Before Steph Curry and Klay Thompson became the greatest shooting backcourt in the history of the NBA*, they were just a pair of skinny kids with famous fathers.
This is an article from the Oct. 28, 2013 issue
Old NBA game footage shows a wispy Curry trailing his 6'5" father, Dell, before Charlotte Hornets games. Steph didn't try out for the varsity basketball team as a high school freshman, believing he wasn't big enough. He did have uncanny hand-eye coordination. At 13 he beat his dad at golf for the first time, shooting in the low 80s. As an eighth-grader he scored 54 points in a police league game, heaving shots from his hip. "He was tiny," says Dell, "but he could always shoot it."
Klay never saw his dad in action. He was one when Mychal retired, in 1991, after playing 12 seasons in the league and winning a pair of titles with the Lakers. Though his 6'10" father was a post player, Klay fell in love with jump shots. His favorite challenge: see how many threes he could hit in a row without touching the rim. As a 14-year-old, with his dad rebounding at a park, he sank 15. Until then Mychal had always thought Klay should become a pitcher. Now he wasn't sure. Says Mychal, "That's when I thought he might have a gift."
It is Oct. 3, and Thompson and Curry are standing on top of a piece of plexiglass in a back alcove of Oakland's Oracle Arena. Outside an Indian summer blazes and temperatures are in the high 70s. Inside it is cool and dark, and Curry blows on his hands. Ten feet in front of him, a photographer perches on a ladder, framing the scene.
Thompson stands on the left, holding a steady grin and a basketball at arm's length. At 23, with wide shoulders, long arms and immaculately tailored sideburns, he looks like an NBA player. A late growth spurt propelled him to 6'7", and he shoots the ball like a pro, keeping it high and releasing it above his head. Last season he took 526 three-pointers and made 40.1%, one of the best marks in the league for a volume shooter. If you were to create a prototype for a wing marksman, he would look an awful lot like Thompson.
The photographer leans in.
"O.K., lift the ball up," he says, nodding at Curry.
Curry jams a brand-new NBA game ball into his right hand. Technically, he's grown to man-size proportions—6'3" and 185 pounds—but at 25 he still looks like that kid who followed Dell around, just enlarged. His arms are thin, his goatee aspirational. His eyes appear large for his head, like a children's character in an animated movie. If you were to call any NBA player cute, it might be Curry.
Curry raises his arm, trying to aim the ball at the camera, but it slips loose. Curry winces and tries again, his right forearm muscle bulging. Again, the ball plummets. Raymond Ridder, Golden State's vice president of media relations, hurries off to find a pump. Moments later he returns, and air hisses out of the ball. Curry flexes his hand, shakes it three times. Thompson resumes his pose, jaw muscles twitching from all the smiling. Curry tries again.
Thump. Curry frowns. He can do many remarkable things with a basketball. Palming one, it turns out, is not among them.
Here are some other things Curry can't do: run all that fast, lift all that much weight or jump very high. His shooting motion begins near his stomach, low enough to make a youth league coach cringe. Jerry West, a Warriors' executive board member and the team's Yoda-in-Chief, refers to Curry as "this little young man. If you saw him walking down the street, you'd have no idea how skilled he is."
If Thompson is a classic NBA type, Curry is an outlier. While many stars are considered blueprints for the next generation—seven-footers who shoot threes, linebacker-sized point forwards—Curry is a throwback. No GM would scour the college ranks for slight, 6'3" guards who fit the "Curry model," because there are none. You could call him a small, scoring hybrid point guard, but that's not accurate. What he really is is the best long-range shooter in NBA history.
