Stephen Curry: The Future Is Now
No, you didn't misread that.
Such an honor applies to another gem playing in northern California -- Stephen Curry.
Before we move on, it should be noted that earning ROY doesn't necessarily guarantee you the utmost success in your draft class. In 2005, Emeka Okafor won the award over guys like Dwight Howard, Josh Smith, and Al Jefferson. Remember 1996? Damon Stoudamire took the cake over some pretty big guns, namely Kevin Garnett. ROY is a high honor, but it's not everything.
While Curry hasn't put together an entire season worth of brilliance as his brethren, he has shown enough of his talent to be appointed as the premier player in the 2009 NBA Draft class.
On a hapless, sad Golden State team, the 6-3, 185-pound Curry has been the lone bright spot. While he played well during the first two months of the season, he was still learning on the fly playing the game's most challenging position and somewhat marred by a brief shooting slump. Adjusting to the fast pace of the NBA and its overall physicality, he needed time to understand the intricacies of basketball at this level. In just a matter of months, he has transformed into one of the most aesthetically pleasing and skilled players around; a rare and lethal combination.
One of the main questions surrounding Curry before the season revolved around the mixed sentiments of whether or not he could play the point. One season in the books, it's now safe to say he has answered those questions.
What stood out most when the baby-faced assassin entered the NBA was his patented jumper. His high-arcing barrages in college made him a living legend amidst basketball circles. And while his honed shooting craft continues to amaze, it's Curry's exceptional ability to pass that elevates him into the elite status he will one day achieve. His flair for the dish has become so special, that you can actually see defenders making a conscious effort to limit his distribution skills as a top priority, even though his shot remains deadly.
Ultimately, Curry doesn't possess the athleticism or floor range as Evans, or fellow rook Brandon Jennings for that matter. But in a sense, this has actually helped him. Let's examine.
Curry's best attribute may be his high intelligence and overall feel for the game. Even more so than in college, his cerebral ability to see the floor and run a team has become readily evident. So much of what a lead guard does comes from feel and reads, and frankly, most young players -- and even veterans -- don't share this gift.
Curry put it on display earlier in the season against the Clippers, when he became just the sixth rookie in NBA history to record a 35 point, 10 rebound, and 10 assists triple-double. His grounded and collected pace showed off his full package of basketball proficiency. Terrified of his shooting stroke after a red-hot first half, defenders started hedging him very high off of screens. Instead of forcing his hand, Curry simply evaluated the court and shoveled off one perfect pass after another, feeding teammates for open layups or uncontested shots. And in the open floor he is just as good, if not better. Curry knows precisely when to stop and pop, when to make a move, and just how far he needs to maintain his dribble before making the correct pass. By the way, the other five on that distinct triple-double list? How about: Jerry West, "The Big O," MJ, J-Kidd, and Elgin Baylor. Wow is right.
Pundits will point out that the Golden State system with Don Nelson at the helm has obviously boosted some of Curry's offensive numbers. Playing at such a fast pace with no limitations can also be dangerous though, especially for a young point guard.
In the NBA, taking care of the ball is put at a premium; more possessions mean more shots, which in turn means more points. Just ask Phoenix Suns fans. The downside to playing at speed, however, is turnovers. Steve Nash, as great as he is, averages over 3.6 per game, the highest number for any starting point in the league (although to be fair, the hellish pace has a lot to do with this). Curry himself hovered around 3 per game, but before you chastise him, understand that just like his offensive numbers may be a bit inflated, so too are his turnovers. Three TO's is a respectable number considering he played 36 minutes per game this year and assumed almost all of Golden State's point guard duties in a helter-skelter system. He seldom forces passes and maintains such a strong handle that even when he does over-dribble, a la Nash, he usually gets away with it.
Curry is an extremely gifted scorer, but his willingness to share the ball so frequently separates him from many other young talents, teammate Monta Ellis being one of them. He consistently passes up open looks for teammates and clearly enjoys making others better. His judgment will only improve in time, but the foundation to become an All-Star point guard is there. His 5.9 assists per game this season was first amongst all rookies, and ranked him in a tie for 11th in the league, in front of traditionally potent distributors Chauncey Billups and Andre Miller. His capability to assume full point guard responsibilities this season allowed Ellis to shift over completely to the shooting guard position, his most natural position given his hunger to score.
