Why We Watch: Stephen Curry, No Nonsense

There are many ways that Stephen Curry's career might have gone. He chose none of them.
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There is no nonsense in Stephen Curry’s game. There are no meaningless dribbling exhibitions; no what-the-hell-was-that double-pumps; no 20-foot contested fadeaways that barely catch rim. Curry is not about that, is in fact about the opposite of that. Passes fly off his fingers as crisply as if he were putting on a clinic at a youth camp. His jump shot's form is picture perfect; its release is supremely quick. Most of his makes charge hard through the net: true, clean swishes. He can finish with either hand, and shoot while moving in either direction. His repertoire includes bank shots and bounce passes. His game is gloriously old-school and utterly innocent of bullshit.

 

There's aesthetic virtue in this, to be sure, but it's also born of necessity. Curry is a spindly 6-2, 185 pounds, and his beautiful, effortless game happens to be that of a tweener. That’s always been the standard concern: that he was scorer without a true point guard's skills or temperament, but too small to handle opposing shooting guards. Curry has, in the clean way he does everything on the court, turned this notion upside down—he has played both positions at a high level, distributing the ball well enough at the point to hand out 6.9 assists per game, then shifting seamlessly to the two when asked to share the backcourt with veteran guard Jarrett Jack. He makes it look easier than it is, like he does with just about everything else.

Only in its absence does the strain of all this really become evident. After the normally unflappable Curry hit his 10th three-pointer against the Knicks back in March—his 54 points in the game are the league's season high; Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan are the only guards ever to score more as guests at MSG—he hopped back down the floor, charged past teammate Draymond Green’s unrequited high-five, and gleefully performed his best interpretation of the shimmy-shake. He had spent the game hitting impossible shots against multiple defenders; as he danced, it was clear that Curry seemed nearly as surprised by it all as everyone else, and was enjoying himself mightily. On the next Warriors’ possession, he drilled yet another preposterous three-pointer—his 11th of the game. After that one, he managed only a huge, disbelieving smile.

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There's another way this story could've gone. Remember Miles Simon tearing it up against a loaded Kentucky team in the NCAA Final and making the cover of Sports Illustrated? Remember when Randolph Childress scored 107 points in the ACC Tournament while playing with a broken finger? Lawrence Moten is still the Big East’s all-time leading scorer. Mateen Cleaves’ jersey is in the rafters at Michigan State. Walter Berry was once the toast of New York. None had more than a cup of coffee in the NBA. This is a thing that happens to Big Men on Campus, running up against new limitations—after all the postseason heroics, sustained excellence, accolades and rewritten record books—to find that their athletic peak had been achieved between the ages of 19 and 22, and that it would never get better than being a Great College Player.

This was the other way things might have gone for Curry, and there was a scouting report that ran counter to everything he's done since. That went: he was a one-dimensional, undersized combo guard who didn’t play much defense and took too many bad shots. He didn’t play regularly against the big boys of the ACC and other major conferences, and while no one disputed that he could shoot, he was also dropping those 30-point games on Elon and Winthrop.

This persisted, at a lower register, even after Curry led tiny Davidson College on a ridiculous and memorable run through the NCAA tournament in 2008. There were those 40 points and eight treys against Gonzaga, and 25 in the second-half comeback against Georgetown. There was the conventional wisdom that Wisconsin defensive specialist Michael Flowers would shut him down, and then Curry scored 33 points in a blowout win over the Big Ten champs. Even eventual national champion Kansas could barely contain him; they needed a stop on the last play of the game to prevent Davidson—to reiterate, Davidson—from going to the Final Four. This was all hugely impressive stuff, especially from a player who looked like he was 14 years old, but it didn't answer the question that lingered. In his third and final season at Davidson, he switched to point guard to broaden his skills and improve his draft stock, and then led Division I in scoring with 28.6 points per game.

At this point, Curry had shown that he could be an asset to the right team. He was an intriguing player with huge potential who could thrive in the right situation—the people whose opinions mattered most agreed on this. There were also the troubling physical shortcomings; one scouting report compared him to Jannero Pargo. It was understood that Curry could have a long career. Christian Laettner and Pervis Ellison had long careers, too. Emeka Okafor and Tyler Hansbrough are still useful players in the league. But we all know when and where they reached their pinnacles.

