How good is Stephen Curry?
by Colin Powers
One more pick. That’s all it would have taken for an exciting lead guard to be lighting up the Garden this season, injecting life into this moribund franchise that has now pinned all its hopes on the Free Agent Class of 2010 (we won’t even talk about Ty Lawson sitting there until Denver scooped him). We hold on to hope that these guys will become transfixed by the majesty, energy, and history of NYC, the birthplace of the city game, and in the process be so swept away in tales of Willis and Clyde that a brief bout with amnesia ensues and they forget the pitiful product that has donned the Blue and Orange for the past few seasons. That’s a story for another day. But late last June, all it took was one more pick, and the greater tri-state area might stop cringing every time they heard the name Steph…
It was not to be, however. Now toiling away in the obscure universe of Nellyball, Stephen Curry has quietly put together a tremendous rookie season. He was one of the more polarizing players in a draft full of that ilk, the heterodoxy of his game, size, and skills thoroughly dividing prognosticators and scouts. Is he too small? Is he quick enough? Is he strong enough? Will he be able to get his shot off?
The challenge to make his way became more treacherous when he ended up in Oakland, the city where many-a-rookie has slid into oblivion under the increasingly delusional Don Nelson. Nonetheless, Steph dodged that fall and the less than hospitable welcome he received from Monta Ellis to assert himself as one of the best young guards in the League today. Since January 5th, he has averaged 20.5 ppg, 6.37 apg, and 4.85 rpg.
20.5, 6.4, 4.9.
Look at those numbers again. Though they are inflated by the big minutes and whirlwind style practiced under the fiat of Coach Nelson, they still indicate this is a young man capable of big things in the NBA (and btw, Ty Evans was also given the keys to the Kings’ car from day one, so Steph’s stats are no more distorted than his). Stephen is far from the one-trick pony some tried to typecast him as before the draft. He’s not a smaller JJ Redick as many so confidently asserted (check the comments). He’s not the product of a flukey system, a weak college conference, and the media hype machine. He’s not a kid getting by on his daddy’s name. Stephen Curry can play.
Though he doesn’t explode at the rim or tear down the court with roadrunner top-end speed of a Ty Lawson, Curry does have the essential tool for anyone looking to play PG at the top level: a great first step. The rim-rattling finishes or freakish open court maneuvers of a dude like Russ Westbrook are a major asset, but the highest priority for a guard in the El today is the ability to get into the lane, breakdown the defense, and make intelligent decisions.
Watching Steph leaves no doubt about his aptitude for doing just that. The improvements to his dribbling have been most notable, as he is confident in making sharp changes of direction with both hands, no matter the duress of the defense. His cross aint Tim Hardaway in his prime, but he does have the important and understated senses of timing and the changing of speeds that often leaves defenders standing up, frozen. Some guys have a dribble-drive game based on power, some on sheer speed (Tony Parker doesn’t exactly fake anyone out of their boots. He just runs past them). Steph founds his game on his skillfulness in manipulating defenders through ball fakes, foot fakes, changes of direction, subtle gearshifts in speed, the omnipresent threat of him pulling up from 30 feet and in, and that blessed first step. All these instruments work in concert to get his defender off-balance for that brief moment he needs to blow past.
Additionally, as anyone who watched Steph play PG for Davidson last year could attest, Mr. Curry sees the court very, very well. He knows his angles, has a good feel for where his teammates are on the floor (as well as the defense), and is capable of accurately passing off the dribble and on the run. He’s not a shooting guard trapped in a point guard’s body. Stephen has that feel for orchestrating a team, a prerequisite for the PG position.
Of course, Steph is also a 21-year-old playing PG against the best players in the world, so he makes his fair share of mistakes. He’s a bit turnover happy because he can be lackadaisical in his probing of the defense. Against this level of competition, only the smallest window is needed for one’s opponents to pounce and take advantage, and Steph’s occasional lapses of concentration do provide that crack. Further, though he is an opportunistic defender with quick hands and mature feel for passing lanes, because of his size, he is not the best one-on-one player at that end of the court. But while we may look to criticize him for his poor play within the structure of a principled, team defense as well as for his shot selection that would not quite be up to Bobby Knight’s standard, we cannot singularly attribute these shortcomings to Steph. In reality, those flaws are somewhere between being embraced, encouraged, intrinsic, and unavoidable when playing under the paradigm of Nellyball. Steph doesn’t play great D because his coach doesn’t really care too much about D. Steph pulls up and takes some questionable jumpers in transition because quite frankly, that’s what the counter-intuitive methodology of Don Nelson demands. He won’t ever be a great on-ball defender, but under a different coach and different system, he could certainly evolve out of being a liability. And with the ball, it’s hard to fault the kid’s shooting when he’s putting up 46% FG, 41% 3FG, and 88%FT for the season.
Stephen Curry has had a very, very good rookie season, and his performance on the offensive end puts him up there statistically with any of the League’s freshmen guards in the past ten years. He should definitely be in the argument for ROY. And while he’s not Chris Paul, I’d certainly prefer him to the medley of point guards who have called MSG home this season.