The guards were almost completely in sync, their long-range shots arcing through the air one after the other. Then the game started, Morse darted to the right wing, bounced the ball between his legs and buried a three from in front of the Georgetown Prep bench, no closer than 26 feet from the rim.
This is the era of Stephen Curry-inspired point guards, and this is how they play basketball.
“Watching Steph growing up, it sort of made you rethink what was possible,” said Bynum, who is set to play
at Saint Joseph’s next season. “The long shooting, the ballhandling, all of that — I think it had a big effect on how a lot of us play.”
Washington-area guards illustrate Curry’s broad effect on high school basketball, as young players across the country are shooting more threes and, more than ever, launching them from well beyond the arc. Curry, the two-time NBA champion, two-time MVP and five-time all-star for the Golden State Warriors at 29 years old, had his major breakout six seasons ago when he made a league-high 272 three-pointers.
The current crop of high school guards were 9, 10, 11 and 12 years old that year — and many were glued to their television screens as Curry shimmied away from defenders, buried threes from unseen distances and turned the world’s best basketball league into his personal playground. In the seasons since, Curry has set the record for threes in a season three times and established himself as one of the best shooters in NBA history.
That all created a new style of play for young players to aim for and a puzzling equation for the coaches tasked with molding their games: how to let kids imitate one of their basketball idols but not take it too far.
“Not a lot of players can shoot like that, but most kids will try,” said Georgetown Prep’s Ryan Eskow, who coaches Bynum. “All the kids nowadays, they practice 29-footers; that’s the fun thing to do. Am I teaching them that? No, it’s on their own time. I don’t want them shooting 35-foot jumpers. But if you take a bad shot and it goes in, it becomes a positive play.”
There is a lot for high schoolers to learn from Curry as they map out their basketball dreams. He can shoot from anywhere, yes, but he also dribbles as if the ball were attached to his body by magnet or rope. He passes as if there were no defenders on the court. He is a humble role model, even when he was pressed, daily, to talk about his meteoric ascension from experimental guard to NBA star.
But Curry’s shooting — deep and often coming off the dribble — is what caught on most with this generation of high school guards. The game, at all levels, is following the trends atop the NBA, as Curry and the Warriors have revolutionized basketball with a high volume of threes, endless fast breaks and positionless lineups. It has led to an outpouring of social media hype, two NBA titles in three years and copycat challengers like the Houston Rockets, who are attempting a league-high 42 threes per game this season while owning the NBA’s best record.
This three-point-heavy, space-and-pace era is the only style that current youth players have ever known.
High school coaches and recruiting experts have seen this on the varsity and junior varsity levels, on the AAU circuit in the spring and summer, and even in youth leagues. Damon Handon, who runs the AAU program D.C. Premier, recently went to a 10-and-under game. “Kids were taking deep threes and holding up their follow-through like they were Steph Curry,” he said. “It was crazy.”
“I’m pretty sure that the coaches are being put in a position where they are having to reel some guys back in and make sure that they understand that you got to work on this stuff,” Curry said after the Warriors practiced at Georgetown University last week. “It takes time.”
Eskow and other coaches said if a player is adding range to an already-developed game, it is a positive. If a player is expecting range to be his defining skill, then it becomes a negative. It has become the coaches’ job to teach those players about evolved shot selection, productive training habits and how extending the defense is not just a sign to shoot deeper, but also a chance to drive into the paint and distribute to teammates.
Coaches have to explain that while Curry’s skill set is something to aspire to, his game is built on fundamentals. They have to explain that, while the Warriors have become the NBA’s gold standard and make all those social-media-bound plays, the root of their success is ball movement. They have to take lofty personal goals and temper them into a realistic plan that doesn’t compromise a player’s development or a team’s chemistry.
“At Davidson, when I was there, I didn’t show up on campus doing that,” Curry said of his three-year college career. “I had to kind of work my way up and evolve and prove I could do it consistently and get that buy-in and whatnot, or else I would have been sitting on the bench.”
D.C.-area guards like Bynum, Paul VI sophomore Jeremy Roach and Theodore Roosevelt sophomore Marcus Dockery understand that balance. Bynum expands his range on his own time and counts ballhandling as Curry’s most teachable skill. Roach, who visited Kentucky this fall and is ranked 19th in ESPN’s Class of 2020 rankings, gets instruction in practice from Paul VI Coach Glenn Farello on pull-up, transition threes — the kind of shot that, in a past era, might have landed a player on the bench.
Dockery does late-night push-ups to extend his shooting range — he made more than 70 threes this season — and sees an additional benefit to pulling up from a few (or five) feet behind the line.
“It feels really good to make those long ones,” Dockery said, laughing. “But it also makes you that much closer to being back on defense. I think coach likes that, too.”
“I think the coaches are having to expand the way that they coach. Really, if you’re not, you’re going to fall behind,” said Steve Turner, who coaches at Gonzaga College High in Washington. “When your kids want to play a certain way — maybe like the guys they are imitating on the playground, if it’s Steph or someone else — you have to get them to buy into what you want but also allow them to be the player they want to become.”
Ahead of another game at Georgetown Prep, four nights before Bynum and Morse traded all those warmup threes, more than 40 kids crowded under the same hoop. They were messing around before the teams took the court, fighting for three basketballs that clanged off the rim and into a bevy of outstretched arms.
One of the balls bounced to a 12-year-old standing away from the pack, and he dribbled out well behind the three-point line as his friends watched. He took two dribbles, one more step back, and now stood smack between half court and the top of the three-point arc.
Then he hoisted a jump shot and yelled, “Steph!” in a high-pitched voice.
The ball swished in. A perfect imitation.
“We are in the position that people turn on the TV and watch us play, and we are hopefully pushing the game to the next level and being the mold and the model of how kids want to play coming up,” said Curry, who once modeled his style after point guard Steve Nash and sharpshooter Reggie Miller. “So it is kind of a surreal feeling.”