Steph Curry’s Game Is More Than Just His Shot

Long before he could influence a generation of basketball players, Stephen Curry was a scrawny 15-year-old with a flawed jump shot. In the summer of 2003, Curry had just finished his freshman year at Charlotte Christian High School, where he played basketball for the junior varsity team. Making shots was never an issue for Curry, even though he checked in at 5-foot-6 and 130 pounds. But his historic stroke looked more like he was shooting a heavy medicine ball, with the ball being pushed from around his chin. Dell Curry, who had just retired after 16 seasons in the NBA, knew his son would have to raise the low release of his jumper to get it over the longer athletes he’d face as he rose through the ranks and, ultimately, to have a shot at following in his dad’s footsteps in the pros.

“Imagine the amount of space required to get a shot off from that low,” Dell Curry told me over the phone in early February. “Middle school, he was fine. JV, he was fine. The competition was getting tougher. It was time for a change.”

So the Currys entered the offseason with a mission: raise Steph’s shooting release to make his shot more difficult to block or alter. That meant repeating the same motion for hours and hours, each day, for three months. “It was the worst summer of my life, basketball-speaking,” Curry told me last month.

Curry said he spent the summer shooting mostly from the paint; he couldn’t shoot from any farther out because he hadn’t developed the requisite strength with his new form. Before the fix, Curry generated the power for his shot from his shoulders. A higher release, with the ball brought to his forehead, would allow him to flow kinetic energy from his legs through the flick of his wrist. “I used to call it the catapult method,” Curry said. “If you look at my shot now, it’s the exact same starting motion as it was when I was young. But I’m not stopping the ball [at my chin]. I just kept on going to where I couldn’t go anymore, and use my wrist a lot more as opposed to my shoulder.”

It took a while for Curry to get comfortable enough to start shooting from the perimeter. When he did, Dell Curry said he and his wife Sonya, a former volleyball player at Virginia Tech, would double-team Steph to simulate the pressure he’d face from defenses. “My dad set me in the right direction over that summer,” Curry said. “I finally figured it out, gained confidence, and gained strength.”

Genetics obviously play a role in Curry’s success. His mother was a Division I athlete; his sister was a Division I athlete; his father and brother both made it to the NBA. Draymond Green once noted that he could spend forever working on his shot but never have the same success as Curry. It was the nurture that activated Curry’s nature during the summer of 2003. The hard work changed the trajectory of Curry’s life. He went on to excel for the varsity team, which earned him a scholarship at Davidson, which led to the Warriors selecting him with the no. 7 pick in 2009. Curry would’ve been a success based on his shooting and ballhandling alone, but his ability to turn weaknesses into strengths—finishing, passing, and defending—has propelled him to one of the greatest careers in NBA history. It’s what has made him special, not just a specialist.

With the 2019 NBA All-Star Game in Charlotte, Curry is returning to where all the hard work began. I sat down with Curry ahead of his sixth straight All-Star appearance to discuss some of the unsung parts of his game and find out how he turned into the player he is today.

It doesn’t seem fair that Curry has become one of the league’s best finishers around the rim over the past six seasons.

Curry scores 1.2 points per drive to the rim, which ranks near the top of the league—for all players, not just guards.

Five Best Points Scored Per Drive to the Rim

Player Points Per Drive
Player Points Per Drive
Giannis Antetokounmpo (2018-19) 1.37
Blake Griffin (2018-19) 1.31
Kevin Durant (2013-14) 1.3
LeBron James (2013-14) 1.28
Stephen Curry (2017-18) 1.28

Data calculated using Second Spectrum data from NBA.com/stats, which is available since 2013-14. Points per drive are the points per true shot attempt on drives to the rim.

A component of Curry’s success is his supporting cast: Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant constantly attract defensive attention, which opens gaps for Curry’s drives from beyond the 3-point line to the basket. Even in 2013-14, his first season as an All-Star, he scored 1.1 points per drive, which is a number that Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, Mike Conley, and Kemba Walker have hit zero times since that season. Since ’13-14, Curry is just one of five players—along with Durant, LeBron James, James Harden, and Kawhi Leonard—who has scored 1.2 points per drive more than once. Curry is about as lethal scoring at the rim as he is launching from the logo.

