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Nick Van Exel, Rod Strickland, Steve Francis on Steph Curry's greatness

Nick Van Exel, Rod Strickland, Steve Francis on Steph Curry's greatness

The stage is set for the 2022 NBA Finals.

The Golden State Warriors, who have been to the Finals in six of the last eight years, are matching up with the Boston Celtics, who have jelled at the right time and combined stifling defense, grit and perseverance to will themselves to an Eastern Conference title.

Steph Curry is closing in on his fourth NBA Championship. He has already been crowned as arguably the greatest shooter the game has ever seen — excluding nobody.

In fact, Steph changed the NBA as a whole and altered how the game was played in a way that has rarely been seen. One could only compare him to players such as Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, Allen Iverson and maybe a short list of others who have literally single-handedly shifted the way the game was played. The game’s current focus on three-point shooting, especially from the point guard position, is rooted foremost in Steph.

I caught up with three point-guard legends Nick Van Exel, Rod Strickland and Steve Francis to have them weigh in on Steph Curry and his level of greatness. Is he being overhyped, or is he underappreciated? 

Nick Van Exel 

Etan Thomas: What do you think about Steph Curry as a player as a whole? 

Nick Van Exel: "Steph has transcended the entire game. Now, it’s an outside-in game where it used to be an inside-out game. And that’s largely because of him in particular. Nobody played five-out before. It’s kind of taken out big guys like you."

Etan: Oh yeah, I say it all the time, I’m like the dinosaur of the NBA. (laughing)

Van Exel: "(Laughing) It’s true though. All big guys now shoot the three, and it’s a spread-out offense. No more guys like you, Ben Wallace, Brian Grant, those rugged players that banged and rebounded and physical play and physical presence inside. It’s totally different now. But now, everyone wants to shoot threes. But Steph’s shooting is unbelievable. I’ve never seen anyone in my life shoot like he does off the dribble, as quick as he does. Every time he shoots the ball, you think it has a high probability of going in.

"And to add to that, his leadership on the court is really impressive. I played with Dirk [Nowitzki] and Tim Duncan, and they were both superstars. But also, their teammates really loved them and respected them and would rally behind them and elevate their games to fall in line with them, and that’s what I see with Steph. And you know how it is E. That doesn’t always happen on teams."

Etan: I heard a few commentators say that if Steph wins this championship, he would move ahead of Magic Johnson or LeBron James. Now, I usually don’t like to make comparisons like that, but you hear the topics on First Things First or Shannon and Skip, and they’re saying these things. What do you think? 

Van Exel: "I’m like you, I don’t like to compare. These are all different types of players. Magic was 6-8, 6-9 coming down the court full speed at you and throwing a no-look pass. We had never seen that before. LeBron is a combination of Magic and MJ blended into one, which we definitely haven’t seen before. And Steph has also done things and changed the game in a way that we haven’t seen as well. But all three in different ways. So I’m like you, I don’t even go there with the comparisons. 

"I was also hearing if he didn’t get the Finals MVP, that he doesn’t reach some level of plateau, and that’s ridiculous. We’re gonna remember Steph for a long time regardless of what happens in these Finals, and Steph is great, Magic is great and LeBron is great. I’ll leave that for the sports talking heads to argue and debate about."

Etan: I agree 100%. Something else I admire about Steph is the way he uses his voice. I actually interviewed him for my new book: "Police Brutality And White Supremacy: The Fight Against American Traditions."

He spoke passionately about racism, why as a Christian he couldn’t support Donald Trump, why he opted to not go to the White House after they won, why he called out the CEO of Under Armor when he voiced his support for Trump, and he didn’t hold back at all. He broke down each particular point, and he was respected for it even from people who may have disagreed with him.

Van Exel: "I think with the way Steph was raised, he’s the perfect person to take these public stances. He understands when situations are not right or fair or just, and he was raised to have the courage, freedom and audacity to call those things out. He’s not afraid to speak his mind, obviously.

"There are a lot of things that have happened throughout this country, and have always been happening, and this generation of players aren’t quiet like players were in the 80s and 90s or even early 2000s. Besides you and Mahmoud [Abdul-Rauf] and [Craig] Hodges and like two other people, through all those years, it was quiet. So Steph Curry and these young athletes feel the freedom to use their platforms, and they have their own social media, so they can say what they want. I definitely respect that."

Etan: I definitely respect that too. And at the same time, he is so respected on the court that he made other guards on all levels try to play like him in particular. Do you see that, or am I putting too much on it? 
 
Van Exel: "He definitely transcended the game to where people feel, 'Now, I’m going to go in the gym and just shoot threes.' When you watch college, high school, the little cats in AAU — everyone wants to jack up threes like Steph. It wasn’t like that before. But of course, at the end of the day, everybody can’t do that. (Laughing)"

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Etan: (Laughing) No, they definitely can’t, no matter if they think they can or not.

