Whenever the conversation on who the greatest shooter in National Basketball Association (NBA) history is, names like Larry Bird, Reggie Miller and Ray Allen almost always feature in the conversation and for good reason. Most NBA fans and analysts nevertheless do agree that only one player’s name can be mentioned when it comes to who the greatest shooter of all time is. That is none other than Wardell Stephen Curry II, who is commonly and fondly known as Steph Curry.
How does Steph Curry shoot so well? Steph Curry’s extraordinary shooting abilities can clumsily be narrowed down to 3 things; experience, natural ability and practice. He is the son of a professional NBA player so had access to top level coaching and facilities at a young age. He has several physical attributes that lend themselves perfectly to the way he shoots. He is a relentless worker who almost idealizes the mantra “practice makes perfect”.
Below we take a look at each of these 3 things in more detail and add in a cheeky 4th.
Steph Curry’s experience as a shooter – Nurture.
Most first-generation NBA players’ roads to the league are plagued with twists, turns and nigh-insurmountable challenges, which they had to overcome to carve out their place in the top-tier league. Curry, a second-generation star, was fortunate to have it considerably easier since he already had a set of familiar shoulders to stand on.
Born to Charlotte Hornets legend Wardell Stephen Curry, popularly known as Dell Curry, Steph grew up surrounded by NBA players and began learning the intricacies of the game, including shooting, at a tender age. By age 5, Steph often accompanied his dad to Hornets workout sessions and found opportunities to practice his shot-taking whenever one end of the court became available.
At home, Steph also had a leg up on the competition as he would play and train with his father, who gradually passed on valuable nuggets of wisdom. Many NBA experts claim that Dell, who was an elite marksman in his own right with a career 40% three-point line, was undeniably the best teacher to mentor a young Steph. By age 11 during his father’s tenure with the Milwaukee Bucks, Curry regularly competed with fully-fledged NBA players in friendly games of H.O.R.S.E and repeatedly won (a little more on how this changed his technique later). The two-time NBA scoring champion also had access to the various teammates and coaching staff his father worked with during his illustrious 16-year career, who helped instill the necessary intangibles. In short, he got to see how the pro’s do it, do it where the pro’s did it and have the pro’s show him how to do it. As someone who taught himself to shoot on a mud covered outside rim before YouTube was a go-to resource for training tips – I can only imagine how much benefit this access must have given a talented young player
Steph Curry’s physical shooting abilities – Nature
When you look at Steph Curry out on an NBA court, he looks tiny, almost childlike. Please don’t let this fool you. He, by most people’s standards, is a giant! Standing at 6ft3 tall and weighing around 190lbs, in any regular situation he would be considered a very large human. It is fair to say though, that he is probably undersized, even for a Point Guard, in 2022’s NBA.
The first physical ability I want to talk about is his hand eye coordination and body control. Obviously, you can do things to enhance what you are given in these categories. To be elite you have to be born with a certain ability, a higher base level than most. It can’t be all hard work and practice. Curry is also a phenomenal golfer. The main attributes in Golf are hand eye coordination and being able to control your kinetic chain, so that it minimizes variance in your swing. The fact Curry can be such a good golfer, even though his main focus is professional basketball, indicates that Curry has a natural mastery over these two things.
Below in the ESPN Shot science video, they do a brilliant job of breaking down how Curry has harnessed these things into his shooting technique.
They talk about the decreased margin for error, the further back you shoot from. The further the ball has to travel to get to its target the more amplified any small error at release will be. When shooting from 30 feet, if the release is off by just 1/8th of an inch, this amplifies up to being 30 inches by the time the ball reaches the hoop. Curry uses his elite hand eye and body control to ensure he keeps this release point tight.
They examine the knee bend and use of the legs that most NBA players will increase, in order to generate the power needed to shoot from distance. Curry doesn’t do this, instead he generates power from his forearm and wrist. This allows him to keep his bio-mechanics in line, and his release velocity down. The Sports Science team estimates that release velocity accounts for about 65% of shooting errors. It makes sense if you apply that to the real world. The closer in you shoot from, the lower your release velocity and the easier the shot is to make. Curry, unlike most NBA shooters, keeps his knee bend consistent at 115 degrees, no matter where he shoots from. This allows his shot form to remain consistent and replicable. This action also means he has an incredibly fast release, allowing him to get shots off before defenders can recover to him. From 30 feet, they gauge that his release time has varied by less than 0.03 seconds. This is incredibly consistent and way above most NBA shooters.
