Why you should care

Because the longer the shot, the more impressive it is when it goes in.

Update: Through the first two games of the NBA Finals, Stephen Curry has managed to star in Game 1 … and air-ball the crucial shot of Game 2. Here’s our take from earlier this year on the Golden State Warriors’ guard and league MVP.

The NBA has no shortage of bravado. But few players in this high-flying pro basketball league would say they’re a better offensive player than LeBron James — a four-time league MVP who’s widely considered the best player on the planet. “Better offensive player — me or LeBron?” 27-year-old Stephen Curry recently mused on The Dan Patrick Show. “Um, me. [Laughs.] It’s gotta be, right?”

Well, it doesn’t have to be. But anyone who’s watched the Golden State Warriors point guard shoot the lights out in arenas across the league over the past three seasons can see there’s a case to be made for Curry. And with the once-woeful Warriors now owners of the league’s best record, the unlikely star — once a long shot to even make the pros — may get a chance to showcase his skills on an even larger stage, and perhaps opposite James himself.

Curry’s rapid ascent through the NBA has reached full throttle this season. The wiry Warrior — who’s the fastest player ever to make 1,000 3-pointers — was the leading vote-getter for this year’s NBA All-Star Game (43,000 votes ahead of James), owns the best-selling jersey in the league and was chosen by millennials as their favorite athlete in a recent poll. In just his sixth season in the league, the long-range sharpshooter is averaging more than 23 points per game and is already on his way to rewriting the NBA record books. And mechanically speaking, Curry’s smooth shot is as pure — and efficient — as any the league has known, keeping even physicists in constant awe. Part of Curry’s secret is a shot angle (about 46 degrees) that’s slightly steeper than his fellow shooters, says John Eric Goff, a professor at Lynchburg College and author of Gold Medal Physics:The Science of Sports. This helps both on the release side — getting the ball over opponents guarding him — and on the basket side, enlarging the effective surface area of the hoop.

For most of Curry’s life, he was another type of long shot.

What else makes Curry’s shot so special? A “phenomenal release time,” says Goff. “He really doesn’t have any wasted motion in his shot.” Others, including former Indiana Pacers guard Reggie Miller, agree. Curry’s ability to leave the floor quickly and shoot as he jumps allows him to release the ball in as little as 0.3 seconds. The best athletes in the world, Goff notes, have a reaction time of about 0.2 seconds — so when you add in the fact that even the most closely positioned defender must give Curry some room, his quickly released shot becomes pretty much incontestable.

For most of Curry’s life, he was another type of long shot. Despite having some good basketball genes — his father, Dell, played 16 seasons in the NBA — Curry, a scrawny 5-foot-6 teenager, grew up as the smallest guy on the court before a late growth spurt brought him to the still-unimposing (by NBA standards) 6-foot-3, 185-pound frame he enjoys today. As such, Curry went largely unrecruited out of Charlotte Christian School in North Carolina before nearby Davidson College, one of the smallest NCAA Division I schools, took a chance on him. By the end of his sophomore year at Davidson, in which he averaged 25.9 points per game and lead the underdog Wildcats to within one shot of the Final Four in the 2008 Tournament, the baby-faced Curry had become a college basketball sensation.

Few, however, thought that Curry, drafted seventh overall by the Warriors in 2009, would shine in the NBA, and many worried that his slight frame would be overmatched by the physical demands of the league. And for a while it looked like they were right. In his first few seasons, he was turnover prone, often overmatched on defense and was plagued by ankle injuries. Even the über-confident Curry started to have doubts, turning to old game footage from his Davidson days to help remind himself of what he was capable of on the court. (Through his team, Curry didn’t respond to a request for comment.)

Eventually Curry turned it around, like a 54-point game against the New York Knicks in 2013. “What is a surprise” this season, says Scott Ostler, a longtime sports columnist at the San Francisco Chronicle, “is Curry’s D. Not that Curry didn’t play defense in his first five NBA seasons. But until this season, it was more like a hobby.”

Now under new Warriors coach Steve Kerr, Curry is routinely assigned to guard some of the most athletic opposing guards in the NBA. He leads the league in steals, while still maintaining his eye-popping offensive production. And he still amazes even those who know his play best. With Curry, “every day there’s a chance that he’ll do something magical that maybe you haven’t seen before,” says Matt McKillop, one of his former coaches at Davidson.

But what really makes Curry so special — and so popular — is that this magic arises from such a normal-looking package. Unlike such physical specimens as James, Curry comes across like one of us. With James, as sportswriter David Roth has observed, “there is still the nagging sense of the impossible in everything he does.” With Stephen Curry, you are constantly reminded of what is possible.

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