Rebuilt and ready to score inside, Steph Curry’s proving bigger is better for Warriors

Rebuilt and ready to score inside, Steph Curry’s proving bigger is better for Warriors

Whenever Kevon Looney is in the weight room and he sees Stephen Curry in there, Looney has to know how much the Golden State Warriors’ guard is lifting. And whatever that number is, Looney absolutely must top it.

“I have to tell the weight coach I have to do more than Steph,” said the Warriors’ 6-foot-9, 222-pound center. “I can’t be lifting the same as the point guard.”

That Curry is lifting anywhere close to an NBA big man is a testament to his metamorphosis this season. He’s beloved in part because he’s a relatively normal-size human dominating among giants. He’s the only guard in NBA history to rank in the top 15 in all-time effective field-goal percentage.

Curry has evolved from a diminutive point guard into a sculpted machine. Once known as the Baby-Faced Assassin, Curry’s new and improved stature confirms what many suspected this season: One of the most effective scorers the league has seen is still evolving.

As a man gets older, he can get a little bigger. With that comes full-grown strength. Curry has perhaps been a late bloomer compared with many of his NBA peers. Though most players reach their physical peak in their late 20s, Curry didn’t start hitting his until his 30s.

However, the healthy weight Curry has added in recent seasons doesn’t tell the full story of his transformation. Each offseason, he asks himself what’s needed to assure he continues to perform at a high level. Sometimes, that’s adding skills to his bag. Other times, it’s improving his nutrition or conditioning. But as he continues to age in a league getting younger, one of his more pressing concerns has been longevity.

“There’s just a constant attention to the details of what gains I get from the strength and conditioning program and making sure I can stay at this level for as long as I can,” Curry said. “I guess I’m just taking advantage of just being a late bloomer in that respect.”

Golden State Warriors’ Stephen Curry celebrates 2nd quarter basket against Denver Nuggets in Game 2 of NBA Western Conference 1st round playoff series at Chase Center in San Francisco, Calif, on Monday, April 18, 2022.

Scott Strazzante / The Chronicle

Game 3 of the Western Conference semifinals against the Grizzlies at Chase Center was a perfect example of the strides Curry has made physically. He finished with a game-high 30 points, thanks to penetration of the Grizzlies’ pressing defense. Curry totaled 17 drives in Game 3, making 5 of 6 shots, adding two assists, two foul shots and continual breakdowns of the Grizzlies’ defense.

Almost every time Curry drove into the paint, he was met by defenders. He didn’t shy away from punishment; he finished through contact, and when he was knocked down, sprang right back up. His willingness to go inside is a big reason he took 14 free throws, making all of them.

The added muscle also has helped Curry as a defender in this series. After a Klay Thompson 3-pointer put the Warriors up 116-114 with 36.6 seconds left in Game 1, Memphis’ Ja Morant came off a Dillon Brooks ball screen and Curry was stuck guarding him on an island.

Curry knew Morant wasn’t going to stop short and take a jumper or a floater. In that moment, Morant was hell-bent on getting to the rim against an older defender because that’s what he does best. Curry was prepared for Morant’s charge. Curry absorbed Morant’s contact, redirected his drive and finished his defensive stand with a huge block. Because of it, the Warriors then were able to run 10 precious seconds off the clock in a one-possession game.

Golden State Warriors’ Stephen Curry and Jordan Poole against Denver Nuggets in Game 2 of NBA Western Conference 1st round playoff series at Chase Center in San Francisco, Calif, on Monday, April 18, 2022.

Golden State Warriors’ Stephen Curry and Jordan Poole against Denver Nuggets in Game 2 of NBA Western Conference 1st round playoff series at Chase Center in San Francisco, Calif, on Monday, April 18, 2022.

Scott Strazzante / The Chronicle

“This series is extremely fast and extremely physical,” said Brandon Payne, Curry’s longtime trainer. “He’s prepared for it. I feel like he is and he’s handled the first (three) games pretty well.

“Of course, there are a couple of things we’d like to do, taking care of the basketball a little bit better down the stretch. But other than that, from a shooting standpoint, from a scoring-at-the-rim standpoint, from being a leverage-defender standpoint like he did at the end of Game 1, I think he’s doing a great job. I think he’s prepared himself to perform at a high level in situations like this for a long time.”

Curry doesn’t normally spend his offseasons trying to gain weight. But at this point in his journey, it has become a necessity, working closely with Payne, along with the Warriors’ strength and conditioning staff. Curry now has a better understanding of how to get the most out of the frame he has.

The good news, he and his trainer believe, is that this means Curry still has plenty left in the tank. His physical decline has been postponed by his late bloom, and he’s peaking at an ideal time.

