(photos. Tim Cowie)
Now that Stephen Curry has officially decided to take his white-hot shooting show to the League, we will be inundated with predictions galore about how he’ll fare at the next stage. In Dime #48, we sought to address that question. Here’s the answer.
Over the past three season, every Stephen Curry game has become must-see TV for college basketball fans nationwide. But the question remains: Will his act translate to the NBA stage?
Stephen Curry plays drums in a rock band.
The band isn’t all that great. They haven’t even come up with a name for themselves yet, but they keep at it. On occasion, they’ll get some reps on their Wii Rock Band instruments; Stephen behind the kit, fellow Davidson College guard Bryant Barr on the bass guitar, 6-9 forward Dan Nelms on the lead guitar, and 6-7 wing Steve Rossiter providing vocals.
Every band needs a dingy garage to start out of, and this messy college apartment isn’t too far off. The modest arrangements seem a bit off kilter considering that Curry, a 6-2, 180-pound junior guard also happens to be the brightest star in college basketball today.
Though Curry leads the nation in scoring at press time with 29 points per night, has a reputation as one of the game’s most clutch shooters since Reggie Miller—regardless of level—and speaks with LeBron James regularly via text message, he is no rock star.
“Steph gets so excited when he gets a text message from LeBron,” laughs Barr. “He’s like a little kid in a candy shop. It’s hilarious.”
“I walked by a couple of real celebrities at the ESPYs this summer and stuttered when talking to them,” says Curry. “I was just real nervous.”
While Curry might struggle to keep his poker face when surrounded by A-listers in the sports world, he is distinctly different on the court. The smoothest operator, Curry oozes with confidence no matter his opponent; after releasing his gorgeous high-arching jumper, he backtracks at the same pace every time, whether the ball splashes through the net in the Sweet 16 at Ford Field, inside UNC-Greensboro’s sandbox gym in a Southern Conference game, or over Chris Paul’s outstretched hand during a summer pickup run at the LeBron James Nike Skills Academy.
But for all of Curry’s scoring escapades – 13 games of 30 points or more this season through the second week of February, including 44-point outings against Oklahoma and NC State – his future is still marked by lingering question marks about whether or not he can play in the League. Can he gain enough muscle to compete at the next level? Can he succeed as an NBA point guard? Is he quick enough to guard other NBA point guards? Will he be able to get his shot off against taller, more athletic defenders night after night?
Steph knows that these questions exist. But day-to-day, he exerts as little energy as possible answering them. Even if you don’t believe him when he says that the first time he looked at an NBA Draft site was “about a month ago – before that I hadn’t paid any attention to it,” there’s no denying that Curry actively puts the NBA into another time zone in his mind.
“Nothing about my success here over the last three years has changed me at all, because I live in the moment,” says Curry. “I’m not worried about what’s going to come next. I’m not worried at all. I do everything one step at a time, and I try to be as confident doing so as possible.”
For Stephen to achieve everything he sets his mind to, he needs to believe it completely. And right now, he believes that he can do anything. That mantra is inscribed on the forefront of his sneaker, penned as “I Can do all things…” (Editor’s note: The full quote is “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.” Philippians 4:13) Tomorrow won’t come across his radar until tomorrow. But when it rolls around, know that he’ll have the same confidence and faith that he has today.
Part of the joy of watching college basketball is the passion from fans, players and coaches. But just as much as the love of the game draws us in, we’re equally hooked by the scouting, analysis and predictions of players’ futures. Oftentimes, matchups between top prospects turn into auditions for the pros. Back in 2006, Kevin Durant’s historic freshman season at Texas became appointment viewing for all basketball fans, not just because he was destroying the Big XII, but also because he roused our imaginations about the possibilities of NBA stardom. Last year, Derrick Rose was college ball’s most compelling standout, as he feasted on smaller, slower defenders. One couldn’t help but imagine how he’d stack up against the NBA and the quickest guards in the world after leaving Memphis.
Curry is different. No matter how amazing he is on any given night, his accomplishments at Davidson aren’t seen as a sign of things to come. Instead, his performances are something to be savored. Basketball junkies are justified in setting their TiVo’s to tape Curry, not just because he’s guaranteed to stick a couple of 24-footers in his defender’s mug, but also because nobody knows whether he’ll be able to do this when he eventually decides to leave Davidson.
In one moment, we see him as the most gripping player in the country, and yet in the next, we peer into the looking glass, guessing that he will have completely vanished.
Right now, on the idyllic Davidson campus (Davidson, NC), Curry is capable of supernatural acts of basketball miracle. Though he is physically at a disadvantage in one matchup or another on most nights, there isn’t another player in America who dominates games as thoroughly as Steph.
“He really doesn’t have range,” says Wofford guard Brad Loesing who guarded Curry for the majority of his 33-point night in late January. “If you’re thinking that you don’t have to worry about him shooting the ball a few feet behind the three-point line, you’re dead wrong. He has the ability to put up a shot from anywhere on the court. You can’t relax guarding him – not for one moment. You need to have that mindset, for every second, being fully engaged.”