If this claim sounds hyperbolic, consider: In 2012--13, Curry broke the single-season mark for three-pointers made (272) while shooting 45.3%. The man whose record he surpassed, Ray Allen, is often considered the premier three-point shooter ever. And yet, only twice in 17 seasons has Allen shot as well from behind the arc as Curry did in his worst season (43.7% as a rookie). Larry Bird and Reggie Miller? Neither shot 43% in a season. More supporting details can be cited—including wonky advanced stats and the value of off-the-dribble versus spot-up shots—but they would be overkill. Anyone who watched Golden State's first-round win over the Nuggets and madcap 4--2 loss to the Spurs in the Western Conference semifinals last season understands.
This makes Curry a fascinating case study. In build and style of play he is an anachronism—more 1970s than 2010s—but the way that he scores is thoroughly modern. In an era when coaches are in thrall to efficiency and points per possession, and in which three-pointers are increasingly valued, there are few shots better than a Curry trifecta (1.31 points per possession in 2012--13, according to Synergy Sports). Talk to Warriors GM Bob Myers and coach Mark Jackson and they will tell you that even though Curry took nearly eight threes a game last season—the most in the league—if anything he needs to shoot more.
That could happen. This season, in an effort to join the league's contenders, Jackson plans to run a more up-tempo attack. There's a chance Curry and Thompson—known in the Bay Area as the Splash Brothers—could hoist close to 600 trifectas each, something no pair of teammates has ever done.
Then again, there has never been a pair of teammates like Thompson and Curry.
Only three NBA players have fathered more than one son who played in the league, though a fourth is on the cusp. There's Rick Barry and his brood (Jon, Brent and Drew). Jim Paxson Sr. begat Jim Jr. and John. Mychal Thompson's oldest son, Mychel, played briefly for the Cavaliers the same year Klay joined the league. The man on the brink is Dell Curry, whose younger son Seth, a 6'2" undrafted free agent out of Duke, spent training camp with the Warriors, crashing at Steph's house. Though he played limited minutes, Seth received some of the loudest cheers at Oracle during preseason. This was not necessarily a good thing.
Following a famous father in the NBA is difficult. Few people remember Larry Mikan. Some offspring share the same name—John Lucas III, Patrick Ewing Jr.—but not the talent. Others, like Marcus and Jeffrey Jordan, are saddled with even more unrealistic expectations. Those who have been most successful are often the children of fathers who were good but not great. Think of Kobe (son of Jellybean) Bryant, Kevin (son of Stan) Love and Danny (son of Ed) Manning.
The rarest scenario is the one playing out in Oakland times two, in which both the fathers and the sons are accomplished. What is peculiar about the Thompsons and the Currys is that the dads haven't necessarily passed down their playing styles. Mychal made one NBA three-pointer, with the Spurs during the 1986--87 season—"shot clock winding down, 30 feet from the hoop, might as well shoot it," he remembers. The No. 1 pick in the 1978 draft, Thompson averaged 13.7 points and 7.4 rebounds during his career, doing most of his work in the paint. He claims to have had a soft outside shooting touch but never had a chance to show it. Even if you buy this—and Klay is skeptical—it's unusual that a post player would produce two perimeter players. (Mychel is a three-point specialist as well.)
The Curry bloodline is more consistent: great shooter produces great shooters. Even so, during his 16 years in the league, Dell displayed none of the Maravichian ballhandling and flair that Steph possesses. In an interesting twist, the player on Golden State who most resembles Dell—perimeter-dependent, with a high, quick release and minimal lift—is Klay Thompson. Even Dell thinks so.
Trying to parse the impact of nature and nurture is never easy. Mychal didn't coach his sons' teams growing up and says when it came to shooting, Klay "just picked it up naturally." Similarly, Mychel was always a capable shooter. (The youngest Thompson boy, Trayce, focused on baseball from the start—there are accusations from the brothers that Mychal "grooved" pitches to him in backyard games—and is now an outfielder with the Double A Birmingham Barons, in the White Sox' system.) Klay's mother, Julie, was a 5'10" volleyball player at San Francisco known for her powerful spikes. She was the one who attended all the boys' games at Santa Margarita Catholic High, an hour southeast of Los Angeles. Mychal, who became a radio broadcaster with the Lakers, preferred to focus on life lessons: Always show up early, cherish each opportunity, and never meet your girlfriend in a nightclub.
