SAN FRANCISCO — Don Nelson still can’t believe his luck.
The Hall of Fame coach remembers sitting at the 2009 NIT quarterfinals at St. Mary’s College watching a young Davidson guard named Stephen Curry move up and down the floor. While the rest of the world seemed to focus on Curry’s shooting prowess, Nelson, then in his second stint as Golden State Warriors head coach, saw a playmaker who could help his team in more than one way.
“I was marveling at his skill from shooting and passing and ballhandling,” Nelson told ESPN recently during a phone conversation. “I just thought he was a star. I never dreamed we were going to be able to get him. Minnesota had to draft like three point guards ahead of us — unbelievable. None of them could hold his jock.”
Nelson, who says he still watches every Warriors game from his home in Hawaii, had to chuckle at the memory. The smiles come even easier these days given that not only has Curry become a two-time MVP and a three-time NBA champion, but with two assists early in Monday’s game against the Los Angeles Lakers, Curry passed Guy Rodgers for the franchise’s all-time record in assists with 4,856 — validating the vision Nelson had of Curry all along.
“I think it was one in a million,” Nelson said, “that somebody else didn’t see his skill level ahead of us. I forgot where we got him, 5 was it?”
When Nelson was reminded that the Warriors snagged Curry with the seventh pick, after the Timberwolves famously drafted point guards Ricky Rubio and Jonny Flynn with the fifth and sixth picks, the amazement was still palpable through the phone.
“Seven!” Nelson exclaimed. “Oh, my goodness. [Six] picks go ahead of him? It was one in a million — because there were so many point guards taken ahead of him. It was incredible. I guess people didn’t see him as a point guard, but I sure did.”
Nelson always believed that Curry’s game compared favorably to another of the talented guards he coached throughout his career — Steve Nash. The difference was that Nelson never had to push Curry to shoot the way he did with Nash near the beginning of his career with the Dallas Mavericks. But Nelson knew both players had the ability to see the floor and get the rest of their teammates involved immediately.
“He just was more aggressive shooting than Nash ever was,” Nelson said of Curry. “But he had the ability to do it — I just marveled at his skill level. I held him back early because we had such a messy team. … I brought him along pretty slowly, and I think it was good for him, but he probably wouldn’t agree with that … and then at the end of the year, he was getting 30, 35 points on occasion. And we all knew then we had a star.”
While Nelson and former Warriors general manager Larry Riley are given credit for selecting Curry, it is current Golden State coach Steve Kerr who has been able to unlock Curry’s full potential and has watched his game blossom to new heights. Curry has averaged 6.6 assists throughout his 12-year career and continues to impress teammates and coaches alike with his ability to find open space on the floor.
“One of Steph’s great strengths is playing out of double-teams,” Kerr said recently. “And there’s so many games where teams are blitzing him, doubling him, running guys at him. And the Steph-Draymond [Green] connection has been so potent for us, and a huge part of that interaction is Steph actually getting the ball to Draymond. So a lot of his best passes don’t even lead to an assist; they lead to Draymond’s assist.
“But what I love about Steph is he’s so willing to get the ball out of his hands any time people start doubling him. And he’s just got a knack for the timing and the pace of the pass itself. He’s an amazing player in many regards, but that’s probably an underrated trait.”
Kerr noted earlier this season that Curry creates more of a gravitational pull for defenses than any player he has seen. But Kerr also has been open about Curry’s skill set being so unique that it takes a while for new teammates to learn how to play with him.
“He plays at a crazy pace,” Warriors guard Kent Bazemore explained earlier this season. “The way he plays, he processes the game at such a high rate — we can dumb it down and call it IQ. He just has a crazy IQ for the game and he sees things, with him having a ball, he’s kind of dictating what he wants to set up. That’s what he does. He’s like a puppet master of sorts. He’s going to gravitate the defense, he’s going to move the ball, and he knows what he’s going to do after that.”
Nelson, now 80, has given the majority of his life to the game. He started his professional career playing with the Chicago Zephyrs in 1962 and has seen and coached against many of the game’s all-time greats. When asked if he had seen anybody with Curry’s range, the basketball lifer offered the future Hall of Famer a compliment.
“That’s a pretty good question,” Nelson said. “Nobody had the balls to shoot it that far. I think there were guys that could probably do it, but nobody had the balls to shoot them that far out.”