When given full rein of the offense with Ellis out of the line-up for 18 games this year, Curry excelled, and the Warriors played better too, going 7-11, not good by any means, but much better than the 19-45 record they had with Ellis. In those 18 affairs, Curry totaled a splendid 21 points average to go along with 7 assists, showing he was more than capable assuming quarterback duties.
He is just 22, but Curry's versatility to be a high-level scorer and top-notch facilitator are as scintillating as any young player in the league. Even more, he is the type of kid that can lure potential free agents away from other teams because of the effect he can have as the lead guard. Just like Steve Nash or Jason Kidd, Curry is already developing the reputation as a player's point guard, the kind of guy everyone loves to play with.
Curry's counterpart in the Bay shares some of his skills, and there isn't much qualm in saying Tyreke Evans is bound to have a very good career. With a chiseled 6-6 frame, he can pretty much do it all. His own lethal combination of power, size, and dexterity make him one of the most tantalizing prospects in the game today. While the mechanics of his stroke are overly flawed, he will almost assuredly improve as a shooter in time. Still, we cannot ignore his woefully poor shooting percentages. On the year, Evans shot a paltry 25.5 percent from long distance and looked strangely uncomfortable pulling up from anywhere outside 16 feet. To maximize his driving talents, he must prove he can hit the perimeter jumper or else he will never realize his abundance of natural ability.
To put it in layman's terms: while Evans is undoubtedly impressive, Curry will ultimately become the better player.
His ability to score (17.5 points), play defense both on the ball and off (his 2 steals were also first amongst rookies), and of course to shoot the three (he nailed 43.7 percent, making a rookie record 166 triples), suggests he will be a multi-dimensional threat for years to come. His knack to get into the lane and use his terrific body control in the paint display great moxie and the gift to adjust on the fly. And when the game is close late, there may not be another guy around you'd rather be taking free throws. Curry is an 89 percenter, good enough for ninth in the league.
Despite the dramatic size differential between him and Evans, he is still a plus rebounder for an NBA point guard. His 4.4 per game this season equal Rajon Rondo, generally regarded as the best point guard rebounder in the league. Further, Curry posts the same number as bigger players like Paul Pierce and Rashard Lewis, and even out-boarded physical specimens like Ron Artest, Vince Carter, and Deron Williams. Clearly, his skills extend far beyond his jump shot.
The other aspect to consider with Curry is his capacity to play both guard positions. While Evans is distinctly a point guard and always will be (even if he expands his jumper he doesn't play off the ball well enough), Curry can easily play the two, which he did so admirably during his first two years of college. Given his aptitude to come off screens, move without the ball, and read defenses, Curry is an excellent candidate to shift over to the two spot when a dedicated ball handler is on the floor, making him that much more valuable heading toward the future.
After the New Year when he fully adapted and integrated himself to the NBA game, Curry was one of the most consistent guards in the Western Conference, rookie or non-rookie. In 49 games for the Warriors, he averaged a remarkable 21.7 points and nearly 7 assists while shooting 45 percent from three, thus showing massive improvements in three of the most significant offensive categories. So it was only fitting that in the final game of the year, he bombed the Blazers for 42 points to go along with 9 rebounds and 8 assists, capped off by a perfect 12-12 performance from the line.
As we've examined, Evans is a colossally talented player who is only 20 years old. At his best, he is a slashing point guard who can finish in traffic or dish off to open teammates. He isn't necessarily a selfish player, to which his 5.8 assists demonstrate. At the same time, his main priority and mentality isn't to facilitate the basketball, as a true point guard should. Can he be an All-Star? Absolutely. But so can Curry, who is not only a dynamic scorer but a much more natural passer. All in all, his willingness to share the basketball coupled with his fine-tuned ball handling skills and atypical feel for the game make him a stronger candidate to have the better career.
A friend of mine who attended Davidson the same time as Curry once gave me a signed shirt from him during Christmas break of our sophomore year. Curry was just a freshman, and was still annoyingly known as Dell's son. "Hold on to that," he told me, to which I scoffed. "Seriously, it'll be worth a lot someday."
I guess he was right.