“I see three plays in advance,” says Curry. “I try to go into the minds of my teammates or the defender and almost make decisions for them before they do, and kind of anticipate what I need to do to counteract that.”
How can someone without any physical advantages over his opponents do what people say that he’s doing? The truth is, Curry has always been a magician, even before he set foot on Davidson’s campus. As a kid he tailed his dad, 16-year NBA marksman Dell Curry, to practice every weekend and day off. When Dell played for the Raptors, Stephen played Tracy McGrady one-on-one in the seventh grade, and beat him.
“I was there,” says Stephen’s brother Seth, a freshman who is following in his brother’s footsteps at Liberty University, ranking 12th in the nation at press time at 20.6 points per game. [Editors Note: Seth has since transferred to Duke. He'll have to sit out next season, and will be back for the 2010-11 year.] “As a matter of fact, they had a picture of it in the paper – I think it was at a shootaround. I doubt that Tracy was really trying, though.”
Even if T-Mac was just messing around, it was a formative experience for Steph, who unlocked the Curry family secret that afternoon: confidence. What he lacked physically against people his own age – to say nothing of 6-8 future NBA All-Stars – Stephen made up for with faith in his abilities.
Plus, Steph’s time spent around the best players in the world also affected the way that he understood the game. From a young age, he watched the NBA’s ultimate little man, Muggsy Bogues (in Charlotte and Toronto), run the pick-and-roll. As a kid, Stephen watched because it was fun – but those hours spent with his eyes glued to his dad, McGrady, Muggsy, and other NBA stars also helped him develop perhaps the most advanced basketball IQ in all of college hoops today.
“His basketball IQ is astronomical,” says ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla, who worked closely with Curry at the LeBron camp this past summer. “That shouldn’t be a surprise, given his upbringing in NBA arenas and the coaching that he’s had as a young player and now has in college.”
So when Loyola (Md.) came into Davidson’s Belk Arena, their attempt at physically and mentally testing Curry only ended up making them look foolish. Coach Jimmy Patsos ran a triangle-and-two against the Wildcats with two players devoted to Curry at all times, no matter where he moved on the court. Stephen didn’t care that he didn’t score a single point – he giggled to himself while the other guys on the floor dismantled Loyola four-on-three for a 30-point win.
“Loyola’s triangle-and-two, and all of those other specially designed defenses have made his IQ even better,” says Davidson coach Bob McKillop. “He has tremendous insight on the court and in life. He reads things very well.”
But when Curry isn’t out on the floor to draw all five sets of eyes, his supporting cast can’t cakewalk through the Southern Conference. The Wildcats were without Curry against The Citadel in mid-February because of a sprained ankle he suffered against Furman, and they got destroyed 64-46.
That offers an apt reminder of just how important Curry is to this team, and exactly what they’d be like without him. But for all of his gaudy numbers and the fear he instills in opponents, many people still believe that he is too limited to perform at such a high level – or any level for that matter – in the NBA.
“You know Quincy Douby was also a great scorer in college,” says an NBA scout who spoke anonymously because of NCAA regulations prohibiting scouts from speaking on underclassmen. “Curry’s a great scorer at a small school where he’s the first, second, and third option just like Douby. But I don’t see him getting his shot off in the NBA and he’s not quick enough to play the point.”
The first 35:43 of the Davidson/West Virginia matchup at Madison Square Garden in January illustrates that scout’s point. WVU’s laundry list of lengthy forwards – 6-7 Da’Sean Butler, 6-7 John Flowers, 6-7 Wellington Smith, 6-9 Devin Ebanks – which is comparable to what Curry could go against during a week’s stretch of an NBA season, bothered him with their size and athleticism. During that stretch, he shot 5-22 from the field for 14 points.
But the final 4:57 went a little bit differently. Curry hit one shot crazier than the next, scoring 13 points when it really counted to break the Mountaineers’ backs and steal a win.
“I think we can reflect back on Madison Square Garden when Steph struggled,” says McKillop. “West Virginia did a tremendous job defensively on him all night, and yet he was so resilient. In the last three or four minutes, he took the game over, and was embraced by the 14,000 fans there. They had paid to come see him, and he delighted them with that performance. He went beyond magic.”
In the Garden that night, Curry could have done anything, and the packed house would have ooh’d and aah’d in delight. But no one would have been completely shocked. He could have started banking in half court hook shots as an encore and the crowd wouldn’t have thought twice about it.
So why can’t he do that on the stage wearing an NBA jersey?
The truth is that Stephen will succeed at the next level, and he’ll do so because of this experience. Not his night at the Garden, but because of all those other nights just like this one. Stephen Curry believes that he’s this good. And his confidence is a greater asset than being 6-7 or 230 pounds or having a 45-inch vertical.
“Going into the (Davidson/Duke) game, I was thinking about the concerns coming into this year whether he could play the point, or play at all in the NBA,” says ESPN analyst Mark Jackson. “I specifically wanted to pay attention to that first-hand. I came away absolutely convinced that he’s going to be a stud at the next level for a long time to come. It really doesn’t matter what position he plays. I see him as a big-time player. He’s a cool customer, extremely confident, doesn’t allow adversity to affect him.”