I maintain, that when Steph Curry gets going, he’s the best show in the NBA. There are certainly other contenders for the NBA’s best show on hardwood, but Curry’s blend of fundamental and evolutionary NBA skills are what separates him from the competition. Curry walked into the league as an offensive engine in the mold of Reggie Miller, who shot 35.5 percent from three in year one and 40.2 percent from three in his second season in the NBA. Curry shot 43.7 percent from three in his first season. As a young player, Curry was not the statistical outlier he has become, as he only attempted 4.8 threes a game his rookie year. Miller took 2.2 threes as a rookie, but he was up to 4.4 attempts in his third season. Curry’s early career numbers were the result of the game’s natural evolution and increased acceptance of the three-point shot. In Curry’s early years, he did a lot of his work off-ball, running off screens and mirroring more traditional shooting guards like Miller and Ray Allen. It’s part of the reason many people insisted Curry wasn’t a true point guard. His conditioning allows him to run around for part of or even the entirety of some possessions. This non-stop movement draws a lot of attention and fatigues the defense, both mentally and physically—hence all the back-cut layups for Curry’s teammates. Check out this illuminating breakdown from the 2018-19 NBA Finals by Ben Taylor.
But Curry became a two-time MVP, in large part, because he married his god-level efficiency with drastically increased volume. Curry continued to work off the ball. He continued to hunt for his patented relocation threes, but he also started taking and making more pull-up threes from distances no one had ever consistently shot from. His three-point attempts jumped from 8.1 in 2014-15 to 11.2 in 2015-16 (his unanimous MVP season). You simply have to read this article to get the full sense of the anomalous nature of his 2015-16 season.
Today, deep threes are old hat. Damian Lillard eliminated the Oklahoma City Thunder with a 37-foot shot and called it casual, implying his range extended even further. Players all across the league are working on extending their range in the offseason, but Curry showed Dame, Harden, Oladipo, and everyone else how to walk in the light of the pull-up three. Curry is someone no one truly saw coming before his meteoric rise. Sure, he could always shoot, but no one expected he or anyone else would be able to shoot as well as he has, from the distances he has, on the amount of volume he has, both off-the-dribble and on the catch. There are no holes in his shooting repertoire and, at his best, Curry makes bad shots the most efficient shots in the game. He makes the matter of wins and losses perfunctory, as he did in his signature MVP moment against the Thunder in 2015-16. (Peep Enes Kanter throwing his hands up before the ball even goes in.)
I know what you’re thinking, I’m talking a lot about the halcyon days of 2016. We’re starting the 2019-20 season. How much magic does Curry have left at 31-years old? Some skepticism is warranted considering his age, mileage, and injury history, but that’s why he’s must-see TV this year. Kevin Durant is gone. Klay Thompson is injured. D’Angelo Russel is still learning the Warrior Way and Draymond’s three-point percentage wasn’t even in the thirties last season. The load will not be light, which is alll the more reason to tune in. Whether you’ll be hate-watching or white-knuckling through every step-back and scoop-shot, you do not want to miss the Stephen Curry show this season.
It’s hard not to talk about James Harden anytime you mention Steph Curry. For one, Harden and the Rockets have faced the Warriors in the playoffs four out of the last five years, losing each time. In addition, Harden lost out to Curry in the 2014-15 MVP race, something he was understandably miffed by. Furthermore, Harden is the new Pope of the pull-up three. We rightfully laud Steph Curry for taking the three-point shot to its logical extreme in 2016, but Harden has now taken the pull-up three to heights no one else may ever replicate. Where Curry married elite efficiency with increased volume, Harden has paired average efficiency with astronomical volume. Harden led the league in made threes the past two seasons and is already the all-time leader in unassisted threes. Harden’s step-back three is the embodiment of Daryl Morey’s spreadsheet and no matter how much we may quibble with the methods or the aesthetic value of those methods, they work, especially in the regular season.