Curry grew to 5-foot-9 as a junior in high school, then to 6 feet as a senior, then 6-foot-2 at Davidson. At every stage, Curry was shorter than his competition, so he frequently had his shot blocked. Curry tried wild, high-arcing shots, acrobatic finishes, and a scoop shot—which he said is his favorite type of layup—to overcome the size differential. It was a necessity, but it also made what is a simple task for most players a difficult one. “I can’t tell you how many times during middle school I’d be on fast break, and I’d jump into the guy in the paint to do a half 360 and float the ball behind my head. I made it probably one time,” Curry said. “Every time I’d do it, I’d look at my mom in the stands and she’s just like, ‘What the hell are you doing? Just do a normal layup.’”

But Curry found too much satisfaction in the challenge and creativity of finishing inside. It was all worth the tinkering: Those funky shots now feel normal. Curry’s craftiness made up for athletic limitations in college; he got by defenders by using deception and shifting gears like he was driving a stick shift. His slashing and finishing was projected as a weakness coming out of college because he was undersized, lacked an elite first step, and couldn’t dunk in traffic. The knocks were justified early on, too: As a rookie, Curry hit just 45.8 percent of his shots around the basket in the half court, per Synergy. Curry needed an edge to advance his overall game. In 2011, Brandon Payne from Accelerate Basketball began putting Curry through unusual training methods. For example, Curry would dribble a basketball with one hand and catch a tennis ball with the other hand—sometimes while wearing strobe glasses.

Payne calls it “neuromuscular efficiency.” The flashing lights and tennis ball overload the senses. Reaction time and dexterity are meant to be heightened. The workout essentially trains the brain and the body at the same time. Curry also used more traditional training drills to master his handle, improve his footwork, and finish at difficult angles through contact.

Getting stronger helped, too. As we watched clips of his at-rim finishing, Curry said his core strength is what helps him absorb contact. “Pound for pound, I’m pretty strong. I’m wiry strong,” Curry said. “The main idea is if you start out driving and you’re in a straight line, and somebody bumps you, can you stay on that line?” Curry no longer falls off track.

Curry also cited the fact that he’s such a perimeter threat that lanes can open with just a pump fake. When he first entered the league, teams weren’t game-planning to stop his jumper the way they do now. “It was a natural progression. I go back and look at my first year or two of highlights, and I did so many one-dribble pull-ups. All of a sudden, that became two-dribble floaters, and then it became finishing at the rim,” Curry said. “Now it’s like where the league is going—it’s either shooting 3s or getting into the paint. That’s the era we play in.” An era that Curry helped create.

You realize how much the NBA has changed in 10 years when you read old scouting reports on Curry and so much of the focus is on whether he can be a “true point guard.” But Curry said that in high school he actually was a pass-first player who didn’t use his shooting to his advantage as much as he probably should have. Dell Curry always nagged him to score more often. “I never could tap into that, and he hated it,” Curry said. Dell said that Steph was being too unselfish. “He was always worried about his teammates, making sure everybody was happy,” Dell said. “I remember telling him, ‘Johnny in the corner is open for a reason every single play: They want you to pass him the ball and let him shoot it instead of you.’”

Curry was helping his team by calling his own number. That’s what he had to do at Davidson, too. Curry played as a 2-guard his first two seasons until point guard Jason Richards graduated, which thrust Curry into the primary playmaking role for the first time since high school. Curry did well, though careless turnovers were an issue. Scouts were concerned about his overreliance on perimeter shooting, which was compounded with the worries about his passing. Would he wind up being nothing more than an undersized shooting specialist in the NBA?

“I don’t think it’d hurt to have two combo guards in the backcourt,” Curry said the night he was drafted, referencing his new partnership with entrenched Warriors guard Monta Ellis. “That’s a very dangerous lineup if you ask me.” It’s as if his court vision extended to how the game would evolve. Over the years, he’s shared the ballhandling responsibilities with players like Ellis, Andrew Bogut, Shaun Livingston, Andre Iguodala, Kevin Durant, and Green. Curry hasn’t even led the Warriors in potential assists since 2014-15, the first season that Green became a starter. This season, Curry is third behind Green and Durant. “Everybody focuses on the great shooters, but it’s the number of passers from over the years who have distinguished our team,” Steve Kerr said. “We’ve always been blessed with a lot of really, really good passers, so we can play a total game.”

Curry’s passing numbers don’t pop, but Warriors assistant coach Bruce Fraser has praised Curry’s improved touch and accuracy on his passes. The passes above are good examples: Curry throws strikes from any angle, some with his left hand. Curry, a righty, said he primarily used his left hand to dribble and pass as a young player because it was easier to transition into a right-handed shot. “I actually had to practice my right hand with dribbling and going right and all that type of stuff a lot more because I was left-hand-dominant growing up,” Curry said. “Throwing crazy left-handed passes has just been natural. I really had to focus on my right hand.”

