I used to think Steph Curry ruined basketball.
He was too much of a show-off. He sank those deep-ball 3-pointers that arced high enough to kiss the rafters of Oracle Arena before splashing without even skimming the rim. His touch was special enough or just downright lucky enough to ensure success for his Golden State Warriors, even when he was heaving it from half-court.
I knew he was good, in the same way that most of the football-loving population of America acknowledges Tom Brady’s skill while cursing him in the same breath. But I couldn’t stand the way he approached regular season games like a glorified All-Star Weekend Three-Point Contest with a few defenders scattered around the court. That wasn’t how to play basketball.
What I resented most was the effect he had on young players. Elementary school kids started spending hours jacking up 30-foot jumpers that fell short with monotonous certainty. That obsession somehow trickled into college and professional ball, with more players taking shots from behind the arc.
Curry can take full credit. He can also take credit for this season of NCAA play, which has seen a focus on guard-heavy offense that utilizes only one post in the paint and emphasizes a spread attack.
When I first saw this style of play come to the forefront of all my favorite teams’ strategy, I hated it. But after the Trojans upset UCLA at the Galen Center last week, I came to realize that this new style of play — the Curry method, if you will — might be exactly what college basketball needs.
I grew up watching the University of Kansas Jayhawks, back when they cycled through phenomenal big men like Cole Aldrich, the Morris twins and even Joel Embiid for a fleeting season.
The post position is gritty, physical and aggressive. The footwork is subtle and every shot is contested. And post defense is more personal than defense in any other position of any other team sport: Players on both sides spend the majority of the game jamming elbows into each other’s guts and slapping at arms, shoulders and loose balls.
For all these reasons, it was my favorite position to play and to watch.
Kansas always brought the heat in the paint. The team was centered around a corps of big men trained by former NCAA powerhouse Danny Manning to demolish the rim with rote proficiency: The Jayhawks’ posts were bigger, stronger and just plain meaner than their competition. They provided the muscle down low necessary to pull out Big 12 championships with an almost stupefying consistency.
As a young Kansas fan, I had my first encounter with Curry. He was a scrawny junior from Davidson College, his uniform practically falling off his wiry shoulders, and he was dead set on knocking the Jayhawks out of the Elite Eight, one wild jump shot after another.
Despite being an undeniably better team than Davidson, the Jayhawks barely squeaked out a 59-57 victory. But Curry’s 25 points almost pulled his underdog team into the Final Four.
How’d he do it? Curry, true to form, took 16 attempts from behind the arc, more than the entire Kansas team attempted. The Jayhawks scrambled to cover his 3-point heroics, and though the team continued on to the national championship, the near-loss exposed a defensive weakness.
The main effectiveness of the 3-point shot is its ability to spread a defense. A traditional offense allows for posts to guard more tightly in the paint, with wing players remaining as options to double team or to jump into a passing lane. With those wing defenders stretched out to the arc to guard shooters more tightly, the middle of the court is left wide open for guards to drive or pass into their big men.
This is simple basketball logic, the type that’s been discussed for decades. But for a long time, most coaches still stuck to the dogma that 3-pointers can’t be the backbone of any offense. Curry, Klay Thompson and the Warriors’ 2015 championship rings politely disagreed.
Ultimately, the shift towards a guard-heavy, widely-spread offense wasn’t gradual. It happened over a handful of seasons, enough that I was able to rapidly notice — and bemoan — the change. But then USC took down No. 8 UCLA in dominant fashion after dropping 14 3-pointers, and I began to realize what this change can do for the sport of basketball.
The 3-pointer is the ultimate equalizer. It’s the shot that can turn an undersized guard into a team’s golden boy. It sets defenses on their heels and brings stadiums to their feet. And it’s a challenge that’s inherently more difficult to guard.
The shift to small ball changes the game. It allows lesser teams to attack with ferocity. It creates space, allows offenses to breathe and demands creativity for both sides of the ball. And no, it’s not the same brutal grind that high-key post play offers. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
This crafty style of play is evening the playing field for lower-ranked teams like USC, who just need a few minutes of opportunity to break ahead. It keeps teams from being shut down by a few dominant players down low and forces teams to play better defenses. And ultimately, the switch provides high-octane, high-scoring contests that keep the game from ever being predictable for its fans — and they can thank Steph for that.
Julia Poe is a sophomore studying print and digital journalism. She is also the sports editor of the Daily Trojan. Her column, Poe’s Perspective, runs on Wednesdays.