At 33 years old, Stephen Curry is playing the best basketball of his career
By Melissa Rohlin
FOX Sports NBA Writer
There are no adjectives left to describe Stephen Curry's most recent stretch.
Quite simply, what Curry is doing at his age and how he's doing it have never been done before.
Curry, 33, is second in the league in scoring, with 31.2 points a game, surpassing his single-season career best (30.1) in 2015-16, when he was unanimously voted MVP. He’s (finally) getting some buzz around the award for this season as well.
Even after his Warriors suffered an ugly loss to the Mavericks last night, Curry is averaging 37.3 points on 52.7% shooting from the field and 47.6% shooting from beyond the arc for the month of April.
Curry set the record for 3s in a calendar month with 90 — and it's not even over yet.
During a stretch from March 29 to April 19, Curry became the first player age 33 or older to score 30 points or more in 11 straight games, passing Kobe Bryant, who did so in 10 straight games in 2012.
To help understand Curry’s unprecedented success this season, FOX Sports conducted exclusive interviews with three of the most influential people on his game: Bob McKillop, Curry’s college coach at Davidson; Brandon Payne, his longtime trainer; and Bruce Fraser, his shooting coach on the Warriors.
Each of those men played a crucial role in Curry becoming who he is today — the greatest shooter of all time.
THE MAN WHO GAVE HIM HIS CONFIDENCE: BOB MCKILLOP
It was the summer after Stephen Curry's junior year in high school, and he was playing in an AAU tournament in Las Vegas.
He couldn't make a shot to save his life. He kept turning the ball over. He was horrible.
But as McKillop sat in the stands of that auxiliary court, far away from where the top recruits were playing, he hoped no other college coaches were seeing what he saw.
"He did not execute very well, but he looked in his father's eyes every timeout," McKillop said of Dell Curry, the 16-year NBA veteran who was coaching the team. "He stood at the end of the bench and applauded his teammates. He never once gave a face to an official if the call wasn't a good call or made a face to his teammates. He didn't get down on himself when he'd get called for a walk or dribbled the ball out of bounds or missed a shot. He had this capacity to transcend the moment. When they called the next play, he just went into it as well as any young player I’d ever seen. There was this resilience about him that was extraordinary."
McKillop witnessed a level of maturity in the baby-faced teenager that he had never seen from anyone at that level. He knew he wanted him on his team.
That September, McKillop went to Curry's parents' home and made his pitch.
Even with his NBA bloodlines, Curry, a skinny, 160-pound kid, didn't receive much interest from major colleges. He was a strong shooter, but he was undersized. Some ACC coaches suggested he try to walk-on to their teams, but Curry didn't want to be a benchwarmer.
McKillop saw something in Curry that the others missed. With the promise of playing time and a coach who believed in him, Curry committed to Davidson on the spot that afternoon, surprising even his mother and father.
Curry has often credited McKillop with helping build his confidence. It started in his first game as a freshman against Eastern Michigan. Curry had nine turnovers at halftime, and McKillop and his coaching staff met in the locker room to discuss adjustments. They considered benching the butter-fingered newbie, but then McKillop had a flashback to that summer day in Las Vegas.
"Let's stick with him. Let's believe in him," McKillop said.
McKillop's unwavering faith in Curry in his first game changed things for the shooter.
"He told me later that was a really important moment for him because it showed him we trusted him," McKillop said.
That's not to say that McKillop was easy on him. He kicked Curry out of his first practice after he arrived two minutes late. Curry was never late again.
Over the next three years at Davidson, Curry was encouraged to grow into himself, to take shots from all over the court and to unleash the lethal shooter bubbling inside.
He became a freer version of himself, a far cry from the boy he was in high school, whose coach at Charlotte Christian, Shonn Brown, had to pull him aside and encourage him to shoot more.
"At one point in time, we were specific in telling him, you need to take four to five shots a quarter or something like that," Brown recalled with a laugh.
Curry found himself at Davidson.
McKilllop was wowed over and over again.
There was the time Curry made a three-quarter-court shot against Chattanooga in 2009. Or when he had 43 points in 27 minutes against Appalachian State in the Southern Conference tournament in 2008. Or when he had 40 points against Gonzaga during Davidson's Elite Eight run in 2008.