As the talent around his Warriors teams grew, Curry had to find balance between getting his own shot and setting up others. Curry is receiving fewer ball-screen touches this season than he did in any of his five other All-Star seasons, but he’s still become more of a playmaking threat within the flow of Kerr’s offense. Now, he reads plays like he has the manual. He can throw heat-seeking pocket passes through a packed lane, darts to corner shooters, and fancy passes that make highlight reels. “I’ve always tried to be multidimensional. Whether it leads to the assist or not doesn’t really matter. It’s just about making the right play,” Curry said. It helps having Thompson and Durant to pass to instead of Johnny in the corner.

The news cycle spins so fast that it’s easy to forget Curry’s career was at one point perceived to be in danger. In 2011, Curry underwent surgery on his right ankle to repair torn ligaments, but the trouble lingered into the 2011-12 season, limiting him to only 26 games. Curry underwent another surgery to clean out scar tissue and loose particles. That fall, the Warriors signed him to a bargain extension worth $44 million over four years. Curry’s major ankle problems feel like a lifetime ago, but it’s an ever-present focus of his training and game prep. Curry wears thick ankle braces and sneakers designed specifically for his feet. Payne, as well as Keke Lyles, the Warriors’ former director of athletic performance, introduced exercises to strengthen Curry’s core, hips, and glutes. The goal was to diminish the pressure on his ankles by strengthening the rest of his leg. “I was relying on my foot to stabilize itself, as opposed to using every other big muscle that is important to stability,” Curry said on The Bill Simmons Podcast. “There’s retraining that happens literally every summer I step foot in the gym. It’s to make sure that my body can call on that in the most pressured situations and when I get tired throughout the course of a season and the playoffs.”

That’s especially important now, with the Warriors contending for championships annually. Curry said the season after winning his first title was rough physically, but he’s since developed a rhythm to account for those long runs. He takes three weeks to do “absolutely nothing”—one week for his body to recover from eight months of basketball, and two weeks for the mental side. Once offseason training begins, he spends three hours per day, six days per week, working with Payne on his basketball skills and his conditioning. From his three years at Davidson through his fifth season in the NBA, nearly all of Curry’s time was spent either on the court or in the weight room. Now he “shocks the body” with workouts outside the weight room, like swimming, bike riding, or doing yoga. Curry said post-workout recovery during the summer is as important as it is during the season, and so is the variety. “There’s a benefit to it: You’re not killing your joints,” Curry told me. “Especially as you get a little bit older, I think that’s kind of a leaguewide phenomena, where guys will be in a place longer than they used to at the level that they are just using that approach.”

Curry, who turns 31 in March, said he feels healthier and stronger than ever. After he weighed in at 181 pounds at the 2009 NBA draft combine, Curry said he tried to beef up to 190, but he could feel a difference, and it wasn’t a good one—he said he was laboring and felt sore after games. He thinks it contributed to some of his early-career ankle troubles, because the rest of his legs weren’t as sturdy as they would be years later. His optimal playing weight then was still between 182 and 185 pounds, he said. Now, with all his new training methods in place, his ideal weight is between 195 and 200 pounds. “Everything has so much more purpose to what I do training-wise. It connects the whole chain, so I can carry a little bit more weight, be strong, and still be able to change directions in a split second, run, and cover as much ground on the court as I do,” Curry said. “I still feel athletic for where I need to be.”

Curry needs the extra weight for his defense: He was switched onto ball screens well over 100 times during the 2017-18 playoffs since he’s usually Golden State’s weakest link on that end of the floor. “Teams still try to pick on me. Look around the court,” Curry said. We rattled off the names of his teammates on defense—Green, Durant, Thompson, Iguodala. “Obviously, if you’re trying to pick matchups, I’m probably the bottom of the totem pole.”

In each of the Warriors’ four NBA Finals against the Cavaliers, Curry was LeBron’s top target, and he’s routinely the focus of any opponent’s best player in the postseason. Curry fights to keep in front of the opponent in man-to-man situations, and just like at lower levels, he’s effective at picking pockets. In college, Curry was lauded for his anticipation skills, jumping passing lanes, and playing with effort, but his physical limitations were the focus. He died on too many screens and lacked the strength to body bigger players. By getting stronger, Curry could absorb contact and stay attached to his man, and through film sessions and on-court drills with the Warriors coaching staff, he has better body positioning when reacting to oncoming screens. Curry isn’t a standout defender today, but now he’s reliable, not a liability. “As much time as I spend working on my offensive game, the defensive part you got to practice too,” Curry said. “Having a mind-set to watch film and know what you’re doing, I didn’t always have that. I feel like it’s just a mentality thing.”