Curry is also built differently to your typical elite NBA scorer. He is “small” and “slight”. This is a partial factor in the next thing I want to talk about. His engine. Curry is famed for his off-ball movement. According to the ESPN Sports Science video linked below, Curry runs 2.5miles per game, a huge distance. They show an example of a made 3 in which Curry ran 6.6MPH, changed direction 12 times and covered 226 feet – in 24 seconds. Try and envisage how fast that is, how much effort you have to put into each change of direction and how long you are maintaining that average speed. Think about how out of breath you would be. Then think about how accurate your hand eye coordination would be. You’re not nailing that shot are you?
According to the Sports Science team Curry has an incredible level of fitness that allows his heart rate to remain and recover fast, even under incredible stress. A lot of this will be years of professional sports training and conditioning, but as we said at the start. You have to have a base layer to build on. Curry has a natural engine that allows him to play like this, possession after possession for entire matches.
Finally I wanted to talk about how he has maybe changed a weakness to s strength. He spent alot of his time being small and playing up. Either when on the road with his dad or while playing Basketball for his teams. He was never the biggest and he was always good enough to play against older players. This has caused him to naturally develop a higher shot angle. Again, this is something you can work on, but for Steph it appears to be something naturally ingrained in his shooting mechanics. His small stature has given him an advantage.
The ESPN sports science video below breaks down how increased shot angle can lead to a bigger target when the ball reaches the hoop.
So Curry had a great start through his Dad, he has several natural abilities that have lent themself to him being good at shooting a Basketball. He’s also a worker.
Steph Curry’s work ethic as a shooter – Practice
Curry undoubtedly had a head start to his NBA career, which most of his peers were not afforded. That should however not be misconstrued to mean that the seven-time NBA All-Star was handed all of his fortunes on a silver platter. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.
Unlike his fellow superstars like long-time archrival LeBron James and former teammate Kevin Durant, who naturally possess the size and athleticism to stamp their authority on the court, Curry is relatively average in size.
Standing at 6ft3 tall and weighing in at a modest 190 pounds, Steph initially appeared set to struggle to find his niche in the physically-demanding league that is the NBA. Even after being selected by the Golden State Warriors as the seventh overall pick in the 2009 NBA draft and averaging over 17 points, 4 rebounds and 5 assists in his first two seasons, Curry looked to be another sad example of a player who would never achieve his full potential due to recurring injuries.
Nagging ankle and foot injuries forced the point guard to undergo surgeries, which prematurely ended his 2010-11 and 2011-12 campaigns – developments which made some experts rule out the playmaker’s chances at future stardom. Rather than risk being a statistic, the four-time All-NBA First Team honoree took the challenges in stride and radically adjusted his workout regimen to build his strength and durability.
The injuries ultimately proved to be a blessing in disguise as the new workouts centered around strengthening his lower body, which ended up positively impacting his shooting. Contrary to conventional thinking, shooting does not start with the arms but begins in the lower body (feet, legs and hips), which provide the necessary balance and generate power that is then transferred through the torso to the arms, hands and ultimately to the ball.
Steph also began incorporating rigorous ball handling exercises that help create the separation required for him to get his shot off and cultivate his already elite hand-eye coordination. The two-time regular season NBA MVP is also known to practice yoga, which helps him develop and maintain lower body and core strength.
Since day 1, Steph has been smaller than everyone else. He would have been keenly aware that no matter how good he was on offense, if he could be pushed off the ball he would struggle. If he could be picked on when defending he would never realize his full potential. Steph PUTS IT IN. He has maximized everything he was given to its fullest potential, he is as close to the best version of himself as an athlete can get.
Steph vs Seph Curry
To truly appreciate Curry’s shooting prowess, we need to understand the history of the three-point shot. Prior to the three-point revolution that has been witnessed in the NBA in recent years thanks to players Steph and his fellow Splash Brother, Klay Thompson, three-pointers were almost exclusively of the “catch and shoot” variety.
Stephs Younger brother Seth is an elite catch and shoot NBA player. He has a better overall 3 point percentage than Steph. The difference is the variety of shots Steph is able to take and make, he isn’t a classic spot up shooter. He is his team’s primary creator, he has the ball in his hands ALOT. He is very close to the classical point guard, he just also happens to be able to get his shot off in any situation.
Typically most teams ran specific plays which culminated in the ball practically being handed to an open shooter, who would then shoot it. Pull-up threes or three-pointers taken off the dribble were largely discouraged and any player who attempted them often found themselves immediately and indefinitely benched.
The only other situation where “radical” three-pointers were allowed was when the game was on the line and there wasn’t enough time to get the ball up the floor. In such instances, the only option would be for a player to go for brogue and either win or tie the game or miss having put up a valiant last-ditch effort.