Curry was projected as sure lottery pick, but that, too, didn’t really mean much. Adam Morrison and Ron Mercer and Acie Law IV and Marcus Fizer and Shawn Respert were also lottery picks. Bo Kimble averaged over 35 points per game in college; Joseph Forte was once the ACC Player of the Year; Trajan Langdon was awesome, baby, with a capital A. This is a lot of names, and you get the point. All Great College Players, all high draft picks, and none of them came close to the level of success that Stephen Curry has already found.

***

Here is an incomplete list of things that happened to the Warriors in the years after Golden State made Curry the seventh pick of the 2009 draft and before the end of Curry’s three-year rookie contract: head coach Don Nelson resigned; the team was sold to an investment group headed by Joe Lacob; new head coach Keith Smart was fired after one season; TNT analyst Mark Jackson was hired as head coach, despite a complete dearth of previous coaching experience; a total of twelve different players were traded; Golden State’s win totals were 26, 36, and 23, with the last figure coming in the 66-game lockout-shortened season.

Before Curry had even played a game, Golden State's star guard Monta Ellis—Curry's more robustly tattooed doppelganger: another undersized, ball-dominating scorer who didn’t play defense—told reporters at the team’s 2009 media day that he couldn’t play with Curry. "I just want to win," Ellis explained, "and you’re not going to win that way." The win totals above speak to that, although Curry did alright for himself in his first season, averaging 17 points per game and finishing second to Tyreke Evans for Rookie of the Year.

Rock bottom arrived in Golden State last spring, shortly after Ellis and former first-round pick Ekpe Udoh were traded to the Bucks. With the Warriors in last place, Lacob—who had guaranteed a playoff appearance before the season—was booed lustily by the home crowd during a halftime ceremony to retire Chris Mullin’s jersey number. Despite struggling to stay healthy, Curry was the team's best and brightest attribute during this period; he improved steadily, he didn't complain, and he was named co-captain last fall. This year, with Curry hitting his stride as the 7th-leading scorer in the league, his team ranks among the NBA's biggest surprises, and appear headed for just their second playoff berth since 1994.

***

It's easy enough to see why Curry succeeded, and easy enough to cheer for it—besides being a singular on-court talent, he's a likable, intelligent and comparatively humble guy who has overachieved and excelled at every level. The tougher question is why and how Curry managed not to fail.

When Curry missed the final 28 games of last season due to a chronic ankle problem, there were concerns that he might yet be headed toward bust territory. The Warriors have authored a long line of highly disappointing high draft picks, ranging from drug-addled washouts like Chris Washburn to motivation cases like Billy Owens to plainly overmatched misjudgments from Todd Fuller to Patrick O’Bryant. The lottery picks to precede and follow Curry—Anthony Randolph and Ekpe Udoh, respectively—were both traded within two seasons, and neither looks likely to become a star.

Players who land in bad situations early in their careers have a built-in excuse for failure. There's something debilitating that comes with toiling away on perpetually losing teams, and players as worthy as Curry have suffered for it: bad habits get formed, development gets stunted, potential is squandered, and, eventually, careers are defined. Jonny Flynn, the flashy point guard taken by the Timberwolves one spot ahead of Curry in ’09 and by all accounts one of the more reliably positive human beings the league has seen in years, seemed only to get worse in the NBA. He was traded twice and is currently out of the league at 24 years old. Ricky Rubio, the other point guard taken ahead of Curry by Minnesota, is currently a sort of test case for how much losing a brilliant and bright-sided player can take before collapsing.

Curry is, simply, a much better player than either Flynn or Rubio; he also has the unique gene that allows him not to erode when submerged for years in corrosive organizational misery. But while he has already ensured that he won't be regarded as a bust, and that his brilliance at Davidson was just the first flashes of greatness, the shape and stature of Curry's success is still coming into view. He is making it, and making that plain highlight by highlight—a repetitive series of broken-down defenders, gorgeous floaters in the lane, and high-arching three-pointers. But the story of how great Curry will be—and how he will be great—is now entirely his to shape; his name will not be on any of those old, dark lists. He'll write it wherever he wants, and we’ll watch.


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