McKilllop developed a saying to celebrate those moments. After Curry did something spectacular, he'd look over at him and say, "Don't you know that's Steph Curry?"
Last week, after Curry had 49 points, including hitting 10-for-17 from 3-point range in a win over the Philadelphia 76ers, Curry was asked where his next-play mentality comes from.
Curry had a flashback of his own, saying that it came from coach McKillop. "He taught me next-play mentality," Curry said. "My first game as a freshman, I had 13 turnovers, and he left me out there to work through it. That was the first time I heard that term, and I just can't get it out of my head. It's a lifestyle. You make mistakes, you keep it moving, keep your confidence, never doubt yourself. You've just got to figure it out."
As for McKillop, he was glued to the television that night watching Curry dazzle against the 76ers. When asked for his reaction, McKillop was nonchalant.
"Don't you know that's Steph Curry?" he said.
THE MAN WHO BUILT HIS STAMINA: BRANDON PAYNE
Brandon Payne knows that his workouts are hellacious.
Payne met Curry during the 2011 NBA lockout, and ever since then, the superstar has relied on the trainer’s drills to make him smarter, stronger and quicker.
The workouts involve minimal running, but they're complicated and challenging for the mind and body.
Payne often uses the term "overloading," in which he makes simple tasks increasingly complicated and then simplifies them again.
For example, Payne will have Curry dribble a basketball in one hand and a tennis ball in the other at varying speeds and rhythms. He'll keep making things harder and harder, adding different moves, such as between the legs and behind the back. Eventually, he'll take the tennis ball away so dribbling a basketball feels like a breeze.
Or he'll set up between two, four or six different lights that blink in different combinations and speeds and correlate each color light with a different move. A green light could mean he has to do a crossover, red could mean he has to do two quick moves in between his legs, and so on. Payne stands behind Curry to make sure he does the correct move and then analyzes the light system itself, which tells him how quickly Curry made each decision.
Payne then makes Curry repeat those drills multiple times during a 90-minute workout, making sure his timing isn't affected by fatigue.
For Payne, a player's stamina determines the difference between being good and being great.
"The greatest limiting factor to players getting better is their level of conditioning," Payne said. "If Steph can work at full speed with perfect mechanics for 90 minutes, and player B can only go full speed with perfect mechanics for 45 minutes, Steph is going to get 50 percent better on a daily basis than player B.
"That's not an ability thing. That's not a talent thing. That's just a conditioning thing."
Typically, Curry works out with Payne five to six days a week from late June or early July through the first week of training camp in October.
But after Curry suffered a broken left hand in October 2019 and the Warriors' season ended early because of the COVID-19 pandemic, he ended up working out with Payne on and off from June through mid-December 2020.
It made a difference: Curry is stronger than he has ever been.
During that time, Payne took it upon himself to make his drills even harder to make sure Curry would be ready for this season, especially considering he hadn't played in an NBA game in 13 months.
There's a drill he calls "two in a row" in which Curry has 90 seconds to make two shots in a row from five different spots on the floor: the corner, the wing, the top, the wing and the corner. (The second shot is always at a different distance than the first because he never wants Curry's mechanics to be grooved to a certain range.)
This offseason, Payne shaved off time, making Curry complete that same drill in 85 seconds. Then 80 seconds.
Even Payne questioned whether that was humanly possible or if his expectations were getting "unreasonable."
"I'd try to change the drill or the game in the middle of the workout, and he'd get pissed off at me and say, 'No, we're not changing. We're going to do it.' And every time, he did it. He got it done," Payne said of his prized pupil.
Before long, Curry was able to do the drill in 75 seconds. Payne and Curry have a rule that at any given moment during the offseason, Curry needs to be just two weeks away from being able to play a game in top shape.
Curry more than does his part to keep fit. Once, Payne took Curry's resting heart rate and refused to believe the results.
"I was like, 'Are you alive or what?'" Payne said. "We tried multiple times, and it was something in the 40s. It was ridiculous."
It takes an incredible amount of endurance to do what Curry does on the floor. He's constantly on the move, trying to open himself up, while also serving as the ultimate diversion for defenders. Curry’s average offensive speed is 5.06 mph, the fastest of any player who averages at least 30 minutes per game, according to data from Second Spectrum.
