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How Stephen Curry Dominates The Paint

Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Stephen Curry has transformed from a three-point specialist to an unstoppable interior scorer in the NBA.

It’s no secret that the inimitable standard of “modern NBA” basketball is the Golden State Warriors, and the (baby) face of that franchise is point guard Stephen Curry. Curry represents the league’s transition to a perimeter-focused style of play that relies heavily on three-point shooting for both scoring and spacing. 

It’s hard to overstate just how good the reigning MVP has been from downtown, particularly the last four seasons. The Sports Quotient has even made the statistical case for Curry being the best shooter of all-time, a sentiment shared by many.

Earlier this month, ESPN ranked Curry the 23rd greatest player ever, despite having only been “great” for a relatively short period of time. Given the near-constant outpouring of love and adoration for Curry, it’s difficult to make the case that any aspect of his game is underrated. Two weeks ago, when Charles Barkley told Dime Magazine that Curry was “just a shooter,” many came to the diminutive guard’s defense, pointing to his 6.6 assists (and 2.4 secondary assists) per game as indicative of his play-making ability.

One thing many of Curry’s admirers fail to fully appreciate, though, is just how dominant a scorer he has become from inside the paint. Per, Curry ranks first in the league in field goal percentage from the restricted area among guards who attempt at least four such shots per game:Image title

Curry’s numbers don’t just stack up against guards, either. He ranks top-five in the entire league in field goal percentage on shots in the paint, among players who’ve played 40-plus games and taken six such shots per game:Image title

When you look at the names accompanying Curry on this list, it becomes obvious that the majority of the others use their height and athleticism to play above the rim. Compare those same players in terms of the number of dunks they’ve hammered home, and you’ll find that Curry is unsurprisingly the outlier: 

Image title

The glaring question is: how has Curry maintained an elite level of efficiency around the basket, despite his small stature and ground-bound style of play? The short answer is that he changed his shot selection after drastically improving his ability to make an array of two-point shots: layups, floaters, flips shots, and finger rolls.

To best show Curry’s development, we have to go back to the last season he did not make the All-Star team, 2012-13. Check out his shot selection from that year, per, compared to his MVP campaign:

Highcharts.comAmong the most conspicuous shifts in Curry’s shot selection is the increase of his shots from the restricted area by nearly ten percent! During his MVP season, 30.5% of his shots came from within the paint and restricted area compared to just 23.2% in 2012-13. The reason for this seismic shift is not a complicated one: Curry got much better at converting layups.

In 2012-13, Curry took only 144 layups all season, connecting on just 57.6% of them, good for 99th in the league (among players who took at least 100). Last season, Curry took 264 layups, making a whopping 69.3% of them and ranking sixth in the league out of the 188 players to take 100 layups. The reasons Curry was able to improve his shot-making from close range are he learned:

1) How to use finesse and craftiness around the rim.

2) How to absorb contact from defenders.


Curry is widely considered one of the best ball-handlers in the league, so his craftiness while dribbling is universally recognized. He is just as crafty in getting his shot off against bigger opponents. One way he does this is by banking in his finger rolls high off the glass:

Stephen Curry with an amazing dipsy-doo finger roll finish against Timberwolves

— Kobe हूँ (@Dave_R19) November 18, 2015

Curry has more confidence in this shot now than he did earlier in his career. The 2012-13 version of Curry took only 25 finger rolls all season. As of earlier this month, Curry had already taken 62 finger rolls, the most in the league. His confidence in this ability is so high that he even broke it out in the waning seconds of Game 2 of the NBA Finals to force overtime:

The second way Curry can get his shot off against bigger players is his floater. This may be his most unstoppable shot from inside the three-point line. He’s gotten really good at launching them with either hand, and their parabolic flight paths make them impossible to block. Watch as he’s able to launch this one over a helpless Tyson Chandler:

Curry has become particularly adept at taking this shot before the defense can prepare for it. Sometimes he’ll take the floater off his opposite foot, or take his two steps very quickly, as in the video above. These quirks in his game allow him the extra half-second he needs to get a clean look against opposing big men. This shot has become so reliable for Curry that he’s even extended his range to outside the paint:

“Floater from 17 feet, sure, why not?” - Steph Curry, who is consistently ridiculous.

— Dieter Kurtenbach (@dkurtenbach) October 14, 2015

Absorbing Contact

One of the biggest knocks on Curry early in his career was that his frame was too slight, and his body would not be able to take the physical toll of the NBA night after night. The Warriors point guard has proven to be a fearless attacker against defenses, capable of withstanding big hits from opposing bigs, or constant pressure from handsy defenders like Chris Paul.

Just two seasons ago, in 2013-14, Curry ranked 46th in the league in field goal percentage on two-pointers while being closely defended at 46.6%. Today, Curry ranks fourth at 57.9% among players that take as many closely-defended two’s as him. The most amazing thing about Curry is his ability to be in total control, even when he seems to have completely lost it.

Curry is so quick that often times he will complete his shooting motion, and then get fouled on the follow through or landing:

Steph Curry pulls a shoulder fake - crossover combo and leaves Kemba Walker in the dust, hits and-1

— The Cauldron (@TheCauldron) January 5, 2016

Curry’s preternatural ability to not only shoot at an unprecedented level, but to also score as efficiently from the paint as an elite big man, is a key part of what makes him such a special player. Come playoff time, the Warriors will need Curry to produce both inside and out if they want a chance to repeat as champions.

Edited by Joe Sparacio, Jacob Greenberg.

Steph Curry has made at least 250 3-point field goals in a season four times. Only three other players in NBA history have accomplished that feat (each just once). Which of the following players never made at least 250 3-pointers in one season?
Created 2/23/16
  1. Ray Allen
  2. Reggie Miller
  3. Dennis Scott
  4. George McCloud

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