Stephen Curry, the environment, and problems with talent ID

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I found the above picture in a CBS Sports article after originally seeing the weaknesses described in a presentation by Ross Tucker (if you’re interested in talent ID, I highly recommend Tucker’s presentations). Talent ID has been on my mind this weekend, as I listened to podcasts with Stuart Armstrong from England Rugby and Carl Woods from James Cook University over the weekend on the topic.

Curry has become the poster child for a player who was overlooked and proved the doubter’s wrong, but as Tucker pointed out in his presentation, Curry was All-State in high school, made the u19 USA National Team as a college freshman, and was an All-American before being drafted 7th. Sure, Duke or North Carolina did not offer him a scholarship, and maybe they should have, but he was not overlooked. Some coaches made subjective decisions that another player fit their college program; we may disagree with their subjective opinions, but college coaches are wrong in their recruiting decisions every single year. It happens. He was not a D2 or NAIA player; he made a team that suggested he was one of the 12 best players under the age of 19 in the United States – that is a pretty significant pool of players, and he was among the 12 best. Did some coaches make recruiting mistakes? Sure, but it is hard to say that nobody thought he was a great player when he was on USA Basketball, All-State, and All-American teams.

As for the list of weaknesses prior to the NBA Draft, how many are actual weaknesses, and don’t the strengths far outweigh the weaknesses?

“Not a true point guard.” First this is very subjective; what is a “true PG”? In coach and scout speak, that just means that Curry shoots a lot or too much for their traditional sensibilities. When you are the best shooter on the planet, is that a weakness? Was there a better shot for Davidson University than a Curry three-pointer? I end up explaining this to point guards every season; when you shoot 40% from the 3-point line, you better shoot the ball! Passing to a post player who gets .8 points per possession in the post is a bad decision when you shoot 40% from 3!

“Lateral quickness. Average athleticism.” etc. How much of this had to do with his bad ankles? An interesting question. This becomes a disadvantage of playing at a smaller university. Theoretically, bigger name schools with bigger budgets have better strength & conditioning coaches and sports medicine departments. However, that is just theory. Potentially, however, at another program with another S&C coach, he may have done a program more similar to the one that he does with the Warriors, and his athleticism may not have been an issue out of college. When this is something that can be improved, is that a reason not to draft a player?

“Out of control. Shot selection.” This reflects the environment. At Davidson, he was allowed to take what traditionalists might call questionable or bad shots. But, when you shoot that well, are they bad shots? In Golden State, he found a coach who has allowed him to express himself and utilize all of his skills. Would he have had the same success with another coach? Would another coach laugh when he pulled up from 30 feet or would the coach yell at him for not passing it to a post player on the block?

With his astonishing success, it seems ridiculous to think that anyone would question his skill, success, decisions, or shot selection, but considering the rhetoric from a lot of NBA players, who I imagine share many feelings with a lot of the ex-NBA players who are now coaches, how would a coach have reacted at the beginning of last season before Curry became an MVP and World Champion? Remember, we’re talking about a player who many Warriors’ fans would have preferred to see traded to Milwaukee instead of Monta Ellis.

Would Curry be Curry without Kerr? On any team, with any coach, he would be a great shooter and scorer. But, in a different environment with a different coach, would he be more like JJ Reddick than Curry? How much of his brilliance is due to the environment?

Often, the Most Improved Player award goes to a player who has changed teams. Has the player improved, or did the new environment allow him to use his skills in a different way? Is Boris Diaw a better player now than when he played for the Hawks or does Popovich allow him to use his strengths rather than trying to get him to do other things or be a different player?

The great players who seem like exceptions to hard and fast rules (Curry, Draymond Green, Dirk Nowitzki, Magic Johnson) find environments that allow them to break through the barriers of traditionalism. With different coaches, Magic Johnson may have been Ervin Johnson, above-average power forward playing with his back to the basket on the block. With different coaches, Nowitzki may have been viewed as not strong enough to play as a back to the basket center and sent back to the European leagues. With different coaches, Green might be a TE in the NFL. With different coaches, Curry may have been more like Ray Allen than the best player in the game. In each of these situations, the players would have been good to great players because of their skill, talent, size, attitudes, personality, and more. However, it took the players with those gifts to find the right environments for them to display those gifts. Rather than trying to change their personalities, or limit their skills to a more accepted range, they found coaches and environments that allowed them to utilize their skills to their utmost to see just how great and game-changing they could be.

This, then, changes the question. Rather than wondering why coaches missed out or did not recognize Curry’s talent and skills (since I and Tucker are arguing that it was recognized), the question instead should be: How many other players would move beyond their current status if they played in the right environment?

As an example, I spoke to a college coach about a high-school player who I know. Like Curry, the player has been recognized, as she has been all-state and made a verbal commitment to an NCAA D1 university prior to her junior year of high school. I said that I believe that she could play at a higher level. However, my perception is biased by the way in which I would use her. I would unleash her as a female Curry because she is shooting close to 50% from the three-point line in high school, and I believe she is a point guard. However, most college coaches, from what I have been told, question her size, strength, athleticism, etc. to be a point guard at a top 20 level. Me, I have no doubts, and in a system that I would play, which differs greatly from the majority of NCAA women’s programs, she would excel, and she would excel against top teams as well as bottom teams because she’d be able to use her shooting and intelligence to create shots for herself and her teammates, much like Curry does for the Warriors. My perception of her ability, then, is biased by the environment that I would create as a coach, but absent that environment, she may struggle against bigger, higher-ranked players because she would be limited to a narrower range of her skills. Her skills, talent, and potential would be the same regardless of where she plays or who she plays against, but the right environment would maximize those skills, whereas a different environment may not allow for her to show her full arsenal.

Therefore, when we question talent ID (recruiting/drafting), we have to consider the environment. If Minnesota has drafted Ty Lawson and Steph Curry instead of Johnny Flynn and Ricky Rubio, would we be talking about Curry reinventing the way that the game is played? If he was running off baseline screens like Ray Allen, and being posted on the block by SGs like Kobe, Butler, Thompson, etc., would his skill, talent, and/or potential be any less or would it simply be our perception of his talent due to the environment?

By Brian McCormick, PhD
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League
Author, The 21st Century Basketball Practice and Fake Fundamentals

2 thoughts on “Stephen Curry, the environment, and problems with talent ID

  • Doesn’t this make you think of Ulysses S Grant? Absent the Civil War, Grant is a resigned-almost-in-disgrace soldier, failed farmer, and small-time leather goods store operator. Come the Civil War, and Grant is possibly the greatest commanding general in American history (this is disputed of course, but he’s on the list), a two-term president, and on his death revered as a hero, with a million+ attending his funeral and generals from both sides of the war serving as his pallbearers.

    People have hidden skills, that their circumstances either hide or reveal.

  • Jim:
    I’m not a history buff, so my answer would be no, but thank you for the education and analogy. The larger point is certainly true: Environment plays a role in every person’s success, which is one reason that luck is involved in every person’s success. I mean, think about Zuckerberg’s co-founders. What if they had chosen Yale and not Harvard? Maybe their skills never would have been realized to such an optimal degree.

    That is one purpose of talent ID programs, I believe: To uncover hidden talents in an athlete who may be marginal or average in one sport, but elite in another. Plenty of NCAA and NFL WRs would be sub-elite or near elite sprinters, but they become elite football players by using their speed. Someone like Tim Howard was a near-elite basketball player, but an elite soccer player. Antonio Gates was a near-elite basketball player, but an elite football player. Many Olympic bobsledders start as sprinters. How many children could be elite in a different sport if their hidden talent was identified and they were put into the right environment?

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