The college basketball implications of Stephen Curry

Curry

If it turns out the usage-efficiency tradeoff doesn’t apply to one player, what does that say about how the game should be played by every other player? (fivethirtyeight.com)

As an incorrigibly casual and contentedly sporadic NBA fan, I really enjoyed Benjamin Morris’s piece on what precisely Stephen Curry hath wrought in our game. Previously I had struggled to piece together a coherent awe from the stray random shouts I caught from trusted and unmistakably thunderstruck colleagues on Twitter. But after stumbling across Morris and his arresting visuals, I get it. A player who is (apparently) “virtually immune to burden” reorders the hoops universe.

So now what? As an incorrigibly dedicated and contentedly constant fan of the college game, I have some questions.

Should Curry change what college coaches do?
If nothing else Curry has erected a tower so that first-grade math can shine forth like a beacon and claim its due deference. Three is greater than two, and one possibility Curry raises is that, purely in the abstract sense, the first option for any basketball possession should be an open three-point attempt. 

“Abstract” here meaning if you don’t have anyone who can make a three you would be insane, obviously, to base your offense on the above premise. But the drift of the NBA in the Age of Curry and more specifically the oligopoly achieved in the 2015 conference finals by the league’s four highest-performing three-point teams do suggest that there is an advantage to be gained from heeding the math.

It is however a contingent advantage. Threes are a better choice than twos if you can make both kinds of shots. Threes are definitely a better choice than twos if you can only make the former. But threes can be a worse choice than twos if you can only make the latter.

So I say shine on, Roy Williams. Season after season you lead the major-conference nation in the percentage of shot attempts your team devotes to two-point jumpers. In the abstract this is analytically verboten, but on actual basketball floors it is more a case of “No, no, no, good shot!” Per hoop-math.com, in each of the past four seasons North Carolina has exceeded the Division I average for two-point-jumper accuracy by anywhere from four to eight percentage points.

The game favors the three, but then again the game favors major-conference powerhouses, too, and those powerhouses lose to mid-majors on occasion. Think of UNC as a stylistic Cinderella.

Is it possible Duke in 2010 wasn’t so weird after all?
If it seems like I’m beating a dead horse nearly six years after the fact, well, fine, that’s exactly what I’m doing. Forgive me, but you might do the same if you saw the impossible happen and all you had to show for it was a bunch of emails back and forth with Ken Pomeroy. (“I can’t believe this!” “I know!” “This can’t be happening!” “Exactly!”) Duke won a national title in 2010 with a really bad two-point shooting team, and that simply should not be possible.

Or should it? Those Blue Devils were above-average (though not excellent) in terms of three-point prowess and, most crucially, Mike Krzyzewski had Brian Zoubek on hand to gobble up offensive boards. At the time the “missed three, Zoubek rebound, points” sequence struck me forcefully as just unusual. Well, it was unusual, but maybe Coach K was on to something and (relative) two-point futility isn’t the fatal flaw I’ve been assuming all along.

In fact maybe Krzyzewski’s on to something more or less Curry-related on both sides of the ball. (Krzyzewski did coach Curry’s brother, after all.) For a few seasons now through good defenses and bad, Coach K has premised his D on the assumption that the worst thing that can happen is a three-point attempt by the opponent. I confess I still find this assumption problematic, but Curry encourages us to consider whether it might indeed be correct even for non-Curry opposing players.

Should Curry change how college coaches recruit?
To our knowledge no player is Curry except Curry, and most players aren’t even Curry’s type. The game does need rebounders and shot-blockers and such.

That being said, maybe Curry rampaging through the league like Mothra says something about the sport itself and the players who can be best suited for it. In addition to being impressed by all-airport recruits, for example, maybe coaches should also be somewhat more favorably disposed toward a robust true shooting percentage than they have been up to now.

If there’s a hoops Agora where this kind of thing’s sorted out in patient syllogistic dialogues, the structure of our current assumptions might be outlined like so….

ANTETOKOUNMPO
Who is an elite recruit?

PAPANIKOLAOU
An elite recruit is someone who will be a first-round pick after their freshman season.

ANTETOKOUNMPO
Can we identify those players while they are still in high school?

PAPANIKOLAOU
Unless their parents named them Cliff Alexander or Renardo Sidney, yes.

ANTETOKOUNMPO
Who will be a first-round pick after their freshman season?

PAPANIKOLAOU
Someone “with NBA size” at their position who is also an incredible athlete.

ANTETOKOUNMPO
Is that how you would describe Curry?

PAPANIKOLAOU
(Pause)

Take a one-and-done-level talent like Jaylen Brown, grimly firing away on threes that he cannot, as of yet, make. Is that purely a shortcoming in his game or do we as a college basketball greek chorus insist that impressively large and amazingly athletic round-peg Brown be duly jammed into the square hole of our expectations? Maybe a little of both, and I say it with the hard-earned humility of one who has been flat-out drop-dead wrong before when forecasting doom and gloom with respect to a given blue-chipper’s future shooting prowess.

BONUS point wholly extraneous to this post’s headline!
Yet somewhat related to the recruiting question raised above….

Is the NBA still drafting like Curry never happened?
Here are the most effective college players of the KenPom era who have posted rates for possession usage above 35 percent. Purely in terms of workload, these guys are one-in-a-thousand. On average there are just three such players in all of D-I in any given season.

                                            %Poss   Ortg
Stephen Curry, Davidson             2009    38.0    117.8
Lester Hudson, Tennessee Martin     2009    35.3    115.9
Rodney Stuckey, Eastern Washington  2006    35.2    114.7
Jimmer Fredette, Brigham Young      2011    36.4    114.5

Source: kenpom.com

To an extent that no other college player from the last decade can match, Curry was historically high-usage and historically effective at the same time. So, yes, maybe we should have seen him coming.

Still, Curry does have some company fairly close to him in his college performance rearview mirror. Hudson, for example, was quite simply one of my favorite college players of the last decade, but his age — he was drafted at the end of the second round in 2009 just a few weeks shy of his 25th (!) birthday — makes his a unique case on more than one axis.

I won’t browbeat the NBA for not spending a first-round pick on a 25-year-old prospect who dominated the Ohio Valley. I will however point out that Old Man Hudson did drop 74 points in three games for the Cavaliers in 2012 during one of his cups of coffee in the league. Would that have been seen as somewhat less of a fluke post-Curry?

Or consider Fredette’s situation. Here he is toiling away in the NBADL and filling up box scores like Curry himself might do if he pulled an Adele and showed up in Fort Wayne on a whim some night masquerading as a Mad Ant. Would a player with Jimmer’s exact same size, stats and scouting reports fare better in the 2016 draft and in subsequent evaluations than Jimmer himself did in the pre-Curry moment he was handed by fate? Just wondering.