As for the Curry boys, they had a seemingly idyllic childhood growing up in Charlotte. Family barbecues. Backyard shootouts. Dell brought them on the road when he could. They shagged balls for Alonzo Mourning and Larry Johnson. Steph remembers watching his dad play one-on-one against Mark Jackson. When Dell spoke at basketball camps about the art of shooting—a 40.2% lifetime three-point shooter, he led the league at 47.6% in 1998--99—he brought his kids. Dell lectured about ball position, balance and follow-through. Quietly, his sons soaked it in. Like Julie Thompson, Sonya Curry was both a volleyball player, in her case at Virginia Tech, and a constant presence at her sons' games. Though she stressed family, faith and academics, Sonya didn't hesitate to intervene in athletics when necessary. Like the time she put Steph, then in middle school, through two weeks of backyard plyometrics to correct his running form.
Early on, Steph's size limited his confidence. (He says not going out for varsity as a freshman was the biggest mistake of his career because he would have improved more quickly.) There were other challenges. His dad remade Steph's shot after his sophomore year in high school, moving the release above his head. He received no scholarship offers from top programs, leading him to Davidson, where he set the Division I single-season record for threes and led the Wildcats to two straight NCAA tournaments. And there are the ankle issues—surgery on his right and a sprain on his left—that have dogged him in the pros.
Still, like Klay—who starred for three seasons at Washington State before becoming a lottery pick—Steph's ascent has been a steady one. Plenty of work remains, of course. Klay wants to improve his rebounding and finishing—his father calls his at-times-comical forays to the hoop "Klayups." Mychal has also set a 2-2-1 goal for Klay this season: two free throws, two rebounds and one foul or fewer per quarter. Curry wants to cut down on turnovers and improve on defense. Still, both sons are in an enviable position: young, talented and supported by strong families.
Ask the fathers how much of their sons' success is genetic and how much is due to everything else, and they struggle to answer. Mychal thinks for a while, then settles on 50% genes, 50% other factors. Dell puts it at 25/75: "You can have a great skill set, but if you don't work to develop it, it won't get you that far."
Jackson provides a different analysis. "I don't care how many hours I put in," he says, "I'll never be able to shoot like Steph."
Back in Oakland, the Curry Watchers are out. It's midafternoon at the Golden State facility, and assistant coach Lindsey Hunter rebounds as Curry fires up postpractice jumpers. A dozen or so players, reporters and execs, including West, look on from the baseline. Moving around the arc, Curry swishes spot-up threes and bank threes and one-foot midrange shots. The one-footers bring to mind the running three Curry hit against the Spurs during the playoffs last season. Of all the crazy shots he made—the off-balance step-backs and 29-footers and weird lefty floaters—that 24-foot runner is the one that seems most unfair, and the one that Warriors fans recount most gleefully. Naturally, Curry says it was the first time he'd ever attempted the shot in a game. "I came off the top of the screen, off balance and I was feeling good," he says. "I was able to square my shoulders up, and after that I just went numb and shot it."
Steph's talent is such that it can create a barrier of sorts. During a recent practice Curry noticed that center Andrew Bogut, a 57.2% career free throw shooter, had changed his stance at the line. Instead of shooting flat-footed, Bogut was now lifting his heels, with his right foot forward. Curry sidled over and quietly asked Bogut about it. "It feels more comfortable," Bogut explained. Curry nodded, and that was that. "I try not to tell anybody how to shoot," Curry says.
This seems like a shame—for his teammates, it's like rooming with a master chef who won't give you pointers on your grilled cheese. His coach believes Steph's presence is enough, however. "It makes you better just watching," Jackson, ever the preacher, declares. "It will make you better being around greatness."