Van Exel: "Steph’s dad was a bona fide shooter and kept him around pros, and he was watching and learning and practicing until he was able to leave the nest. He has a basketball sense and feel that’s out of this world. A lot of guys wanna shoot threes, but the way he moves off the ball to get to the three... that’s the special part. When you double team him and take the ball out of his hands and he is still just as much of a threat as he was when he had the ball, that’s special."

Etan: Who would you say are your favorite point guards of all time? Not the best, just your favorite.

Van Exel: "So for me, the guys I loved watching growing up were Magic, Isiah Thomas and Tiny Archibald. But my real favorite point guard growing up was your 'Cuse guy, 31, Pearl Washington. That’s why I wear 31 was because of him. That’s when I was a teenager and starting to play ball and trying to see who I could play like. And back then, college was probably more fun for me to watch than pro basketball. Coming up, it was like, 'I gotta get to the NCAA Tournament, I gotta go D-I.' That’s what we were all saying. And Pearl Washington — oooh weee, the things he did on the basketball court. That was my guy."

Etan: Definitely. Rest in Peace, Pearl. So now, when you see young players, young point guards — especially shorter young point guards — and you ask them who their favorite player is, they all almost unanimously say Steph Curry.

Van Exel: "At the end of the day, Steph has that A.I. effect. Remember everyone wanted to cross someone over like A.I. did, especially after he crossed up MJ? He would fill arenas with people just wanting to see him play. Well, Steph has that level of appeal."

Etan: Okay, last question. Is it good to see the success Steph and the Warriors are having after struggling a little bit a few years ago, when they were missing Klay Thompson and everyone was taking turns whipping them basically? (Laughing)

Van Exel: "(Laughing) It’s funny you say that. A couple of years ago, when Klay went down the second time, this is what I said. The NBA is gonna be in trouble when these cats get healthy, because all of these young players are getting a chance to play. Draymond [Green] was playing and teaching them how to play and showing them the ropes and whatnot, so these young players had a chance to really grow. So you add young players with confidence to surround Steph, Klay and Draymond — what is this, 6 Finals in 8 years for them or something like that — yeah, they may run off a few more championships."

Rod Strickland 

Etan: You’re a legend yourself, and that’s not just because of the Washington Wizards/Bullets thing we got. You’re a real point guard legend, so I want to get a legend weighing in on Steph’s game. What do you think of his game as a whole? 

Rod Strickland: "The first thing I would say is that his greatness shows because of how he changed the game. Other point guards had to improve their shooting ability and range because of Steph Curry in particular. Steph puts so much pressure on the defense because of the distance and the accuracy of his shot. I don’t think we’ve ever seen anyone like him. A player that not only shoots it off the dribble, but coming off screens, his ability to move without the ball, his I.Q., his craftiness — he’s changed the game in a way that only few have."

Etan: So we can add context, who are some people who have changed the game?

Strickland: "When I grew up, Dr. J (Julius Erving) was my idol, and of course he was influenced by others before him. But the way he dunked and [did] under-the-basket finger rolls, he changed how the game was played, at least in the NBA. Then, you got Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. The game was struggling, they both got championships and the viewers were coming in. Then, you go from there and you have Michael Jordan, who elevates the entire game himself to a whole different level.

"I would love to say Kobe [Bryant], who was definitely great, but he kind of mirrored Jordan. Tim Duncan comes in and you had that team-oriented type of style. KD (Kevin Durant) comes in — 7-foot, can play every position and shoot from anywhere on the court. And of course I am skipping over a few people, of course you have LeBron James. But my point is, you have moments in time where a player comes in and makes the entire game look different, and Steph Curry definitely has done that."

Etan: I remember when he was coming out in the draft and Doug Gottileb, who was considered a major draft analyst at the time, said that there were six other point guards in his class with higher upside than him. And other so-called experts said he’s “not a finisher," “undersized," “has poor shot selection,” etc. And I remember Steph later discussing how much comments like that bothered him.

Strickland: "That should tell all young ball players that it doesn’t matter what critics and so-called experts say about you. All you have to do is block out all of that noise and keep working and getting better, and you can catch people who were ranked or considered to be a higher caliber of player than you. A lot of times, those young guys who are getting all of the accolades in the beginning, sometimes it’s a hindrance because they don’t know what’s left or that there’s more. They think that they have arrived.

"And then, you get other younger guys who are hungry and feel slighted, so they come along and they have that grind and chip on their shoulder to push to get better and better. They have like a burning passion and sense of urgency. So I’ll say Steph’s cloth I’m sure comes from something to prove, especially if he has expressed how those comments have stuck in his mind and he uses them for motivation. That’s how a player should react to negative comments."

