Steph Curry hiked up his white Warriors shorts and began chewing on his mouthpiece. The image was one Curry has displayed countless times, getting in the zone for whatever’s to come next. But his challenge was a new one for the 35-year-old in his 15th NBA season.
Like, a completely new one.
Inches away from Curry was San Antonio Spurs rookie sensation Victor Wembanyama preparing for the opening tip-off to begin the preseason finale on Oct. 20 at Chase Center. Standing on the halfcourt logo is where Wembanyama always starts games, always will start games and likely where he always has started games. Not Curry, though.
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That’s the reality of a coaching battle between Steve Kerr and Gregg Popovich. Anything can happen, even 6-foot-3 Curry trying to beat 7-foot-4 Wembanyama in a contest of jumping to the ball first. The idea for one hilarious visual came from Kerr first and foremost.
"You get Gregg Popovich and Steve Kerr in a room and some funny stuff's going to happen,” Curry told NBC Sports Bay Area on the “Dubs Talk” podcast. “They have obviously a lot of history. It came from Coach [Kerr].
“I don't know if he told Coach Popovich or not, but the look on everybody's face when I got in there -- I tried to keep it deadpan. I was laughing on the inside because I knew I had no chance.”
Wembanyama. while growing up in France, has watched numerous Curry highlights. The 19-year-old has seen Curry light up the court from all distances. He has seen Steph dribble around opponents into pure embarrassment.
Golden State Warriors
For all the magic Wembanyama has observed Curry pull off from afar throughout his NBA career, though, he has never seen him stand where he did to tip off his first game against the Warriors superstar.
"Yeah, I was surprised,” Wembanyama told reporters after the game. “I thought he was joking at first. It's fun, it's the preseason."
The image understandably looked like a joke to Wembanyama. Curry was laughing on the inside, but he took that tip-off as seriously as lining up a dagger 3-pointer.
“I was trying to scare him a little bit, see if I could meet him at the top and grab it,” Curry said. “I timed it perfect, I gave it everything I had. You can see the picture at the top. He had an extra eight inches of extension on me, and I had no chance."
Curry isn’t wrong. The greatest shooter of all time and former two-time MVP gave it his all. Curry has beaten the odds since he was a scrawny kid throwing a basketball into the air like it’s a medicine ball, putting all his weight behind his shot. Sometimes the odds are just too high to climb.
Sometimes a 13-inch difference is a hill even Curry can’t overcome. Curry’s right arm was completely outstretched as he tried to win the tip. Well, Wembanyama’s left elbow still was bent when he beat Curry to the ball.
The top pick in last June’s draft has been hyped for years now. Wembanyama, who will play Curry and the Warriors for the first time in a regular-season game Friday night in San Francisco, is seen as the NBA’s next unicorn, a phenom who has an 8-foot wingspan yet might ultimately be a point guard one day.
As the NBA continues to evolve, it’s still a game being played from the outside-in more often than not. The new big man revolution also is here. A guard hasn’t been named MVP since 2018 when James Harden took home the hardware. Big men Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic and Giannis Antetokounmpo have won the last five MVPs. Pundits already are counting down the days until Wembanyama is crowned MVP down the road.
Players his height aren’t supposed to possess his skill set. Curry, however, had a front-row view of what he sees as a bigger basketball outlier than Wembanyama, watching Muggsy Bogues play for the Charlotte Hornets when Curry’s father, Dell, was Bogues’ teammate for a decade.
"Oh Muggsy, for sure,” Curry said. “You look at the highlights ... I guess it's one thing if you're an NBA player and you know what the physicality is like, you know what the athleticism is like, and you're just imagining a 5-foot-3 dude out here running around. Not just existing — that's disrespectful to Muggs. But like impacting games and running a team and putting fear into certain opponent's hearts. You can't dribble around him.
“There was the Muggsy Rule. If you can't see him, don't put the ball on the ground, because he's probably underneath you waiting for it.
"Genetics and all that stuff is crazy. Wembanyama is 7-foot-4. His skill is crazy. He's a 2-man trapped in a 7-4 man's body. But I highly doubt you'll see a 5-3 guy in the league ever again. Just off the pure anomaly of what Muggs was able to do, I'm just grateful that, looking back, I got to watch it up close and personal. Even if I didn't really appreciate it at the time, or as much as I do now, because back then, all I wanted to do was be taller than him. Then I thought I had a shot at the league. That was the marker. It didn't matter how good I could shoot. It was just can I be taller than Muggsy, and then I'll be all right."
Curry ended up being exactly one foot taller than the idol he used to wish to eclipse. Steph has been the center of the NBA’s small-ball revolution for his 3-point prowess, but the Warriors as a whole have been a home to the game’s shortest players ever, Bogues (1997-98 and 1998-99) and Earl Boykins, 5-foot-7, for the 2002-03 season.
Curry knows the game is headed more toward future Wembys than future Muggsys, though, and he himself can only continue holding the mantle as one of the best to ever take down much bigger obstacles in his way.