“Skill” is a tricky concept, because we will forever be arguing about the delineation point between what was gifted from above, and what was worked out during dribbling drills in the garage when it was too cold to go shoot outside.
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What we can’t argue over is Stephen Curry’s gem of a season, and career, thus far.
The Golden State Warriors guard and defending MVP has led his team to an undefeated record through 13 games. He’s leading the league in scoring, Win Shares, and True Shooting Percentage while making a wild 5.2 three-pointers per game. If this production holds up, the NBA will have never seen a season like this.
Steve Nash, who entered the NBA 19 years ago, saw quite a bit over his (eventual) Hall of Fame run. The newly ensconced GSW “player development consultant” appears to be as gobsmacked with Curry’s initial turn as any of us, and he discussed as much with the San Jose Mercury News’ Tim Kawakami recently:
“I wouldn’t compare him to Michael Jordan–I wouldn’t compare anybody to Michael,” Nash told me by phone a little while ago. “But I would say Steph is turning into a historical category of his own, in a way.”
He’s in the prime of his career and will be for a few years and the way he’s improving and the level he’s playing at is… I think he’s unlike anyone else. His ability to make shots and still handle the play-making duties is historic.”
“The skill level is already prodigious and it keeps getting better. And since the experience and understanding will continue to grow, it’s pretty remarkable to think about the heights he can get to.”
“He’s maybe as skilled a player as we’ve ever had in this game.”
It’s here that you get into that tricky area that attempts to differentiate between skill and single-mindedness. Between the luck that comes from coming into this world as the eventual 6-3 son of one of the NBA’s greatest shooters in Dell Curry, and spending your childhood as the kid that needed to be chased away from daddy’s court for shooting for too long, and from too far away.
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Curry, like Nash, didn’t come out of the maternity ward dribbling a basketball, but it didn’t take either much longer than that to pick the thing up and put it back down faster than most kids their age. Nash, like Curry, is both the son and brother of world class pro athletes, and though both will spend the bulk of their careers as the smallest guy on the court, that doesn’t mean they weren’t gifted with significant athletic starter kits.
It’s what happened from there, however, that created the legend. Nash, famously, used to walk around his high school and Santa Clara college campuses dribbling a tennis ball, so as to work on his handle. Curry, in the months following his MVP and championship turn with the 2014-15 Warriors, was seen doing as much at age 27 – entering his third decade of ridiculous practice habits.
What Curry has is the pleasure of not only working alongside Steve Nash in Golden State, but the luxury of being around to watch Nash’s pro ascension.
Dating back to Nash’s initial run with Phoenix, the biggest knock separating him from the status of “pretty good prospect” and “MVP candidate” was his refusal to take advantage of his superior scoring skills. It’s true that Nash’s footwork and economy of movement wasn’t as superb at age 25 as it was during his MVP years, but as late as Nash’s penultimate year with Don Nelson’s Dallas Mavericks he had Nellie half-threatening to fine him if he didn’t pull up for more of those spot on jumpers.
Curry, at 11.5 three-pointers a game this season, has no such hesitation; partially due to Nash’s influence. Nash’s two top shots per-minute years came in Dallas, but his top three-pointers per-minute seasons came with Phoenix, as both he and the league loosened up to the fact that these sorts of 25-footers shouldn’t just be for the specialists.
As a result of this evolution, look at where we are. A 6-3 waterbug has a 35 Player Efficiency Rating, which would rank as the best in league history if sustained until April (which could never happen … right?). Curry averages 34 points per game in 36 minutes a contest, with 5.3 rebounds and 2.5 steals. His assists are down to 5.8 a game, but his assist rate is just fine and his turnover rate is lower than anything Dr. Nash ever turned in during a regular season.
There has never been anything like this, and it’s understandable for Steve Nash to immediately jump to Jordan – prior to dismissing talk of anything GOAT-related – while scratching his head over Nash’s hot start.
(And this is A-OK! On Wednesday I had a conversation with my basketball nut of a father as we waded through that night’s League Pass offerings, with both of us passing out names of players that Curry reminded us of. Sometimes, with Hall of Famers, you tend to mention the influence of mere All-Stars when discussing their creation. Marques Johnson before Michael Jordan, for instance, or Mychal Thompson before Tim Duncan.
Not with Curry. Jordan was brought up. Isiah. Nash. Bird and Magic, for Stephen’s moxie and willingness to take chances. Pistol Pete. It was all legends with this guy. And the one thing we did determine, over two generations worth of obsessing over this sport, was that this was the greatest shooter we’ve ever seen.)
Things will settle down. The Warriors will catch two Texas teams on a back to back on the road and then a hungry lottery-bound club and drop three in a row at some point. Someone will sprain an ankle, or land funny, and the grind of playing 100-plus games over two years will get to the Warriors. Perhaps they might finish the season 73-9, topping Chicago’s 20-year old NBA record for wins in a season, but no team can stay this golden for this long.
There’s no reason to believe that Curry will let up, however. The man, at 45 percent from deep, is basically shooting a tick above his career average. His coach, Steve Kerr, retired in 2003 and was regarded at the time as the greatest three-point shooter in league history due to that same average – but Curry has already nearly doubled up Kerr’s career attempts from long range in nine fewer seasons.
Coming out of Davidson as a small school star, there was never any fear regarding whether or not Stephen Curry would be able to make shots at the NBA level. As with Steve Nash and his father Dell Curry, the fear surrounded him actually being able to get the shots off. Would he have a life as a specialist, like his father? No shame in that. Would he be eaten alive by the game’s speed, a la a 6-3 version of Adam Morrison? At age 21, how much more would he be able to add to his game?
Plenty, it turns out. Steve Nash was never one for hyperbole, and even in his first month as an NBA scout of sorts he seems spot on with his assessment.
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