“It’s just something that’s happening slowly over time as he gets into that grown man’s body,” Payne said. “I think it’s a really good thing because it tells us that there’s a lot of really good basketball, and a lot of good physical performance still ahead of us.”

Curry said he weighed 172 pounds when he was drafted in 2009. He could get to 180 soaking wet wearing a pair of Timberlands. At 6-foot-2 with a wingspan equal to his height, he was skinny by NBA standards.

However, Curry’s slender frame didn’t hinder his ability to get buckets. With crafty instincts and arguably the best jumper in the game, he didn’t need to be the strongest player on the court to dominate. His skill level was the ultimate equalizer.

Stephen Curry (30) drives around Jeff Green (32) In the first half as the Golden State Warriors played the Denver Nuggets in Game 5 of the first round of the NBA Playoffs at Chase Center in San Francisco, Calif., on Wednesday, April 27, 2022.

Stephen Curry (30) drives around Jeff Green (32) In the first half as the Golden State Warriors played the Denver Nuggets in Game 5 of the first round of the NBA Playoffs at Chase Center in San Francisco, Calif., on Wednesday, April 27, 2022.

Carlos Avila Gonzalez / The Chronicle

In the 2014-15 Western Conference semifinals, the top-seeded Warriors faced a 55-win Memphis team known for a bruising style of play. Curry had to deal with stronger guards such as Mike Conley Jr., Tony Allen and Courtney Lee. And when Curry drove to the rim, he was quickly met by big men like Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, who weren’t afraid to put him on the hardwood.

That version of Curry didn’t need to match their physicality. In Game 6 of that series, Curry took down the Grizzlies with his shot-making and finesse, draining 11 baskets to get 32 points. All came outside the paint, including eight 3-pointers.

Now in his 13th season, Curry’s physical gains pose a different type of threat to opponents. Limiting his production from deep isn’t enough. Curry has long been a good finisher around the basket, but now he’s doing it in a much more physical manner. He’s no longer merely controlling shot blockers with footwork. He’s also controlling the recovery defender with his body, which is difficult to do.

When asked about his body’s evolution ahead of Game 2 of the Western Conference semifinals in Memphis, Curry told The Chronicle that he has been playing at around 195-200 pounds this season — a far cry from the 172 he weighed when he entered the NBA.

“I feel exactly how I did as a rookie,” Curry said. “It’s weird. I don’t feel like I’m 30 pounds heavier.”

Golden State Warriors' Stephen Curry drives to the basket against Dallas Mavericks' Spencer Dinwiddie in 1st quarter during NBA game at Chase Center in San Francisco, Calif., on Sunday, February 27, 2022.

Golden State Warriors’ Stephen Curry drives to the basket against Dallas Mavericks’ Spencer Dinwiddie in 1st quarter during NBA game at Chase Center in San Francisco, Calif., on Sunday, February 27, 2022.

Scott Strazzante / The Chronicle

When it comes to Curry’s offseason training, Payne has different performance buckets he tries to fill. Ballhandling, footwork, space creation, shooting and vertical-core stability are just a few. The challenge, he says, often becomes not filling one bucket more than another. Payne says it takes frequent communication between him, Curry and Warriors director of performance Carl Bergstrom to identify the right strategy and make sure everything stays balanced.

As Payne remembers it, there was one offseason, in 2012 or 2013, when Curry was focused on adding weight. When they spent too much time on that particular area of his game, it didn’t work out the way he envisioned.

“Not two days into training camp, he called me and said, ‘I’m too heavy. I can’t move,’” Payne said. “And that was us at the time trying to get him from 191, 192 up to 200. And he immediately stripped it back off because he just wasn’t comfortable.”

That’s why Payne often stresses to Curry the importance of a gradual approach when it comes to adding strength. And because of the way the league is trending these days, subtle strength training easily can be incorporated into skill work.

In today’s NBA, part of being skilled on the perimeter also means playing physical. Shooters like Curry continue to expand the court more than ever, meaning that defenses have continued to expand. The physicality of the NBA isn’t confined to the paint. Defenders now have to force players off their spots from well beyond the 3-point arc.

Golden State Warriors' Stephen Curry battles for possession with New York Knicks' Mitchell Robinson in 4th quarter of Knicks' 116-114 win during NBA game at Chase Center in San Francisco, Calif., on Thursday, February 10, 2022.

Golden State Warriors’ Stephen Curry battles for possession with New York Knicks’ Mitchell Robinson in 4th quarter of Knicks’ 116-114 win during NBA game at Chase Center in San Francisco, Calif., on Thursday, February 10, 2022.

Scott Strazzante / The Chronicle

As Curry gets older, he has learned that the best way for him to create space and get ideal looks at the basket is to be a “leverage ball handler,” as Payne prefers to call it. On top of regular offseason strength maintenance, Curry is learning how to play with his hips and his shoulders — using his leverage to create space.

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