Marcus Thompson II column: Curry is the ultimate overachiever
For all of his basketball life, Stephen Curry has worn a Post-it on his back: Not Athletic Enough.Even now, though he's perched atop the NBA landscape as the back-to-back MVP winner, it's the unspoken reason behind critics downplaying his heroics...
For all of his basketball life, Stephen Curry has worn a Post-it on his back: Not Athletic Enough.
Even now, though he’s perched atop the NBA landscape as the back-to-back MVP winner, it’s the unspoken reason behind critics downplaying his heroics. He doesn’t have the physical traits that would explain his dominance. It makes sense that Shaquille O’Neal was an unstoppable force. LeBron James and Michael Jordan were clearly infused with radioactive powers perfect for basketball.
Curry’s surface-level qualities have never measured up.
“Far below NBA standard in regard to explosiveness and athleticism,” reads the weaknesses portion of Curry’s scouting report on NBADraft.net. “At 6-2, he’s extremely small for the NBA shooting guard position, and it will likely keep him from being much of a defender at the next level ... Doesn’t like when defenses are too physical with him ... Not a great finisher around the basket due to his size and physical attributes ... Makes some silly mistakes at the PG position. Needs to add some muscles to his upper body, but appears as though he’ll always be skinny.”
It’s clear the scouting reports had it wrong about Curry, who leads the Warriors into the Western Conference Finals starting tonight against Oklahoma City. But the thing those scouts had most wrong was the narrative about Curry’s athleticism.
“He’s a phenomenal athlete,” Hall of Fame-bound point guard Steve Nash said. “He’s off the charts in so many ways as an athlete. We sometimes get so enamored by explosion. Athleticism is what you can do within the parameters of the game: the ball, opponent, space, time, execution. There are so many things. We lose track of what a phenomenal athlete he is.”
Nash is right. Here is the truth of the matter: Curry is an athletic freak. His excellence is just in areas often overlooked in basketball.
Curry is an anomaly in a way that requires a paradigm shift. It’s a sophistication only to be appreciated with understanding, the classical music of athleticism.
Curry is not exceptionally fast, like say Russell Westbrook, who according to ESPN Sports Science travels from baseline to baseline in 3.36 seconds, more than half a second faster than a typical NBA player. Curry doesn’t get up especially high. His maximum vertical in pre-draft measurements, back in 2009, was 35.5 inches. Washington guard John Wall’s pre-draft max was 39 inches.
But beyond leaps and speed, Curry is just as freakish as Westbrook, just as mind-blowing as James. And the truth being revealed with his dominance is that Curry’s form of athleticism is more desirable in today’s NBA game.
The awe is evident in the eyes of Nick U’Ren, who rebounds for Curry after every practice. The special assistant to head coach Steve Kerr, who has worked with two exceptionally skilled athletes in Nash and Diana Taurasi, rubs his fingertips together as he discusses a special power of Curry.
“He must have extra senses in his fingertips,” U’Ren said. “His ability to, in a split second, manipulate the ball is incredible. It’s just a miniscule, fraction of an adjustment - to loft it a little higher, or change the angle with a defender coming at him. But he can feel it and make the change instantly.”
Shooting is an activity of feel. There are teachable techniques to improve one’s shooting, but much of it is unspoken, instinctual. It’s dexterity: the skillful manipulation of the hands. And Curry has some of the best hands in the NBA.
The reason he shoots at a percentage usually reserved for big men from within 5 feet of the basket is his touch and feel. He shoots from either hand with the same ease, spinning it off the glass at the perfect angle and speed to let it drop right in. He catches bounce passes from Andrew Bogut in traffic - a difficult task for men with much bigger hands.
On his 300th 3-pointer of the season, against Orlando at Oracle, Curry pulled a magic trick on Ersan Illyasova, who got stuck on the point guard way out past the 3-point line. In a seamless dribbling exhibition, Curry pulled off a six-step move - between the legs twice, crossover to the left, then back to the right, then slipped it behind his back into a step-back 3-pointer that hit its mark. Again, not looking at the ball. All feel.
If there is anything genetic about Curry’s athleticism, passed down from a father who spent 16 years in the NBA thanks to his outside shooting, it’s probably those hands. And the super senses in his fingertips.
“He’s got great hands. Some of the best ever,” Warriors assistant general manager Kirk Lacob said. “Have you seen Zoolander? He’s like the hand model.”
On March 23, with the Los Angeles Clippers in town, Curry reached in to swat the ball away from J.J. Redick between dribbles. Curry gathered the loose ball and turned up court, dribbling with his left hand as he surveyed the floor in transition. He hadn’t reached halfcourt yet, he hadn’t even touched the perimeter of the center court logo, when he picked up the ball off the dribble and rifled a left-hand pass.
The ball sailed right between the reach of Clippers’ forwards Jeff Green and Wesley Johnson, landing perfectly in the grasp of Draymond Green, who was running down the middle of the floor. Green didn’t have to break stride, continuing on for a two-hand dunk as the defenders collided.
This play doesn’t draw the reaction of a soaring, rim-assaulting Westbrook dunk. But this is where Curry’s meticulous hand-eye coordination - an ability to see, measure, decide, then do - can destroy the will of opposing defenders.
