The Price of Steph

Before there was Steph Curry, there was Mark Price

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Let’s avoid the Phil Jackson confusion right up front by saying: Mark Price was not Steph Curry. Of course he wasn’t. Mark Price was a superb NBA player, a four-time All-Star, a fantastic shooter for his day. Steph Curry is a demigod. These are two different things.

But if you had to pick a player from 25 or 30 years ago who foreshadowed Stephen Curry, who gave us just the smallest hint that a player like Curry might someday be possible, it would probably be Price. He was a small guard who grew up in a basketball family, much like Steph Curry. Steph’s father Dell was, of course, an NBA star. Mark’s father, Denny, was a legendary Oklahoma high school basketball player who scored 42 points in the state championship game to lead Norman High to victory. Denny became an All-Big Eight basketball (and baseball) player, was one of the last people cut from the 1964 Olympic team, and he coached in high school, in college, in the NBA and in various smaller professional leagues. They were both raised shooting jump shots.

Both were overlooked, too. Steph Curry grew up in Charlotte, with major college programs all around him, but he was passed over by almost all of them. The coaches at UNC Charlotte — my alma mater and where Mark Price now coaches — supposedly were so unenthusiastic about Steph’s basketball potential that they did not recruit him at all out of fear that they would insult their friend Dell Curry by keeping his son on the bench. Only Davidson bit, and Davidson coach Bob McKillop will tell you that he had no idea what he was getting.

That is until Curry walked on campus and, instantly, was the team’s star.

Mark Price was, like Curry, too small and too slow for the big schools. He desperately wanted to sign with North Carolina and Dean Smith, but they passed, as did most of the other big schools. A scrappy old basketball player named Bobby Cremins had just taken over as coach at Georgia Tech, a dreadful program that had just lost every conference game in the ACC. Cremins was skeptical of Price — “I’m not going to Oklahoma to recruit someone,” he famously said — but decided to take the kid anyway based on his  intense work ethic.

Price walked on campus and, instantly, was the team’s star.

They were good for the same reasons. Both had honed a quick shot that was deadly accurate. Both were superb passers who seemed to have a sense of geometry and space that others lacked. Both were fearless in the way they attacked defenses. Both carried their teams to Elite Eight appearances.

When NBA draft time came around, Curry had inspired some belief — he was the seventh pick in the draft. Price had not inspired any belief — he was taken with the 25th pick in the second round.

The NBA was very different in Price’s day. “You didn’t see teams shooting 30 3-pointers a game when I played,” Price says. “I went back to a couple of our playoff games with the Bulls, and there were games where there might only have been 10 or 12 taken between the two teams combined.”

This is true — it’s funny now to go back and look at NBA games and see them play like the 3-point line doesn’t even exist. You would see guys like Price shooting long 2-pointers with one heel on the line. Big men still ruled the game then.

Still, when you look back at Price highlights, you can see some of the early sketches of what Steph Curry would become. Price would slip between defenders. Price would unleash the quickest shot around. Price would make passes to teammates who did not even know they were open. And, of course, Price had a glorious shot. He still has the second-best free throw percentage in NBA history (90.39 percent, just behind Steve Nash’s 90.43 percent and just ahead of Curry’s 90.11 percent). Teams did not use the 3-point shot much back then, but Price’s 42.3 percent 3-point percentage in the 1980s was far and away the best among players with 500 or more attempts (Trent Tucker was second at 40.8 percent).

So while, no, Price was not Steph Curry, he UNDERSTANDS Steph Curry in ways that elude the rest of us mere mortals.

“I’ll tell you what amazes me about Steph,” he says. “It’s the consistency of it. It’s one thing to have three, four games where you’re just off the charts. Many of us have been lucky enough to have those kinds of stretches. But with Steph, he’s been off the charts for a year and a half now. I think for me, it’s just interesting to see how long it’s going to last. You keep thinking, ‘OK, he’s going to start having a bad game here or there.’ And it’s not happening.'”

When I ask how Curry can maintain this extreme level of awesomeness, Price shrugs. “It takes a ton of practice,” he says. “Stuff like that doesn’t happen without putting a lot of time and effort into it. Those shots he’s making, all those 35-footers, they’re not something he hasn’t been doing in practice. When you practice those shots enough, you reach a comfort level and confidence that anyone can see. He thinks they’re going in every time.”

“And so does everyone else,” I say.

“Yeah, everybody watching is thinking the same thing. It’s almost like if he misses one, you can hear people say, ‘Hey, he missed one!’ I used to get that when I was shooting free throws. Every now and then you’d miss one, and you’d hear the crowd go ‘Ahh!’ That’s kind of where Steph is at now, only the crowd is doing that for every shot, no matter how difficult.'”

The other striking element of Curry’s game is the distance of his shots. You can’t leave him unguarded when he’s 30 feet away from the basket; he will make that shot more often than he will miss it. “For sure,” Price says. “The range that he’s shooting from, the shots he’s hitting, most guys can’t even think about making those shots. And he’s doing it with regularity now.

“I think that’s one way he’s changing the game. I didn’t spend a lot of time shooting that far away from the basket. It wasn’t a part of the game, so you didn’t really worry about it. You’d shoot from way out there sometimes, but mostly it was for fun. He has turned it into a real weapon.”

Price concedes some of his similarities with Curry, particularly the fact that they both had to develop ways to overcome their various disadvantages. “Being smaller,” he says, “every time you move up, you run into guys even bigger, faster, quicker, so the time you have to get off your shot is shorter. I remember, I thought I had a decently quick shot. And I remember after my first year in the league (Cleveland coach) Lenny Wilkens said ‘you need to keep working to get your shot off quicker.’ You can see that with Steph. He always had a quick shot. I think it’s even quicker now.'”

But even while he admits that he and Curry share some resemblances, he is more interested in the similarities between Curry and Michael Jordan.

“Their games are very different,” Price says. “But Steph is now entering that new area where people show up just to see him play. They show up expecting Steph to be amazing every night. That’s how it was with Michael. Every single night, he was showing up and scoring 30 points a game and playing at a supreme level. That’s not easy to do. It takes a certain level of competitiveness and focus — a lot of guys, you hate to say it, take nights off from time to time.

“But Michael couldn’t take nights off and now Steph is like that. He’s doing a great job. That I think is going to be the challenge for him, to maintain this level of play every single night. I love watching him play. How can you not love watching him play? I’m like everyone else. I want it to go on forever.”

It’s a good point. Steph Curry has shot the basketball like no one in the history of the game. He’s bound to have a cold streak at some point, right?

“That’s what everyone keeps saying,” Price says. “So far, the ball keeps going in.”