Harden would be good in any era. He’s got great size and strength for his position and his footwork is immaculate. He can play with power or finesse or switch between both styles in a matter of seconds. Yes, he’s the greatest rules manipulator the game has ever seen, but Harden’s rule manipulation is a well-honed skill. There’s no reason for other players not to emulate him at this point. His step-back and euro steps aren’t travels and by timing his steps and gather, he’s maximizing the amount of ground he can cover legally. For most players, the moment immediately after the gather is the most vulnerable point of their drive. Players typically swing the ball down and to one side of their body in preparation for their jump on a lay-up attempt. Even if you’re beat on a drive, if you can manage to get back in the play, you know where the ball is going to end up before it leaves the offensive players hands. This is why the most skilled players sometimes pick the ball up with one hand and keep it extended away from their body without ever bringing it down before the shot.
Harden on the other hand, turned the vulnerability of the gather into one of the league’s most potent weapons. Instead of picking the ball up high and swinging it back down, Harden has perfected picking the ball up down low and deliberately swinging his extended arms upward into the shot motion, baiting defenders into swiping at the ball—they often take the bait, winding up smacking arm and not ball, sending Harden to the foul line for some of the game’s most efficient shot opportunities. (Morey strikes again!) All that to say, Harden is skill personified. All of his moves and manipulations are insanely smart and yet surprisingly simple. Harden crafted the greatest step-back in league history by using the freedom the rules have always allowed. As long as your hand is on the side and not underneath the ball, your dribble is still considered continuous regardless of how many steps you take. Oh, and you’ve still got those two steps after the gather! No one had ever applied the stutter-step before the gather before a jump shot. Enter James Harden.
Ja Morant is a rookie, who will only have played in two official NBA games by the time this article is published. That’s a freeing realization for me. It means I don’t need to get bogged down listing a bunch of stats. For a brief moment, we, as a basketball watching populous, can return to our less-informed roots and focus on what our eyes are seeing and our brains are telling us. My eyes have already confirmed that Ja Morant is a superstar in the making. But that’s not even the most exciting thing about Morant. His on court movements intrigue and excite. His svelte frame and graceful aerial exploits conjure all kinds of associations. Morant is a Jelly Fam, basketball ballerina. He mixes grace and power like no one else in this rookie class (Zion is maybe the best power player we’ve seen since LeBron). When Morant is bounding down the court in transition like a long-jumper measuring their steps before the inevitable take-off, he shares little resemblance to the other super athletic point-guards we typically think of. Morant doesn’t conjure the rabid dog energy of a Russel Westbrook—he never seems in a hurry to hit top speed. During the preseason, Morant looked impressively unperturbed. He’s fast, but his speed is obvious and deceptive all at once; Morant glides down the court with long buoyant strides, faster than all but a few players. Check out this in-and-out hesitation he executes on a hopeless Terry Rozier at the 1:24 mark of this video. In this moment Morant is playing slow and fast at the same time. Rozier never had a chance.
In some ways, Trae Young is a better comp for Morant than a speedster like De’Aaron Fox. Both Young and Morant walked into the league as better passers than Fox and they were further along in their pick-and-roll school curriculum as well. Unlike Trae Young, however, Morant has a legitimate power element to his game. If Morant beats his man on a back-cut, the play is likely to end in a poster or a very wise business decision by the defender. New Grizzlies head coach Taylor Jenkins might even implement a few lob-plays for his bouncy point-guard.
Similar to Young, Morant already has an elite-level grasp of an oft overlooked skill—maintaining space. Typically, when we think of dominant scorers we think of their ability to create space—James Harden’s step-back for example. We don’t think as often about taking away space, but this is also a necessary skill. If you watched Zion in the preseason, then you got a master class on taking away space from a shot-blocker by jumping into their chest. This is a necessary skill for undersized players. But for aspiring point gawds like Morant, maintaining space during a pick-and-roll is an equally important skill. It’s usually achieved by some combination of ball-handling and body fakes. Trae Young’s preferred method is to fake a behind-the-back pass by rapping the ball behind and then through his legs, freezing the retreating big man in the pick and roll action. You can watch him whip this move out against Ricky Rubio and Rudy Gobert last season starting at the 1:05 mark of this video. After only a few preseason games it seems like Morant prefers to use Chris Paul’s patented “YoYo Dribble in similar situations.” He whipped this move out against Cody Zeller to great effect in the preseason. Ja will likely yo-yo between jaw-dropping feats of slithery athleticism and chuckle-worthy mistakes—he’s a rookie after all. But a fully actualized Morant is going to terrorize the league for years to come. Until then, he’s got a regal, biblical name that rolls off the tongue. He’s a high flyer and possesses the ball-handling and passing creativity to confuse even the most seasoned defenders. Just sit-back and enjoy the show.