Curry leads the NBA with 35 shots from at least 30 feet, making 17 of them (48.6 percent). Only 12 other players have taken at least 10. The best percentage behind Curry is Chris Paul, who is 3-for-12.
Before every game, Curry starts off his pregame warm-up with a dribbling routine that draws thousands of observers - even in opposing arenas. Two balls and a ritual of simultaneous crossovers serve up an eye-popping display of skill.
Curry regularly works on improving his hand-eye coordination by engaging in new-age training techniques. Brandon Payne, founder of Accelerate Basketball Training in South Carolina, has worked with Curry to hone his exceptional skills. Videos on YouTube shows Curry wearing Goggles while dribbling a ball with one hand and juggling a tennis ball in the other.
The goal: To get Curry comfortable making decisions in a blink with numerous distractions, so he can perform coolly under extreme pressure. It also makes him quicker with his hand-eye synopsis because he processes information so well.
That comes in handy on defense because Curry can deflect the ball out of the hands of his opponent even if it’s exposed for just a fraction of a second. Such was the case on March 23 when he picked Chris Paul’s pocket, something that simply doesn’t happen.
Curry dribbled to his right off a screen and both Wizards defenders followed him. So Curry whipped the ball behind his back and darted back to his left. While the two defenders were still adjusting to the first change of direction, Curry suddenly crossed backed to his right between the defenders.
In three jerky moves, Curry lost a double-team without being touched. Even the opposing fans sitting courtside in D.C. had to gasp when he finished with a right-handed floater.
Payne probably saw that move and felt a tingling sensation in his spine. Curry’s ability to change speed is his favorite athletic trait.
“It’s subtle and it creates space,” Payne said. “He is very efficient in his movements so there is not a whole lot wasted there. What he’s done is taken his genetic makeup to the ceiling.”
Curry compensates for not having blazing speed by being shifty and deceptive. He lulls and lulls then bursts. He weaves from side to side. He winds his way around screens like a slalom skier slicing past gates.
On drives to the basket, he can jump off the wrong foot, lean awkwardly and twist his body in the air - all without affecting his ability to shoot it properly. On defense, he smoothly circumvents screens and slithers through cracks.
In Detroit in January, Green led a fast break down the right side and dropped off the pass to Curry, trailing down the middle. Curry didn’t handle the pass smoothly and lost his balance a bit. In one motion, he stopped suddenly, centered himself and drained a 3 - from the P on the Pistons logo at halfcourt.
“That’s athleticism,” Nash said. “You see (an explosive) athlete come and do that and he couldn’t even get the ball near the rim. He was faster and jumped higher, but he wouldn’t be able to put it in the hole.”
The reason Curry is so agile is because of his strength. He looks petite next to NBA behemoths, and his first impression as a scrawny kid makes it harder to view him as anything else. But Curry is unusually strong. Pound for pound, only Festus Ezeli is stronger on the Warriors than Curry, who can deadlift 400 pounds.
Curry’s real strength shows in his core. It’s how he stops and starts so well, why his balance is impeccable and why he is great at getting leverage. Curry regularly holds his ground when being posted up and can move defenders away from their desired spot.
“He’s definitely worked on his body,” Barnes said. “He wanted to get stronger. He wanted to get bigger. I think you can tell by the way he attacks the basket more this year. He’s able to get there, get the contact and finish. You’re seeing it more now ... he physically looks bigger and he’s able to play more physical.”
With all the running Curry does, all the zig-zagging and gear-shifting, all the holding and grabbing he endures, Curry still has the energy to shoot his best late in games.
“I put in the work in the offseason so I can be ready for the grind,” Curry said.
Even though he sat out 18 fourth quarters in the regular season, Curry took and made more fourth-quarter 3-pointers than anyone in the league.
Where should stamina rank on the list of athletic feats? How does holding up against a league-wide gameplan to be rough with him stack up against the explosiveness of others?
Curry sprints down the hall to the locker room after warmups. He sprints to the stanchion under the basket before the tipoff. Then he spends much of the game dribbling or running around screens. And at the end of the game, his motor is still going.
The Warriors have assisted in keeping him upright during the playoffs. Curry has scheduled rests in the second and fourth quarters. He spends periods of time defending players that don’t require so much. But Curry’s load is heavy. Yet he manages to get stronger as the game goes on.
It all adds up to a freak of an athlete. Not in the mold of a James, but in a way that makes him unstoppable in a league of explosive athletes. He can’t do what the special athletes do, but most of them can’t replicate Curry’s strengths.
Nash was a lot like Curry. And he knows all about the plight of being deemed a poor athlete.
“I knew I was a great athlete,” Nash said, the moment of braggadocio prompting a burst of laughter. “I just knew I wasn’t explosive. But if you put us in a gym and say try this, I’d figure it out. That’s athleticism, too. I had a lot confidence in my ability to acquire skill. To be agile and fluid and mobile, and my balance. Steph is the same way. His agility, dexterity, his hand-eye. He’s off the charts in so many ways as an athlete.”
Marcus Thompson II is a sports columnist for the East Bay Times.