Scott Fowler

NBA MVP: Stephen Curry’s circles of greatness

Stephen Curry was named the NBA’s 2014-15 MVP.
Stephen Curry was named the NBA’s 2014-15 MVP. Getty Images

Four circles.

A rim. A hug. A position change. And a zero – representing the only time Stephen Curry was ever held scoreless in college.

You can define Curry’s basketball life in many ways. But when Charlotte’s favorite son was officially named the NBA’s MVP Monday, beating out Houston’s James Harden and Cleveland’s LeBron James, I started thinking about circles.

Curry circles back to Charlotte every summer after another season in Golden State, where both he and the Warriors have ascended to a new level over the past few months and are among the favorites in the NBA playoffs.

But there is much more to Curry than a pull-up 3-pointer over two defenders off a behind-the-back dribble. There is God, family, friends, teammates and the sly sense of humor that once led him to co-star in a faux rap video at Davidson praising the food at the school’s dining hall.

And there are those four circles.

Circle 1: The rim

The first circle is the smallest one – just 18 inches in diameter. It sits 10 feet off the ground where Curry works. It is the rim of a basketball goal.

All of the great things that have happened to Curry on a basketball court stem from this simple fact: He can shoot a basketball into a hoop from an incredible distance more consistently, and under greater duress, than anyone in the NBA right now (and possibly ever).

Filling up that 18-inch circle, over and over, has allowed Curry to overcome his below-average NBA size (6-foot-3, 190 pounds). This season he set the NBA record for 3-pointers in a season, breaking the record previously held by … Stephen Curry.

His father was an NBA sharpshooter for the Charlotte Hornets, but even the slightly taller Dell never rose to the heights of his son, in large part because he never handled the ball as well.

Dell was the one who remade Curry’s shot when Steph was in high school at Charlotte Christian. Steph used to start his launch of it from around his waist, which made it easy to block.

The younger Curry was frail then, and he was nobody’s idea of a high-profile Division I prospect. The only ACC school remotely interested in him was Virginia Tech, alma mater of both his parents, and the Hokies wanted him to walk on as a freshman.

But Curry kept getting better, and he got better in a way that millions of kids can relate to.

Hardly anyone can realistically aspire to be a 7-foot center. Almost everyone can aspire to be a guard who simply shoots the ball better than everyone else.

Curry’s swan-like follow through – right arm high, wrist extended – is now imitated on playgrounds all over America. He controls the 18-inch circle from long range better than anyone in the world.

Circle 2: The hug

Davidson’s Bob McKillop has been one of the signature figures in Curry’s life. He wanted Curry to play for him when few other Division I programs did. He understood what he had very early, starting Curry as a freshman and living through games like the 13-turnover outing Curry produced in his first college contest.

Would Curry have been successful at other programs? Certainly. His brother Seth would later become a star at Duke, and Steph was the better of the two.

But Davidson was a perfect match for Stephen Curry – 20 minutes away from home with a coach who long ago decided that the small liberal arts college would be his Camelot and that he would never leave.

McKillop still remembers the moment Curry committed to Davidson. He and Davidson assistant coach Matt Matheny were in the Curry home along with Dell and his wife, Sonya.

“We had this long meeting,” McKillop said, “and then Steph stood up. He said he was going to come to Davidson. And we embraced.”

That hug, quickly joined by the others to form a circle, would be among the most significant of many McKillop and Curry would share through the years.

As Curry’s ability ramped up, McKillop would continue to push him until Curry got so good – after his junior year at Davidson – that he felt like he was ready to leave school a year early. He would become the No. 7 overall pick in the 2009 NBA draft.

But in 2006, Curry was still skinny, small and not on anyone’s Top 100 prep recruiting list. Winthrop was McKillop’s biggest competition for Curry.

“I remember Sonya said after that hug, ‘We’ll fatten him up for you, coach,’” McKillop said. “I said, ‘That’s OK. I’ll take him just the way he is right now.’”

It was in Curry’s sophomore year that Charlotte and Davidson began to have to share him with the world. He became a national March Madness star after Davidson pulled off three consecutive upsets – against Gonzaga, Georgetown and Wisconsin – to make the Elite Eight.

By then, Dell Curry already knew his 20-year-old son was going to be better in the NBA than he ever was.

“I’m not seeing so much of myself in him anymore,” Dell Curry told me about Steph during that 2008 run. “I couldn’t dribble that well. I wasn’t as quick as he is. I think he’s surpassed me.”

Circle 3: Point guard return

Why isn’t Stephen Curry another J.J. Redick?

The answer, again, lies in the ball-handling that allowed Curry to make a full-circle position switch.