When asked about his stamina, Curry made sure to credit Payne. His drills are a rare form of torture, but they've also trained his body to feel just as good in the final seconds of a game as it did at tipoff.
"The summers are hard," Curry said. "They're the hardest time of the year because I really build up that intensity and have a certain program that gets me in shape and gets me ready to sustain that over the course of a season."
Payne believes Curry is just now reaching his physical peak. This past offseason, they shattered the ceilings of what they thought was possible.
When Payne reads things about all of the records Curry is breaking at age 33, he can't help but laugh. "Next year, he's going to be the first guy over 34 to do these things," he said.
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THE STEPH WHISPERER: BRUCE FRASER
When Steve Kerr assigned shooting coach Bruce Fraser to work with Stephen Curry in 2014, Fraser was thrilled.
Curry, less so.
"I'd say he probably looked at me Day 1 and was like, 'What's this gray-haired guy who is Kerr's friend from California going to do with me?'" Fraser said with a chuckle. "I don't think I walked into that gym and he started jumping up and down saying, 'Yippie, this guy is going to be good for me.'"
Fraser, who was Kerr's teammate at the University of Arizona, worked with Curry for about two weeks before voicing any observations.
After closely analyzing the rhythm of his shot, his release point, the spin on the ball, the arc of his shot and the angle of his arm, Fraser made a suggestion. He doesn't remember exactly what it was, but Curry decided to give it a try.
"He shook his head, meaning he could feel what I was talking about," Fraser said.
From that moment on, a trust was born between the two men.
In the seven years since then, Fraser has become the composer behind Curry's mind-blowing symphony, the architect of his explosive perfection.
When asked how many shots he has watched Curry take, even Fraser was surprised by the math.
"Just on game days alone, just me shooting with him, I think the number was 80,000," he said. "So if I took all of the shots over our last seven years, I'd say 800,000 or 900,000 to a million shots. It sounds crazy. That's why my arm is about to fall off."
Over that time, Fraser has become a Curry whisperer of sorts. He has learned when to make suggestions and how to carefully word them.
Curry has such a strong command of his mind and body that he's able to instantaneously implement any corrections. It's a dangerous skill because his shot is already nearly perfect, so any tweaks need to be subtle, done with the lightest of touches.
Fraser's language has come to reflect the delicateness of whatever change is needed.
"I've learned not to be too specific with him because if you're too specific with a correction, then he hones in too much on that," Fraser said. "He has too good of a feel and has the ability to change things. I try to work with him with broad descriptions."
From the get-go, Fraser wanted to make sure his words always counted with Curry. He knew he was working with one of the greatest shooters of all time, someone who knew his craft better than anyone else ever could. Anything Fraser said was meticulously thought out after days, weeks or sometimes months of watching.
"I always felt like when you're going to say something, you better be right," Fraser said.
Sure enough, Curry listened when Fraser spoke. Things became effortless between them and are to this day. When they work out, they have what they affectionately call their "menu" of drills. Often when Fraser suggests some "items" for the day, Curry laughs and says they’re the same ones he was going to request.
Then they buckle down, and Curry goes into a trance-like state, exploding with a few dribble moves or catching the ball from different spots on the floor before releasing his silky shot, a mesmerizing display that's as meditative and smooth to watch as waves crashing and then receding into the ocean.
Those motions take only a few seconds, but Fraser sees 100 things at once. Curry does them all with unmatched intensity, constantly striving for perfection.
"He has qualities about him that are hard to measure with his internal drive to be great," Fraser said. "It's disguised by those blue/green eyes, his smile and babyface, but he's a fierce competitor that really goes after greatness. He chases it both in his work and on the floor. He wants to win at all costs. And age is not a factor for him."
Fraser has not been surprised by Curry’s latest streak and doesn’t take any pride in it — only joy.
Fraser likens their partnership to cooking the most magnificent meal. Curry's skill, hunger and dedication have gotten him to where he can create them on his own, but every once in a while, Fraser adds a pinch of salt or sugar that helps take it over the top.
"An occasional dash of the perfect ingredient," Fraser said.
Melissa Rohlin is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. She has previously covered the league for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Times, the Bay Area News Group and the San Antonio Express-News. Follow her on Twitter @melissarohlin.