The NBA will announce its Most Valuable Player soon, and by most accounts the favorite to win is Golden State's Stephen Curry.
If that happens, the Davidson College product will join the ranks of the most under-recruited MVPs in NBA history. He might even lead the class.
In the past 45 years, a total of five MVPs have come from well outside the college conference power structure: Steve Nash of Santa Clara (named MVP twice); Karl Malone of Louisiana Tech (also a two-time winner); David Robinson of Navy; Julius Erving of Massachusetts; and Willis Reed of Grambling. (That excludes five MVPs who didn't go to college: four-time winner LeBron James, Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, Dirk Nowitzki and three-time winner Moses Malone. All of those players were can't-miss stars who could have attended almost any college of their choosing.)
Of the five winners from off-radar programs, four of them come with ready-made reasons why they were not recruited at a higher level. Nash was from Canada, well before recruiters were flocking to Canada in search of high-caliber prospects. Malone was academically ineligible to compete as a freshman. Robinson didn't even play basketball until a late growth spurt led him to join his high school team as a senior. Reed grew up in Louisiana during an era when the major programs in the South were not recruiting African-American players.
Only Dr. J, who was from New York, stands out as a fairly mystifying non-recruit.
Until now, and until Curry.
It took Davidson coach Bob McKillop about three weeks of practice in fall 2006 to realize what the rest of America failed to see when Curry was at Charlotte Christian High School. That's when McKillop told a booster luncheon gathering, "Wait until you see Stephen Curry."
The veteran coach had been "just blown away" by Curry's skill level, hand-eye coordination and basketball acumen. He could shoot the nets off the hoop. Add in competitive fire, plus a combination of confidence and humility, and McKillop quickly sensed that the three-star "steal" he signed was actually grand theft of a five-star magnitude.
"He had all the technical talents," McKillop said, "but also all the emotional talents."
So how did an entire nation of coaches miss someone with all those talents? Especially one whose father, Dell, was one of the best 3-point shooters in NBA history? What the hell was everyone thinking when they let a future superstar go virtually unrecruited?
"Sometimes," explained Curry's high school coach, Shonn Brown, "kids don't pass the eye test. As a senior he looked like he was about 14 years old."
The eye test said Steph Curry was too small and too frail to handle the physical rigor of high-level college basketball. This was a baby-faced kid who was about 5-foot-8 and 125 pounds entering high school, and about 6-1, 160 coming out in 2006. At best.
Rivals.com's national scouting analyst Eric Bossi was in a different role when he saw Curry in the 2005 NBPA Top 100 camp in Richmond, Va. Like virtually every college coach, he was not dazzled.
"He was way over his head physically," Bossi recalled. "He was only 6-foot tall and rail thin. If he was left open, though, he didn't miss. He played very hard and was a good passer and handler."
That wasn't enough for the high-level programs. For some reason, they couldn't project to what Curry might be able to do when he fully physically matured.
"Some ACC schools didn't even want him to walk on," Brown said.
No ACC school blew it more than Virginia Tech. That was Dell Curry's alma mater, and that was where Stephen wanted to play. Despite the bloodlines, Tech's modest basketball stature and the strong recommendations of some who saw Curry's latent potential, coach Seth Greenberg was unmoved.
There was talk about Curry walking on at Tech and redshirting a year to prove his worth. That wasn't what Steph wanted to hear.
"He was very respectful, but when he heard the term 'redshirt,' he shut down," Brown said. "I knew there wouldn't be any sitting out."
McKillop and Davidson skillfully filled the vacuum of high-major disinterest. He'd first seen Curry when he was 10 years old, playing baseball with Bob's youngest son, Brendan. He knew then what kind of athlete Steph could be.
"I think he could have been a star in baseball," McKillop said.
The coach started watching him as a basketball prospect when Curry was in ninth grade. The next year, Davidson began aggressively recruiting him. Under McKillop the program had established itself in the Southern Conference – but that was a long way from the ACC dreams Curry envisioned.
Yet when the big boys failed to show much interest, Davidson's position kept improving. The school had location, quality coaching and plenty of playing time to offer. Curry signed in November 2005, and never wavered.
"Coach McKillop did an unbelievable job recruiting him, saying, 'We're going to build this around you,' " Brown recalled. "He pretty much committed at the in-home visit."
McKillop did indeed build the program around Curry, starting him in his very first college game against Eastern Michigan. It didn't go so well at first.
Curry had eight turnovers in the first half and Davidson trailed by 16 points. McKillop thought about benching his prodigy so he could calm down, but stuck with him. Curry wound up committing a staggering 13 turnovers, but also scored 15 points and the Wildcats rallied to win.
The next night, the frail, baby-faced bomber dropped 32 points on Michigan. Yeah, this was clearly a kid who needed to redshirt to be ready for high-major competition.
"After that it was full speed ahead," McKillop said. "He didn't look like a killer, but he was tough as nails."
Curry was the leading freshman in the nation in scoring, averaging 21.5 points per game. He led Davidson to a 29-5 season and an NCAA tournament berth. And then things really got fun his sophomore season.
Davidson started out 4-6 against a suicidal schedule, then proceeded to win 25 straight games. The Wildcats went 19-0 against SoCon competition, earned a No. 7 NCAA tournament seed and then went on the greatest run in school history.
Davidson beat Gonzaga, shocked Georgetown and blitzed Wisconsin to reach the regional final, with Curry dropping 3-point bombs on everyone. On the cusp of the Final Four, the Wildcats came up one shot short against eventual 2008 national champion Kansas, losing 59-57.
After averaging 25.9 points per game, Curry considered turning pro but came back to prove he could play point guard. He did that with aplomb, while also averaging a nation-leading 28.6 ppg.
After three seasons, a guy who couldn't get a scholarship offer from the ACC was the No. 7 pick in the NBA draft. And Davidson's program was launched into a new realm, moving to the Atlantic 10. McKillop coached the Wildcats to the regular-season title in that league this year.
The move wouldn't have been possible without three years of Curry. And now, a decade after Davidson signed the steal of the century, Curry is on the cusp of being named the NBA MVP.
Turns out you can reach the peak of the sport from Davidson College. To the everlasting regret of every school that somehow passed on Steph Curry.