality shot. They were formulated, though, with lesser shooters in mind. To coach Curry is to throw out the book; whatever guiding principles are implemented must be unique to a player who can casually step back into 25-footers.

“There's some give and take,” Kerr said. “Obviously [Curry is] so skilled and talented that you give him a lot of rope. Every once in awhile you have to reel him in if if you think that he's trying to do too much or missing something strategically that we're trying to do. You just tell him. He's easy to talk to. I'm really, really lucky to coach a star player who's so willing to accept criticism and respond positively to critiquing.”

So much of the relationship between superstar and coach boils down to the balance of creativity and control. There is an artistry to elite-level basketball that can never be fully regulated. Defenses are trained to guard against the smart play. Sometimes the best way to overcome that attention and denial is to do what an opponent could never expect, whether by launching a shot a beat early or a slinging a pass at a dangerous angle. The best in the game court risk in a way that would prove self-destructive for a lesser player. Separation comes in the way a star’s skill and ability adjusts the odds.

Resistance, to a point, is healthy. It’s up to every coach to find the fuzzy line that allows a superstar latitude without upsetting the team proper, though it changes for every player from matchup to matchup. Kerr and Curry do as fine a job as any pair in the league when it comes to meeting in compromise.

“The biggest thing for me was the coaching aspect of understanding the balance between taking chances or making the simple play,” Curry said. “When to force the issue and when not to and understanding that dynamic of what happens on the court. I can go out and not be afraid to make mistakes, to turn the ball over every once in awhile if you're trying to make a pass through a tight window or something like that. But over the course of the game, you've got to make smart decisions and then use whatever footwork, whatever coordination to get the ball from point A to point B.”

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For a player of such improvisational ease, Curry thrives on premeditation. He plays purely in the moment. He practices, however, in such a way that allows his imagination to run wild. By hammering down moves in basic components, even his most unnatural sequences come naturally. Curry connects on a difficult pull-up because he’s done so from that exact spot countless times before after practice. His impossible runner off awkward footing finds the net as a direct result of his previous rehearsal. 

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“We do a warm-up drill every day that we practice where we literally work on just pivoting, stepping through, and pick-and-roll footwork. Just break it down, step by step,” Curry said. “Those things happen so many times in a game that you might take it for granted—just the coordination it takes to be explosive in certain situations on the floor. So we work on that in practice. Outside of that, I just kind of work on footwork in moves that I normally will make in a game, whether it's dribble moves into shots or the footwork coming off a screen, things like that. You drill that while you're getting shots up so that you'll obviously be efficient and make your workouts tough. But staying on top of that simple fundamental makes you a little bit faster, a little bit more creative, a little bit more efficient on the floor.”

“With the stuff he does, he challenges himself to get less rhythm and use harder cuts and more speed,” said Warriors assistant Bruce Fraser. “He's always constantly pushing himself to make shots challenging so that when he gets in the game he's done that a lot.” 

Fraser would know. Every day he meets with Curry to hone, and together they run through a rotating assortment of drills. The regimen is especially particular on game days; even the likely MVP is slave to routine. At Fraser’s request, though, Curry is doing more ball handling in his pregame mix this season. He’s passing with both hands off the dribble to simulate the natural rhythms of playmaking. Fraser pulls from the warmups and skill training employed in his previous work with Steve Nash, who just so happens to be the most convenient Curry analogue. 

“You find that guy [on the coaching staff] that you can rely on to keep things fresh, to keep the creativity flowing throughout the year and help make you better,” Curry said.

“My go-to guy is Bruce Fraser.”

For Fraser and Curry’s relationship to reach that point required gradual refinement. One of the core misconceptions regarding coaching in the NBA is the all-too-prevalent belief that trust between a player and his coaches comes implicitly. Respect can be demanded. Trust, though, can only be cultivated organically. When they were first matched to work together by Kerr, Curry was already one of the best players in the league and Fraser a newcomer to the organization. That liaison was functional enough to allow for basic drilling. But even for a player as coachable as Curry, willingness to receive instruction is directly linked to confidence and rapport.

“I don't think there’s a manual for that,” Fraser said. “It’s just a feel. It’s an intuitive sense that you have in establishing a relationship. You have to be a real person. I think that by things that you say and how you carry yourself—[the players are] watching everything. So it’s not just working with someone for a month… If I say something to Steph and he feels there’s merit to it, then that’s probably a step toward earning his trust. If he feels there’s no merit to it, then that’s probably a step in the wrong direction. Like anything, some processes are longer than others.”

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​​The process with Curry wasn’t so drawn-out, in part because Fraser tread carefully. So much of what the two work on together is rooted in shooting, an area of the game in which Curry needs little adjustment. Every correction uses a coach’s player-specific capital. Fraser minds that when working with a player like Curry, especially when the guard’s natural process will reset many technical issues in its own way. 

“What I do with him is—and he's receptive to it—if he's not making shots like he normally does, if he's in a little bit of a rut, I know his shot so well that I can tell what he's not doing that he normally does,” Fraser said. “I’ll sometimes point it out and sometimes I won't. I kind of try to pick my spots with him just because he's such a good shooter and he understands his body so well that he can usually self-correct. Less is more for someone like him from someone like me.”

Of course, there’s a distinction to be made in the way the Warriors coaching staff approaches errors in judgment or execution as opposed to some technical glitch in Curry’s shot. Kerr, the television analyst, rode a perfectly even keel. Kerr, the coach, maintains an engaging basketball environment but can run hot if the situation demands it. In those cases, Curry is never above rebuke. His play might not warrant much harsh criticism, but when it’s called for both Kerr and Curry see critical coaching as an important part of their bond.

“We try to approach coaching with the idea that I'm going to present myself totally openly and honestly and communicate with everybody,” Kerr said. “We have a group of guys that's pretty easy to coach so it really hasn't been much of an issue. But I do think because Steph is the best player, the rest of the guys follow his lead. The fact that he lets me get on him in film sessions, criticize him, and urge him to get better allows other guys to understand that they have to accept the same things.”

“I respond best when a coach is able to get on me where he's raising his voice, yelling and whatever, because he expects greatness from me—especially when I'm not performing the way I'm supposed to,” Curry said. “I like to have, obviously, a mutual respect, and a guy who can be as consistent as possible with his message. But if I need to be yelled at and refocused, I'm open to that and I usually respond well.”

All of this doubles down on a point made independently by both Kerr and Fraser: Curry wants to be challenged. He wants the assignment of guarding opposing point guards, night after night, after years of being told he couldn’t handle it. He wants to obliterate every shooting bounty put before him on the practice floor. He wants to not only whittle down his turnovers, but do so while still breaking ankles and throwing no-look passes as he likes. It’s not enough for Curry to have his cake and eat it, too. Give him a slice and he’ll come back for the bakery.

Never before has the NBA seen anything like him. The Nash comparisons may be apt, but Curry isn’t checked by the same altruistic inhibitions. He’ll shoot and score and shatter every one of the league’s three-point shooting records by the time he’s done. This season, Curry could well earn the league’s top individual honor and launch the Warriors—the league's best team to date—to the title. So the challenges keep coming from Kerr, from Fraser, from Warriors assistant/defensive shepherd Ron Adams, and from any who can dream them up.

There’s always room to grow. It’s just getting trickier every day to single out those things that Curry cannot do, those levels of greatness he hasn’t already attained.

Photo: Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images