Maybe greatness isn't the barrier, though. Maybe it's that pure shooters, like many prodigies, can't explain what they do in part because, to them, it's not that difficult, just as Blake Griffin can't hold forth on the secrets of dunking. ("It's hard to describe other than it sends a little chill through you," he once told SI.) In Griffin's case, he just jumps and then all kinds of crazy stuff happens.
Or maybe it's a matter of fluency. Get Curry and Thompson together, prod them a bit, and they will speak the language of shooters, as they did for 30 minutes after a recent Warriors practice. Seated on a pair of high-backed chairs, looking out as assistant coach Brian Scalabrine prepared to play one-on-one against Myers, the two Warriors guards talked about the importance of "seaming up" on a pass—that is, giving the ball to a shooter with the seams lined up, so he can catch and shoot with rotation. They discussed their favorite spots—the left corner for Klay, the top of the key in transition for Steph. They described where they like to catch the ball (center of the chest, just below the neck for Klay; right side a bit lower for Steph). They analyzed their early shooting problems (Klay used to put sidespin on the ball; Curry used a "slingshot" motion to get it to the basket). They broke down their current weaknesses. Klay targeted shot selection: "I'll either make three or four in a row and take a bad shot, or I miss five in a row and I'll start pressing." Curry said it's usually the same issue when he misses: no legs.
They revealed their preshot tells—how Curry likes to switch from his left to his right hand just before launching, and Klay prefers to hold the ball in front of his face so he can go right up with it. Steph talked wistfully of Thompson's release—"that thing where he comes off a wide screen, a pin-down screen, [and] all he needs is to get that ball to touch his fingertips for a split second and it seems like it's already at the basket." Meanwhile, Klay coveted Curry's handle and his shotmaking. "Any little space he has going up, he's really efficient at it," Thompson said, shaking his head. "A terrible shot for someone else is a good shot for him. That's rare."
Finally, the conversation turns to their favorite shooting drills. One in particular stands out: Shoot three-pointers from around the arc until you miss two in a row. "Almost every shot is a pressure shot," Thompson explains. Curry's high last year is impressive: 76. Indeed, when this became public knowledge last spring, there was much amazement among fans. It seemed otherworldly. Seventy-six NBA three-pointers without missing two in a row?
And yet here we find a surprise.
Asked his high, Thompson smiles. "I hit 122 last year," he says. "Right there on that far basket." He points to a nearby hoop.
Seated next to him, Curry shakes his head in admiration. And then the best three-point shooter in the history of the NBA looks down at his feet.
Says Curry, "I'm almost embarrassed by my number now."
*SOURCE: Warriors coach Mark Jackson, last spring. Accuracy: hotly debated.
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SECOND-YEAR GUARD KENT BAZEMORE, A DEFENSIVE SPECIALIST, FREQUENTLY COVERS CURRY IN PRACTICE. IT'S NOT FUN FOR HIM
SI: What advice would you give someone guarding Steph?
KB: First of all, I'm gonna say, Good luck. He can put it on the floor, shoot it from anywhere. His dribble is so tight, he can do a double crossover and get right into his jump shot. His release is very quick—you just gotta contest every shot, get a hand up. I test him a little bit off the ball, make him work to get the ball back, and hopefully it accumulates over time. But he's in great shape, and it hasn't been working for me that well.
SI: Does he have a tell on his shot, like in poker, that lets you know he's going to go up with it?
KB: Not really, because he uses his head and shoulders really well. You have to respect [those fakes]. If he catches the ball and you're closing out, it's pretty much game over. You've got to get into his body, taking away the jumper and then squaring him up. In catch-and-shoot situations, when he sees you leaning, he'll take advantage of it.
SI: Can you meet him early and use your body a little bit to get him off-balance?
KB: On defense it's called the point of attack, where two players are going to meet. His IQ is good enough to know what the point is, then shoot first. It's not often you get a clean hit on him, or he'll jump into you and get to the free throw line. I don't know where he gets it from, but I've learned a lot from guarding him.