The Loop

With Curry, Lillard, and Trae Young, we are in the age of the magic basketball guard

January 04, 2021

San Francisco Chronicle/Hearst Newspapers via Getty Images

Want to see a human being who couldn't get a scholarship at a major Division 1 college program score 62 points in an NBA game?

That was a career-high for Curry on Sunday, a special bit of magic in a career that has already seemed wildly blessed for a 6'3" guard with (by NBA standards) limited natural athleticism. For years, Curry has been the kind of player you watch with bated breath, an improbable lightning bolt whose gifts seem to transcend laws of probability and even rationality. The fact that it happened alongside Klay Thompson, a shooter so gifted that he had the ability to score 37 points in a quarter or set the NBA record for threes in a game, made the peak Warriors perhaps the best team to ever play the game, and at the very least the most fun.

The crazy part about the NBA today is that Curry isn't alone. He may look like a generational talent, especially when he's dropping 62 points, but he has at least two contemporaries who approach his ridiculous heights of wizardry in Damien Lillard and Trae Young. When I talk about guards like these, I'm not necessarily calling them the best or most efficient players in the game, though they are great by any metric. I'm referring instead to a quality that you can only approach descriptively with words like "magic" that end up failing to capture exactly what you mean. It's an otherworldly something that makes you believe, at least for stretches, that they're not exactly operating on the earthly plane. It's different from the meat-and-potatoes efficiency of LeBron or the all-encompassing dominance of Kevin Durant; with the Curry prototype, the success feels special in a different way because it comes from people who can't dominate with size and therefore have to establish their entire games with absurd long-range shooting.

As you saw from the clip above, Curry is adept at driving and scoring inside, but it only works for him because his shooting range is so obscenely far out that defenders have to smother him far beyond the line. If you could lay off Curry, he'd be entirely ineffective as an NBA player because despite his ball-handling ability and preternatural sense of the court, he's not big or quick enough to be a consistent threat driving to the rim. But add in the constant threat of the three-pointer, and defenders languish in uncertainty, forced to choose, at the worst of times, how they want to lose.

In August, when the NBA bubble was in full swing, I wrote about Damian Lillard and how he had "surpassed the English language's ability to describe him." These two back-to-back plays against the Nets have remained in my mind ever since. First, a bomb:

Second, the reaction:

Imagine a player so dynamic, so dangerous with the ball in his hands, that you're forced to double-team him at halfcourt because that particular spot—at least on certain days, when he's feeling it—is within his range. Lillard and Curry aren't exact duplicates by any means. Lillard is much more of a natural athlete and has some of Michael Jordan's high-flying qualities (if he was 6'6" like Jordan, he'd be more of a living legend than he already is) and his highlight reel is full of rim-shattering dunks to go along with the long-range destruction. But the results are the same; a player who's impossible to guard well for any length of time because his arsenal is specifically designed to force you into hard choices. And like Curry, he's never far from a massive game. In fact, he's already accumulated three 60-point games, becoming only the sixth NBA player to do so.

Among the new generation, Trae Young is the player you find in league with Curry and Lillard. Again, there are contrasts. Where Curry carries himself with a coolness that borders on the aloof, and seems to exist in a sphere all his own, Young is a consummate battler, a terrier who wants to humiliate his opponents (just look at how often he uses the between-the-legs dribble) and is definitely not above drawing cheap fouls. He's a flashier player, with a bit of Jason Williams in him in his use of deception, particularly on his passes. Like Curry and Lillard, though, he scores like he was born to it, and it starts with the deadly combo of range and quickness. Throw in his tremendous court vision, and he's pure electricity. Already, he's transformed the Atlanta Hawks into one of the league's most entertaining teams.

Together, this trio represents a new kind of NBA player we haven't really seen before this. The wizard-like point guard—the one-man band who can do so much without great height or leaping ability—is a new phenomenon, a bit of basketball novelty. They entertain today, and if you believe like I do that this is just the tip of the spear, they contain a promise that the game itself is moving in an excellent direction.