NEW ORLEANS – The praise is a curse, the compliment a perception problem, the respect a hurdle.
Stephen Curry – point guard Stephen Curry – is an offensive tour de force for the Warriors and this weekend a starter for the Western Conference All-Stars in a sign of his rise to worldwide popularity. He just isn’t fully appreciated.
As a shooter, absolutely. Curry is a feared threat from the perimeter, at 41.5 percent on 3-pointers, No. 12 in the league, and 46.3 percent overall, a good number from the backcourt. He is a walking migraine for scouting reports trying to counter his attack on the pick-and-roll and the defenses that subsequently usually get shown up. He is fifth in the league in scoring, at 24.6 points per game. All hail one of the great weapons of the game.
But as a distributor, one of the true measures of a point guard? Deafening silence by comparison.
Coaches rave about his scoring. Oracle Arena gets electric as Curry sets his feet behind the arc for a flick release. And USA Basketball welcomes him as part of the future of the program for international competitions. But few realize his standing on the assist-leaders list at the break.
That would be No. 1, in case you hadn’t noticed.
Stephen Curry is averaging more assists per game, 9.0, than anyone who has met the qualifying minimum, with the likelihood that Chris Paul (11.1) will soon re-take the lead now that he has returned to the Clippers from a shoulder injury. The same Stephen Curry who in preseason read the NBA.com surgery of general managers, got to the part that asked about the best shooting guard and saw:
1. James Harden, Houston – 56.7%
2. Kobe Bryant, L.A. Lakers – 20.0%
3. Stephen Curry, Golden State; Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City; Paul George, Indiana – 6.7%
6. Dwyane Wade, Miami – 3.3%
There was obviously some liberal use of the category if Durant is getting votes in the backcourt while also receiving support at small forward and power forward, but still. It struck Curry.
He says now he found it more funny than anything, except that if even people within the game regarded him as impactful off the ball without putting him on a single ballot at point guard, his actual position, being so good at shooting that it overshadows other positives is not such a humorous perception issue.
When asked if he gets enough credit for his point-guard skills, even Curry had to admit “Not really, but it doesn’t really matter. We play the way coach (Mark) Jackson has encouraged me to, with how I see the game, to use my strengths to my advantage. Whatever kind of notoriety comes from me getting the other guys involved, distributing the ball, playing the point guard in a more-traditional way doesn’t really matter to me.”
This season should solve a lot of the problem. While turnovers remain a bugaboo — Curry averages 4.08 as part of a team-wide turnover issue for the Warriors — going from 6.9 assists (in 38.2 mpg last season) to 9.0 (in 37.7 mpg this season) is drawing attention to the damage he can do without shooting.
It’s not like this has come out of nowhere, either. Don Nelson, who coached Steve Nash with the Mavericks and a young Curry with the Warriors, once said Curry had a Nash-like ability to score and pass at an elite level. Curry — like Nash — won’t beat you with athleticism, but is a deadly shooter anywhere within 30 feet of the basket. By midway through Curry’s fifth season, Nelson’s words don’t so bold with the possibility of several 20-10 campaigns ahead.
“I think he’s starting to get the credit he deserves,” said Kings coach Michael Malone, a former assistant with Curry and Golden State. “I’m very happy for him to be named a starter. I sent him a text when I saw that. You talk about a class kid, and I’m sure the whole Warriors organization is thrilled because he’s going to represent that franchise in the right way. But right now, he’s known as Steph the shooter and a shooter only. People don’t realize that his assist numbers this year are off the charts.
“Obviously his turnovers are an area where he has to get those numbers down and he’s aware of that. But he’s much more than just a shooter. By calling Steph just a shooter, I think, is doing him a disservice because he’s got a very high basketball IQ. He is a willing playmaker and he’s not afraid of the moment.”
Said Pacers coach Frank Vogel: “People don’t understand, he’s nine assists a game. That’s Rajon Rondo-level stuff. And on the top of his scoring that he adds to the equation, he’s clearly in the conversation for being the best point guard in the game.”
The free-agent departure of Jarrett Jack, after Curry played off the ball a lot more last season with Jack running the point, has been an obvious factor in the rise in Curry’s assists. He is having to be a true point more than before as the Warriors struggle for backups, first signing Toney Douglas and planning to use Andre Iguodala in the role, then trading Douglas and hoping Jordan Crawford will deliver heading toward the playoffs.
But this has been the progress of Curry, who, based on Nelson’s comments, had it in him all along.