In early January, the Warriors and Kings combined for 41 made 3-pointers, an NBA record in a single game (until it was broken 11 days later by the Warriors and Pelicans). Curry hit 10 of 20 shots from downtown on his way to 42 points. After the Warriors’ four-point win, Durant was asked what it was like to play in a league with so much speed and shooting. “I’d rather play inside the 3-point line, but you’ve got to adapt. A lot of players have adapted and changed how they play,” Durant said. “But I don’t see this lasting too much longer. Just the volume of 3s, the way the game is played, the pick-up style. It’ll cease.”

This season, 35.4 percent of the league’s shots are coming from beyond the 3-point line—up from 26.8 percent in 2014-15, Curry’s first title, and 22.2 percent in 2009-10, Curry’s rookie season. Durant attempts 52 percent of his shots from midrange, which nearly leads the league; Curry, meanwhile, has tried 56.2 percent of his field goals from 3 since 2015-16. They’re two of the best players on the planet, with different approaches and viewpoints of the game. I asked Curry how he sees the league evolving compared to Durant. “I honestly don’t know, man. If you ask me if I’d be shooting 11 3s a game, I think I was shooting four as a rookie,” Curry said, as his voice trailed off. “It’s infiltrating the league, younger generations and how they approach the game.”

Kids used to lower their hoops or use trampolines to dunk like Michael Jordan. Now they shoot from deep like Stephen Curry. Whether it’s good or bad for the game is moot; it’s happening no matter what. Players of all shapes and sizes are entering the league with shooting skill. This season, 20 teams attempt over one-third of their shots from 3; even if that number plateaus, attempts from 3 won’t “cease.” As we wrapped up our interview, Curry said, “Like, Mark Jackson said three years ago that I was ruining the game, which, I like that tagline and I’m spinning it to a positive. Everybody should shoot. I encourage people to do that.”

What if Curry was the one being encouraged to shoot even more? If Durant walks in free agency and Thompson re-signs for the max this summer, the Warriors will have limited avenues—the taxpayer midlevel and minimum exceptions—to absorb Durant’s 18.9 field goal attempts per game. Golden State may need to lean on Curry more than ever. Even with Durant on the roster, Curry is already shooting nearly as many times per game as he did during his historic 2015-16 MVP season (19.5 this season to 20.2 then), with slightly more 3s (11.4 to 11.2). Thompson’s numbers are nearly identical, too (18.3 shots to 17.3). Their new roles would obviously depend on what the rest of the roster looks like, but it’s possible that we still haven’t even seen the two-time MVP’s peak powers.

What could Curry do with 24 shots per game like Harden or Westbrook? As efficient as Harden is this season (62.3 true shooting percentage), it’s still below Curry’s career average (62.5 percent). The past five seasons, Curry has posted an astronomical 65.2 true shooting percentage on 18.3 shots and 26.7 points per game. An extra five shots per game with sustained efficiency would raise his output to nearly 35 points per game. Curry spurred a shooting revolution; there could be another one coming.

Curry could retire today and go down as one of the greatest players ever. He has 15,694 career points to date; if he ages gracefully, he could crack 30,000 points well before he’s 40. Curry doesn’t know how long he’ll play, and he doesn’t really think about it, but as a kid, he viewed his dad’s 16 NBA seasons as a goal. Curry is now on Year 10. “I think he’s looking at my 16 years as a benchmark, as a goal to shoot for,” Dell Curry said. “With the way he’s playing right now, he hasn’t slowed down at all. I see him playing for many years. Even when he does slow down, his ability to shoot the ball can keep him around. That’s why you see Vince Carter playing basketball at age 42: He loves the game, and he can still shoot. You see how the game is played today: If you can shoot, you can have a job in the league for as long as you want to play.”

Players like Carter, Jason Terry, and Jason Kidd played into their 40s because of their shooting ability. Curry could adapt, too. He has the skills to be a spot-up or off-screen shooting threat like JJ Redick or Kyle Korver. He has the passing ability to be more of a playmaker, like he was forced to be during the 2013-14 season. Shooting jolted Curry’s career, and then he became a complete player; as he ages and his athleticism diminishes, his shooting will be the skill that can keep him from fading.

Curry doesn’t want his lasting impact to just be about his shooting, though. He wants it to be about what goes on behind the scenes. “If I can do anything about shaping the future of the league, at a base layer, it’s about the good habits, the fundamentals, the work,” Curry told me. “Everybody sees the finished product, but they don’t see all that work that goes into it.”

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