How Steph Curry's Game Has Improved This Season

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How Steph Curry's Game Has Improved This Season
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

It has been a rough year for the optimistic Golden State Warriors fan thus far.

Dreams of health have been crushed, with injuries to Andre Iguodala, Toney Douglas and every center on the roster not named Andrew Bogut (although Bogut is the one big the team relies on the most).

The idea that the reserves would be even stronger than a year ago has proven to be comical, as Harrison Barnes has struggled to provide consistent bench scoring while Marreese Speights and Douglas have paled in comparison to Carl Landry and Jarrett Jack.

The hope that Barnes or Klay Thompson would become an All-Star caliber player ahead of schedule has been deferred, as both have struggled to establish consistency.

Despite all of this, the Warriors are still 15-13 through what has been the fifth-toughest schedule in the NBA thus far.

Stephen Curry is to thank.

As last season's All-Star Game rolled around, the Warriors' point guard was enjoying a career year. His averages of 21.0 points, 6.6 assists, 4.0 rebounds and 44.7 percent shooting from deep were certainly all-star worthy, and his exclusion from the team was perplexing considering Golden State's strong record.

The snub lit a fire under Curry, and the "Human Torch" averaged 26.0 points, 7.4 assists, 4.0 rebounds and 46.1 percent three-point shooting during the second half.

Included in that 30-game stretch was the highest-scoring performance of the NBA season and the setting of the league's single-season three-point record.

Entering 2013-14, the question was whether Curry's post All-Star-Game numbers were to be brushed off as a hot streak or to be embraced as a sign of things to come.

So far, even the optimists have been wrong.

Through 25 games played, the Warriors' point guard is putting up 24.3 points, 9.2 assists, 4.2 rebounds and 2.0 steals.

The rebounding and the steals are icing on the cake, the cake being the fifth-highest scoring average and second-highest assist average in the NBA.

When Curry came into the league, he drew comparisons to Steve Nash. Already a knock-down shooter, the hope was that Curry would slowly develop into an elite passer as well.

At the time, those comparisons sounded ridiculously optimistic. Now, they appear conservative.

Rocky Widner/Getty Images

Even as a rookie, Curry was on par with Nash as a scorer and shooter. Curry's 17.5 points per game and 43.7 three-point percentage during his rookie year were better than any numbers that Nash had until year six (17.9 PPG, 45.5 3PT percent).

In year five, Curry is a far better scorer than Nash ever was, while maintaining the same gaudy shooting percentages.

What separates Curry from Nash (or from a younger Curry) as a scorer is his ability to create his own shot and finish inside. While Nash was always capable of pulling up and hitting a three off the dribble or in transition like Curry does so often, he never was able to create a great look for himself in a half-court set.

This is what ultimately doomed Nash's Phoenix Suns in so many postseasons, and what gives Curry a chance to be a better player when all is said and done.

While no one knew he would ever be one of the league's elite scorers, scoring was never the primary question. That would be his passing, and it's his rapid ascent as an elite facilitator that is truly shocking.

Nash is remembered (yes, technically he's still playing) as one of the most gifted passers in NBA history.

He lead the league in assists five times, averaged a dumbfounding 10.9 assists during his eight seasons in Phoenix and has the fourth-most dimes in NBA history.

That being said, the 25-year-old Curry is all but a lock to average more assists this season than ever Nash did before the age of 29. In fact, Curry's career average of 6.5 assists is already higher than Nash's 6.0 average before the age of 30.

In other words, Curry is far more advanced as a playmaker than Nash was at his age.

That isn't to say that he's destined to become a better passer than Nash in his prime. But considering how rapidly his assist numbers are increasing, he certainly could reach that elite level (if he hasn't already).

Similarly, this doesn't imply that Curry is necessarily going to become a better player than Nash ever was; it just means that he will if he continues to improve.

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Does that mean that the Warriors point guard has back-to-back MVP awards in his future? Probably not, but that's just a symptom of playing at the same time as LeBron James and Kevin Durant.

What it does mean is that Curry is a full-fledged NBA superstar, firmly placing himself in the "NBA's best point guard" debate right alongside Chris Paul, Tony Parker and Russell Westbrook.

Advanced metrics seem to agree, as Curry is second among point guards in player efficiency rating and win shares, behind only Paul.

The most stagnant part of Curry's game has been his shooting. In fact, his rookie line of 46.2 percent from the field, 43.7 percent from three and 88.5 percent from the line has barely budged since, as he's posted career percentages of 46.4, 44.2 and 89.9, respectively.

Asking Curry to continue to grow as a shooter, however, would be like asking Yao Ming to continue to grow.

What makes Curry's breakout numbers so remarkable is that his three-point shooting is actually down this year. He has connected on "only" 41.5 percent of his attempts from deep thus far.

Considering how consistent his percentages have been since entering the league, it's likely that more threes will start falling for him as the year goes on. The thought is terrifying.

There are still areas of Curry's game that are in need of significant improvement. The fifth-year point guard's spike in assists has been met with a spike in turnovers (3.9 per game), and he is a work in progress defensively.

Far too often, Curry sags off his man and gets burned with a catch-and-shoot three. On the ball, he is consistently beaten off the dribble by quicker point guards and, as a result, is often hidden on lesser options.

However, both of these weaknesses are largely due to inexperience.

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
Curry (left) too often sags off dangerous shooters, such as Jose Calderon.

Curry's turnovers are almost always a result of sloppiness or overaggressiveness. Rarely does Curry get his pocket picked by a quicker man or fail to complete a pass that actually should be made. Taking care of the ball is almost always the last thing that great point guards master, and with time, Curry should easily become an elite assist-to-turnover ratio player.

His defensive struggles are partially due to permanent problems. He's a small, skinny player who does not have a ton of natural athleticism. Like many other great point guards, Curry will never be able to lock down the oppositions' best scorer.

What he can learn to do is to be much more stingy defensively. Ceasing to sag off jump shooters and forcing ball-handlers to their weak side or into the defense can counteract the inevitable times that he'll be beaten off the dribble.

There is no question how much Curry wants to improve defensively. He clearly understands the concept of doing what he can, as he crashes the boards, plays the passing lanes and fights through screens extremely well for a relatively limited athlete.

Offensively, the sky is the limit.

While you might want to brush that off as an overly optimistic viewpoint, do realize that Curry has developed a habit of making optimists look like pessimists. 

 

All stats courtesy of Baketball-Reference.com.

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