Speaking of Trae Young, we were sold the narrative that Trae Young was the second-coming of Steph Curry—wrong! Young has to first sniff Damian Lillard percentages before he starts thinking about Steph Curry. Trae Young is some odd, super fun blend of Steve Nash and late-career Chris Paul. I think Steph was always a better athlete than Nash, but Trae I’m not so sure. After watching some Young highlights on YouTube, I thought to myself: Trae Young is going to be such a pain in the ass to play against in some random LA Fitness 15 years from now. Young is so good and so persistent about hand-fighting with the guy guarding him, probably because he’s often unable to blow by his defender, but all that hand-fighting has an effect. Young runs his defenders flush into so many screens it’s jarring (see what I did there). His defenders are so pre-occupied with all the hand-fighting he’s doing they forget that there’s a 6’ 11″ dude waiting to screen them and, by the time they remember, it’s too late. Young is also really good at taking two hard dribbles in one direction and then quickly crossing over in the opposite direction, dragging the defender face-first into a screen.
Young is a sneakily physical player. Trae Young is skinny, but he’s not afraid to hand-fight, or lower his pad level (in football parlance) and burrow his shoulder into his defender’s chest. His drives often involve him throwing his head back, baiting the ref into calling a foul, while simultaneously dishing out as much punishment as he’s taking. It’s pretty fun and unique for a guy of his size. As I mentioned before, Young’s space manipulation is already at expert level. Maybe his most impressive and hard to define skill is his touch. Trae Young is short by NBA standards and not super athletic. He relies on floaters, wrong-foot layups and quick scoop shots to score in the paint. These are awkward, tough shots. In year one, Young was one of the better players in the league at them. If you’re a Trae Young believer, you’re banking on that touch to drag his three-point percentage up over the next few years.
Once again, Ben Taylor’s got a great video breakdown of Trae Young’s game. He’s less interested in aesthetics than I am, but he hits the same major points. His breakdown also includes my favorite Trae Young play, where he uses his go-to behind the back, through the legs move and then throws a ridiculous bounce pass that rises up to Alex Len’s head making for an even easier finish (5:10). The two defenders involved in this highlight are Paul George and Steven Adams—sheeesh!
We should all be rooting for Markelle Fultz. By all accounts he’s a great guy and I don’t know if you’ve heard, but he’s had a tough time finding his footing in the NBA. I want to see Fultz approach maximizing the potential that made him the top pick a few years ago. Why do I care so much about a back-up point guard? Well, because Markelle Fultz is weird, and NBA weird is a lot of fun. At this stage in his career, Fultz is best in the open floor where he can unleash his signature spin move. Fultz is big for a point-guard at 6’ 4″ with a 6’ 9″ wing-span. He’s got the strength to bump people off in the open floor and, if his jumper were ever to materialize, I think he could have a fun, reliable post-up game. Did I mention Fultz is weird? He’s got this unique rhythm to his game that seems to lead seamlessly into one handed long-jump tomahawk slams. Fultz, by my eye, plays pretty upright, which normally would be less than ideal. Dwyane Wade, for instance, made a career out of dipping his lead shoulder on his drives—even after his athleticism faded—making it impossible for defenders to stay in front of him. Non-traditional athleticism is interesting and Fultz is full of that. He’s got this unexcited long-armed slipperiness to his game. He never appears rushed and when things are going well the game looks confusingly easy for him. He just bounces off of, spins around, or contorts between defenders and flips up soft shots off the glass. We could all use a little bit of feel-good in our lives these days. Hopefully, this is the year Markelle Fultz provides that.