The Suns saw it early because they saw Steve Nash every day in practice. While scouting for the 2009 NBA draft, they noticed a striking resemblance between the Davidson point guard and their own MVP-winning basketball savior.
The franchise badly wanted Stephen Curry to carry Nash’s torch in Phoenix, so badly that the Suns were willing to part with Amar'e Stoudemire for the privilege.
Instead, they got burned. The Suns believed they had a draft-day trade in place with Golden State if Curry dropped to No. 7. Then Curry dropped to seventh and the Warriors dropped the deal. We never got to see Curry and Nash play together.
What we’re seeing with Golden State might be the next best thing. With the hiring of Steve Kerr as coach -- he was Phoenix's general manager from 2007 to '10 -- the Warriors effectively became Phoenix West, stuffing the ranks with favored Suns and University of Arizona alums. This isn’t just the new Seven Seconds Or Less because Curry’s game resembles Nash’s. It’s the new Seven Seconds Or Less because Curry is coached by well-reputed former Phoenix guys like Kerr, Alvin Gentry (associate head coach), Bruce Fraser (assistant coach), Jarron Collins (assistant coach) and Nick U'ren (Kerr’s right-hand man).
You might also recognize Curry’s backup point guard from those old Suns days. “Stevie was a magic guy,” Leandro Barbosa says. “Steph is the same way, you know a little younger. I think there's a lot that he still needs to learn, but he's on the same page as Steve.”
Barbosa now tries to pay forward the knowledge he obtained from one of his best friends: “Everything I learned from [Nash] I try to tell to Steph.”
Ironically, much of what Barbosa learned from Nash was about embracing a playing style that was quite different from Nash’s. The two-time MVP would encourage Barbosa to channel his own game, as opposed to imitating Steve’s. Curry might be “the next Nash,” but Nash’s former understudy believes Curry should define himself.
Gentry, who coached Nash as an assistant and head coach, chuckles when asked if he sees parallels between Curry and Nash: “Well, yeah, that's why we tried to trade for Steph in the draft.” After unleashing a torrent of praise for the recently retired great, Gentry confesses, “I think Steph probably shoots the ball a little better off the dribble than Steve.”
That may be true. Curry has shot 43.5 percent from 3 in his career to Nash's 42.8, while hitting an incredible 42 percent on 3s off the dribble. Gentry then says something that should make the league shudder: “I see Steph getting nothing but better.
"That's the thing that I think Steve did, every year: He improved on something. The years that I played against Steph and the year that I'm here with him, I see the same thing happening.”
Kerr fondly remembers when he saw the future in a skinny point guard hailing from something called the Southern Conference. “I went to scout Steph at the Honda Center in the Wooden Classic, Davidson against UCLA,” Kerr recalls. “And even though he was slight of frame, he was just dazzling with the shooting and the ballhandling and the anticipation. I was with [current Warriors assistant coach] Bruce Frazier. We just walked away shaking our heads, saying this guy's the next Nash. He's got that rare combination of the intelligence and the anticipation and the feel and the bravado. He was fearless out there. We fell in love with him.”
Nash, too, was discovered at a tiny college, Santa Clara of the West Coast Conference. Both players were ignored by recruiters, left to hone their creativity at small schools where they could dominate the ball. That path might have something to do with the odd juxtaposition of superstar confidence and team-friendly geniality, a mix Kerr claims both have. “The combination of talent and modesty is incredibly rare,” Kerr says. “You just don't see it. So what that does is it provides for incredible leadership even without ever having to say a word.”
The Suns were impressed that Curry saw his Davidson teammates as friends and equals, despite the massive talent gulf (David Lee memorably nicknamed that Davidson team “Steph Curry and the screen-setters”). That might sound like a given, like crediting someone for the basics of human decency. But stars tend to resent team situations in which they’re peerless. Curry exuded none of that typical angst, despite auditioning for the NBA with teammates who struggled to keep pace.
This part keeps coming up when you ask people about Nash and Curry. It’s sadly uncommon for a superstar talent to be a kind and patient teammate (see: Michael Jordan punching Curry’s coach in the face back in the day). I ask Barbosa about this as he reclines on a trainer’s table, legs swallowed up by compression boots, looking every bit the part of a grizzled veteran. “I've seen a lot in this league,” he says. “It's not normal. If I tell you that it is, then I'm going to be lying. Between those two players that I've been around, they're very nice to people. They talk to everyone.”
Jarron Collins, who also played with Nash, feels similarly about the rarity of leading with kindness. “If you fumbled one of his perfect passes out of bounds off your foot, he'd be the first guy to come over and give you a high-five. He always kept his guys in a good mental state, always picked his teammates up. Steph does that as well, playing with a great personality.”
If the Curry-Nash comparison seems obvious today, it wasn’t back then. Go back in the draft projections and you’ll get some Mike Bibby, some Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, even some Steve Kerr. Curry as the new Nash? That was too bold.
Curry saw it, though, viewing Nash as something of a model. “He basically played the position the way that I tried to,” Curry told ESPN this week. “He's definitely an inspiration. I watched a lot of film on him, and he had a lot of similarities in the way I see the floor, the play, the creativity. And obviously the way I shoot the basketball from the point guard position.”
Yes, that shooting aspect is important. Now, it’s almost as though Curry’s shooting skill sheds light on the revolution Nash started. In the Seven Seconds Or Less era, Nash was credited with being the epitome of a “true point guard,” the ultimate passer. Superstars are composites of many skills, but it’s easier to define them by just one. Nash was defined by his unselfish distribution, even though he was one of the best shooters the game ever saw. Those skills existed in a wonderful symbiosis. The 3-point shot set up the pass and vice versa.
While Nash was one of the most brilliant offensive players ever, Curry has taken the shooting point guard approach to new heights. Whereas Nash leveraged a beautiful jumper to create passing angles, Curry leverages a beautiful jumper to completely warp defenses. Some teams are surrendering early, simply double-teaming Curry once he passes half court. The threat of Curry hitting a 3 off a high screen is real enough to change defensive principles that have existed for years.
“Steve was almost a reluctant shooter,” Kerr says. “There were times when the coaches in Phoenix would almost have to ask him to shoot more. That's something I've never had to ask Steph. Nor will I ever. I want him to shoot every time he's open and sometimes when he's not.”
Kerr sees that dichotomy as reflective of a broader trend around the league. “I think the modern-day point guard is more apt to shoot, to look to shoot first,” he says. “I think Steph is still wired that way. I think that's the biggest difference between the two. The skill sets are very similar, but the mindsets are different.”
With his assertive approach, Stephen Curry epitomizes the modern, weaponized point guard. He’s equipped to torch a defense from 30 feet away, launching from long range because it’s more efficient than fighting hand-to-hand. He also passes beautifully and creatively, taking advantage of traumatized defenses.
If Nash was the optimal table-setter, Curry is the guy who cooks. Curry won’t bite when asked if he’s taking Nash’s style to a new level, though: “That's hard to say because the dude won two MVPs.”
Indeed, Nash is hard to match, even for the evolutionary Nash.