Redick was a phenomenal shooter at Duke – the collegiate player of the year in 2006. He starts for the L.A. Clippers, a playoff team. Over a seven-year NBA career, he has averaged a modest 10.8 points per game and become a fine player, but not an elite one in the pros. Redick’s reputation: He won’t beat you off the dribble, but you can never leave him alone from the outside.

To some extent, that was Curry’s reputation after his sophomore year at Davidson and the Elite Eight run that was so captivating it lured NBA All-Star LeBron James to one game to “see the kid,” as he said of Curry.

Curry was a shooting guard for two years at Davidson, and he had the advantage of teaming with a superb college point guard named Jason Richards, who was nearly good enough to make the NBA himself. Richards was Curry’s set-up man.

But when Richards left, Curry became the point guard. He knew this would be his best position in the NBA if he could make the transition – NBA shooting guards are generally taller than Curry and have to guard bigger players. Point guards can be any size, but they must be able to pass and dribble at an extremely high level.

This was a full-circle switch for Curry, who had played a lot of point guard at Charlotte Christian and on AAU teams while in high school. But it wasn’t easy.

I remember watching one Davidson practice before the 2008-09 season. It was a Wednesday at 9 p.m. – a closed intra-squad scrimmage.

Curry, dribbling the ball up top, had two potential passes to open players on either wings. Simple passes. Passes that would have led to something good. He blew off both of them, instead throwing a long alley-oop pass that was immediately intercepted.

McKillop went nuts. He stopped the game to yell at Curry.

“You didn’t throw those first two passes so you could throw that?!” McKillop thundered at Curry. “C’mon!”

Curry did not commit another turnover the rest of that practice.

And each year his ball-handling has become a little better, enough so his personal highlight film these days always includes a couple of his behind-the-back breakdowns of opposing point guards. He has become a “maestro” with the basketball, as McKillop said, and thus made himself into something far more valuable.

Because of his skill handling the ball, Curry has surpassed his father in the NBA, and Redick, and this season everybody else, too. Curry is something we have never quite seen before, a point guard who can stretch the defense out to 35 feet with his range, slice through it whenever he needs to and find passing angles that appear impossible.

The Bible verse Curry loves and has written on his shoes and his autographs for years – “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” from Philippians 4:13 – has never sounded more appropriate.

Circle 4: The scoreless game

While everyone remembers Curry scoring 40 points against Gonzaga or 30 against Georgetown in the NCAA tournament, how many remember him scoring zero against Loyola?

And yet that game and the “0” he took in the scoring column – in November 2008, during Curry’s final year at Davidson – defines him as well as anything he did while he still lived in Charlotte. OK, so a zero looks more of an oval, but work with me here.

Curry was the best collegiate scorer in America that season, and Loyola (Md.) coach Jim Patsos knew it. Curry had scored 44 points only a few days before in a loss to Blake Griffin and Oklahoma.

So Patsos decided to double-team Curry. Not occasionally. Everywhere.

Curry tested the strategy early. Without the ball, he went over and stood in one corner while Davidson ran its offense. Two Loyola defenders followed him. Davidson played 4-on-3 with everybody else, and scored.

Over and over, the exact same thing happened. Curry went to the corner and let his teammates play what was hockey’s equivalent of a power play on almost every possession.

Curry ended up taking only three shots that night and missing them all, but Davidson won, 78-48.

“We had to play against an NBA player tonight,” Patsos explained afterward. “Anybody else ever hold him scoreless? I’m a history major. They’re going to remember that we held him scoreless or we lost by 30?”

I remember both, actually. Curry has a deep confidence in his ability, but running just as deeply is a streak of unselfishness. He passes up decent shots for better shots for his teammates all the time. He did it at Davidson and he does it even more at Golden State.

You think Curry could have proved a different point that night and scored 25 with two Loyola defenders on him all the time? Sure he could have. But it would have taken 25 shots to do it, and the game would have been much closer.

Instead, Curry stood in the corner, watching and letting his Davidson teammates play 4-on-3. He laughs about it now, and he laughed about it then.

After the game, Curry said he tried to talk to the two defenders shadowing his every move, even 40 feet from the basket.

“Every dead ball I asked them how long they were going to do this,” Curry said then. “They really didn’t say anything. They weren’t very conversational about it.”

It pointed out one of Curry’s best qualities – while individually extraordinary, he remains a team-first player. He won the Most Valuable Player award this season not because he didn’t miss a free throw for nearly two months or because of his 23.8 scoring average – sixth in the NBA – but because he directed Golden State to an NBA-high 67 wins. The title that eluded him in college is only three playoff series away in the pros.

There is only one circle Curry has yet to complete, and it is the one he wants most.

A championship ring.

Fowler: sfowler@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @scott_fowler

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