Etan: When you talk about people who have changed the game and started something that wasn’t seen before, it’s interesting. I remember Mark Jackson while he was coaching at Golden State saying something to the effect that Steph Curry ruined AAU basketball, and a lot of people took it as a slight to Steph. But what he was saying was now you have all these teenagers do what Steph does, so they only pay attention to the finished product, but they don’t see all the work he put in to be able to shoot like he does.

Strickland: "Exactly, and that’s why he is phenomenal, and it's a part of his greatness. And people have to understand, he couldn’t always shoot like that. It’s not like he came out the womb shooting threes from one step in front of half-court. He had to work to be able to do that. He’s put so much work in, that he can shoot now from the bleachers and the alley way. That takes hours and hours of practice to be able to shoot like that. But he put the time in, and that’s why he’s great."

Steve Francis

Etan: It’s interesting, I’m listening to all of these talk shows this morning, Skip Bayless and First Things First, and they’re all saying that Steph has something to prove in these Finals and the pressure is on him. And I’m thinking, he has already cemented himself, and he doesn’t have to prove anything to anyone. Do you think he has something to prove?

Steve Francis: "(Laughing) No, his legacy began a long time ago when he changed the game. He doesn’t have anything to prove to anyone. But you know, he has the ability to continuously prove people wrong who count him out over and over again. So let them talk and say what they say. But Steph is just a special player. When you watch him, you can tell how much work he has put in and how much he has studied the game. And he’s unselfish. He could probably easily score 40 points every single game. I’ll say this: Steph Curry is one of the most fun-to-watch players that I have seen in the last 30 years."

Etan: So what is it specifically that you like about him? What impresses you the most of how he plays on the court? 

Francis: "No. 1, he has zero fear. No matter who he is up against. And he’s always had that. He runs his routes and comes off screens, and he has put in so much work that, when he puts the ball up — no matter where he puts it up from on the court — he has the ultimate confidence that it’s going in. That’s why he can turn around while the ball is in mid-air, because he has put the work in and knows how he shot the ball. So everything about his game impresses me.

"I’m also impressed with how he carries himself off the court, how down to earth he is. I remember my son wanted to meet him in Houston, and he was so engaging with him and showed me the most respect; you can tell his dad raised him well. When you have someone leading a franchise who conducts themselves off the court like that, it makes you appreciate them even more. My son was a fan of his since meeting him. And you know how it is, when your son meets someone, has a good experience with them and becomes a fan, it makes you respect them even more."

Etan: I definitely feel you on that one. And going back to the commentators, you listen to them criticize him and scrutinize him the way they were this morning — and I know with Skip Bayless, you have to take everything he said with a grain of salt and a lot of it is performative — but it's not just him but other commentators as well that do it.

Francis: "Sometimes, they’re going to criticize you regardless. I remember sometimes when I would get criticized on TV, I would take it personal. It would bother me. I always say I’m so glad I didn’t grow up in the Social Media Era, I don’t see how these young players do it."

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Etan: Man! I used to get offended by one reporter saying something. I couldn’t imagine thousands of people on social media and all of these talking heads every single day criticizing the way they do.

Francis: "But also, it’s a different generation. It’s almost like they’re numb to it and they just go about their business and keep it pushing and stay focused, so that’s what it seems like Steph is doing. He hasn’t lashed out at reporters, which honestly is what they want him to do sometimes. It hasn’t affected his game, so who cares what they say."

Etan: Great point. So who do you like in the Finals?

Francis: "I respect the heart and the defense that Boston has been displaying. I’ve really been impressed by that. But Steph and Klay and Draymond, they’re on a mission this year, almost like a revenge tour. A lot of people were ready to write them off. They were definitely ready to write Klay off after he got injured, especially the second time. And Steph is in a groove right now where he may go for 50 one game.

"And what I love about this team is, if one person is hot, they’ll keep feeding him. If Klay is hot, Steph will look for him every time down the court until he cools off. That’s just championship basketball. Unselfish and playing as a team."

Etan: It’s interesting seeing how Steph and Klay and Draymond have really supported and wrapped their arms around the young players. And if they’re hot, they keep going to them too, but you don’t always see that. Sometimes when there’s a gap in age, the vets play better with the vets and the young players play better with each other.

Francis: "Absolutely, you hit the nail on the head. And you can see it on the court. You can see them encouraging the younger players, supporting them, hyping them up. Whether it’s Andrew Wiggins picking up Luka [Doncic] full court and wearing him out, or Jordan Poole with the hot hand, or Kevon Looney getting it done around the basket. Their leadership is what’s going to push them to a championship. You can have all the fantastic shooting ability you want, but without leadership, it won’t get you over the hump."

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