LOS ANGELES -- The sweat from a pregame workout still clung to Stephen Curry, but something took priority over heading to the locker room to towel off. His attention was locked on the Staples Center scoreboard's giant screen, which was showing the New Orleans Hornets-Sacramento Kings game. It was a chance to study Chris Paul, and Curry wanted to absorb a quick lesson in point guardology.
Curry can take you through every step of the learning process with a nuanced discussion of the position's finer points. Golden State Warriors coach Keith Smart believes that Curry can "develop into an upper-echelon point guard."
Then the game begins, and you see Curry in action, with the defense sucked into the paint and Monta Ellis looping a pass out to Curry beyond the 3-point arc and Curry unleashing that high-arcing, smooth-looking jumper, and you wonder … why bother?
Why focus on having Curry pass the ball when his greatest skill is shooting it?
Put another way, it makes more sense for Curry to put up a shot than for him to make a nice pass and watch Jeff Adrien blow the layup.
And there's this: The upper echelon of the shooting guard position is a lot less crowded than the upper echelon of the point guard position.
Take the Western Conference All-Star ballot. Although it doesn't distinguish between point guards and shooting guards, 14 of the 24 guards listed are points. And good luck cracking the top 10 of Chris Paul, Deron Williams, Steve Nash, Russell Westbrook, Tony Parker, Andre Miller, Aaron Brooks, Chauncey Billups, Jason Kidd and Tyreke Evans.
But if you considered Curry a shooting guard, it would be easy to envision him among the West's best, ahead of the likes of O.J. Mayo, Corey Brewer and Thabo Sefolosha, in a group with Kevin Martin, Eric Gordon, Jason Richardson and Ellis, right behind the top group of Kobe Bryant, Brandon Roy and Manu Ginobili.
It is Curry's slender, 6-foot-3, 185-pound frame that poses problems. It's hard to imagine him guarding Kobe down on the block or keeping Richardson from crashing the boards.
"He's not big, he's not strong," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. "But he's quick, he knows how to play the game, and I think that gets him by. He's got a great shot and he's got a great attitude towards playing, and I think that's important."
Notice that Jackson mentioned Curry's shot. The first thing that comes to mind with Curry isn't a point guard attribute, but it's his greatest asset. Could be in his DNA, because his father, Dell, was one of the top 30 3-point shooters in NBA history.
It's that other attribute, the great attitude and willingness to do what it takes to excel at the position he's been told will be best for him, that has Curry determined to master the point guard position. It's why he came back to Davidson for another year after his breakout sophomore season.
"I knew that I had to be a point guard [in the NBA], I had to learn how to manage the game and get my teammates involved," Curry said. "You see the game differently from the point guard position. I still have a lot to learn in that regard, but my last year at Davidson really helped me."
Going from shooting guard to point guard is like moving from passenger's seat to driver's seat. Consider the basic basketball act of using a screen.
"When you're coming off a screen [as a shooting guard] you have two options: You can go one way or the other," Curry said. "But if you're a point guard, you've got four other guys you've got to always have in your vision as well as the basket.
"It's a lot to process, as the game's so fast when it's happening. But that's what the great point guards do. They make the right play every time and get the ball where it needs to go and kind of read the defense."
"Mostly the way they're using spacing on the floor," Curry said. "They're never under duress at all. They're always where they want to be on the floor. If they're not, they attack, then they get to that spot.
"Watching them run the pick-and-roll game, it's like they always have an out. They never put themselves in trouble. And I learned bailout spots where my teammates are going to be, depending on where I am, so I always have an out."
We're used to shooters having sweet spots on the court, but we don't think of point guards having the same thing. Curry's preferred shooting spots in the corners are the worst place for a point guard, because the sidelines can make it easy for defenders to box him in. He says the best place for a point guard is right in the middle, where he has the most options.
So you can see the problem: Having Curry handle the ball takes Curry away from the places he's most comfortable shooting the ball. When he made the move from shooting guard to point guard in his junior year at Davidson, his 3-point field goal percentage dropped to 39 percent from 44 percent the season before. This season Curry has made only 35 percent of his 3s down from 44 percent his rookie year.
And having Ellis bring the ball up and start the offense all the time isn't the solution, because Ellis is better at scoring as well.
"We're in a little bit of a quandary of trying to get [Curry] away from the ball and trying to see how we can get him back into it," Smart said. "We have two dynamic players; now we've got to see how can we get him off the ball, and Monta."
Two guards who are better at catching and shooting rather than dribbling and passing. Both guards are under contract through 2013-14 if options are exercised -- although Ellis' contract costs almost $21 million more. Since nothing's harder to move in the NBA than long-term money, the Warriors will continue with this combination, and Curry will continue trying to be one of the best point guards.
"It's a tough, elite group to try to crack into," Curry said. "But I've got a lot of time to learn and try to get better, so hopefully I can."
What the Warriors could use is a point forward. Why not send Vladimir Radmanovic back to Charlotte, along with Brandon Wright, to get Boris Diaw, who once averaged more than six assists a game when he was in Phoenix?
Curry's averaging almost six assists a game himself this season. But every time he's passing the ball, I can't help thinking he should be shooting it.