Curry became the initial exception since he is deadly at every type of three-pointer, be it catch and shoot, off the dribble or fast break threes, and takes and makes them with great frequency and efficiency. Steph’s shooting form or technique is just as unique as his style of play and is one of the main reasons he shoots so well.
For starters, Chef Curry employs a one-motion jump shot. Put differently, Steph shoots the ball in one motion from the moment he catches the ball to the moment he releases it. Lower body strength here is key since one’s ankles, knees and hips have to extend in unison for one to perfectly execute a one-motion shot.
This uniform extension guarantees a maximum transfer of momentum and power, which allows “The Golden Boy” to shoot over longer distances with ease. Shooting in one motion also helps Curry have a quicker release of around half a second, which enables him to beat much larger defenders from opposing teams.
Secondly, Curry’s stance helps the two-time Three-Point contest champion maintain accuracy while shooting. Upon close observation, one can notice that his feet are always positioned a little to the left (seemingly pointing at 10 o’clock) to ensure that his shooting hip and elbow align with the rim. Steph also turns slightly as he shoots in order to maintain the alignment.
Finally, the Baby-Faced Assassin stays in his shooting pocket by minimizing motion when receiving the ball, especially in catch and shoot situations. Curry also applies a short dip when he catches the ball to sustain his shooting rhythm and to generate sufficient power for long distance shots.
Such small adjustments are also applied by Steph when taking free-throws. The three-time NBA World Champion currently has the best free-throw percentage in NBA history at a mind-boggling 90.7%.
Steph Curry’s situation as a shooter – the X Factor
Many talented players come through the NBA and never manage to make the splash people expected. This isn’t always because they had less talent than their peers or because they didn’t work hard enough. Aside from the obvious injury risks, situation is so important. The opportunity for a young player to flourish in the environment that best suits them is so important. Some generational players who possess both the size and the skill to succeed anywhere will always grab some headlines and make it look “easy”. The likes of KD, Lebron, Doncic and Carmlo Anthony. Highly skilled, big athletic bodies. Others with more specialized skill sets or less physically imposing players, need to be in the right environment. It wasn’t all that long ago that Steph Curry and Monta Ellis were both on the Warriors squad. Far from it being clear cut which undersized scoring guard they should look to build around, Monta was often seen as the safer bet. To be clear in 2022 Steph Curry is the NBA all time leader in 3 pointers made and the only player to be voted MVP unanimously. Monta Ellis by contrast hasn’t played in the NBA since 2017 and averaged just 17 points per game for his career.
In 2013 the Warriors made their decision, trading Ellis to the Bucks for Center Andrew Bogut. This coincided with the emergence of Klay Thompson as Curry’s backcourt partner. A defensive minded spot up shooter who does not need the ball to succeed. In addition Curry would sign a below market contract extension as a result of his ongoing ankle injuries, which would later benefit him further (more on that in a bit). The impact of passing center Bogut, the spacing of Thompson and the subtraction of ball dominant Ellis empowered Curry to make a leap. The 2014 season saw a young Warriors squad led by coach Mark Jackson start to make a stir.
Once again fortune would come for Steph Curry. The Warriors replaced Jackson with current head coach Steve Kerr. Andrew Bogut recently talked to Ryen Russilo on the immediate impact Kerr had on the team. He explained that Mark Jackson played a lot of NYC feed hot hand basketball. If you were getting it done, they would ride you until that dried up. This put a lot of pressure on the undersized Curry to create his own shot and play a lot of isolations. Kerr broke the mold immediately and challenged the team to focus on making more passes. Showing them stats and video that proved, when they passed more they got better shots. When they got better shots, they won more. Everyone bought in and this created the ideal situation for Curry. A lethal scoring point guard who was best when moving off ball, coming off screens and setting screens of his own.
Curry didn’t have to give up any shots or lead play making duties, he just had to do what he does best. Trust his team mates and cause chaos through continuous motion. During their 2015 title run Draymond Green and the lineup of death would be born. The ultimate situation for Curry was born. Just 3 years removed from battling with Monta Ellis for his place in the team he was winning titles, breaking regular season win records and claiming unanimous MVP trophies. In the seasons after they lost to the Cavaliers in the Finals, when the pressure on Curry to prove himself was at its highest, the Warriors front office used the cap space allowed them by Curry’s below market contract and the sudden spike in cap salary cap, to sign Kevin Durrant. The 2016 addition of KD to a Warriors squad that had won a record 73 games the year before alleviated all pressure on Curry. He was able to relax and be Steph Curry, his confidence only grew.
Steph Curry is an elite shooter. He probably would always have been a great shooter. The small margins of the NBA have allowed him to flourish and carve out his niche. In doing so he has revolutionized the game of basketball. It will never be the same again.