About a decade ago, Eric Musselman recalls, NBA players doing elaborate two-ball dribbling drills before a game would elicit laughter.
“I can vividly remember being in Orlando with Coach (Chuck) Daly and trying to do two-dribbles with guys and they wouldn’t do it,” said Musselman, a longtime NBA coach who’s now coaching the University of Nevada men’s team. “Then you try to explain to them, ‘Hey look, this is going to help with your hand speed. This is going to help with ball speed, and this is going to make you ball-friendly.’ I used those three terms, and guys wouldn’t do it or another assistant coach would kind of snicker.
Now, Steph Curry does it and all of the sudden it’s part of everybody’s pre-game routine. It’s part of everybody’s player development, and I think it just goes to show you for one, what a copycat we all are — because it’s true. Then, when somebody is really successful, that does something that everybody wants to emulate.”
It’s not just Curry’s mesmerizing, pre-game ball-handling rituals that college coaches are emulating. Curry’s team, the defending NBA champion Golden State Warriors, is impacting the college game stylistically and culturally. College coaches are popping in to watch Warriors practices and coming away impressed by the team’s chemistry and looseness. College teams are watching Warriors film and trying to model certain aspects of themselves after Golden State, which is 47-4 while playing the most watchable brand of basketball in the NBA.
“It doesn’t surprise me, because when you see something successful like we were last year, you want to model after that,” Warriors All-Star forward Draymond Green said. “And it’s fun. It does not surprise me one bit. You also have to know the personnel you have to do it.”
The 6-foot-7, 230-pound Green’s role in particular is something that has inspired college teams, as they’ve seen you can win with small ball and players who are not “typical,” as Green put it, guarding bigger forwards and centers like he does while also stretching the floor with his own shooting range. Warriors coach Steve Kerr believes this growing trend dates back to Mike D’Antoni’s tenure with the Phoenix Suns.
Musselman explained it this way: He has embraced the term “positionless player,” just as the NBA has, and he hasn’t been afraid to put five guards out on the court at once. That allows his Nevada team to create spacing, use speed and hopefully create opportunities the way the Warriors do.
No. 7 Oregon’s Dillon Brooks, who is 6-7, 225 pounds, views himself as a college version of Green. He came to the Ducks expecting to play small forward, but also frequently finds himself under the basket in the middle of the lane.
“It’s a hard matchup for a 6-8, 280-pound guy to play a versatile wing, and we have plays where you have to play zone to guard us,” Brooks said. “But it just helps us get more baskets, especially with our athleticism and running ability that you can get big teams to switch to try to guard us small, and once they go small, we have guys who are used to playing in the paint that can score in the paint with the small guys.
“So it’s very hard to guard, you can see with the Warriors.”
Belmont’s 6-7 Evan Bradds is a similar example. Coach Rick Byrd recruited him as a big wing player, but Bradds proved so gifted with his back to the basket even against bigger defenders, Byrd made him the focal post player in a four-guard system.
“We pretty much anchor our offense around him, and people have to decide how they’re going to stop him,” Byrd said. “If they go double him, he’s a good passer and we get a lot of kick out stuff. If they don’t go double him, he’s the best field-goal percentage shooter in the country the last two years. We’ll let him go one-on-one.
“In general, for years, we’ve played pretty similar to how the Warriors play. We putt a lot of shooters out on the floor, get a lot of spacing. That helps with finding an inside guy who’s an offensive threat that people have to help on. The spacing that (kind of player can) create, then, and the difficulty that people have guarding guys that can both really shoot threes and drive the ball. That’s the hardest kind of guy to guard.”
Another college team that seems to parallel the Warriors stylistically — at least offensively — is No. 3 Oklahoma. The Sooners have a plethora of good outside shooters, and a hard-working star in Buddy Hield who can make a shot from nearly any part of the court with the game on the line, a college version of NBA Most Valuable Player and Warriors All-Star guard Steph Curry. Both Oklahoma (45.1%) and Golden State (42.7%) lead their respective leagues in 3-point shooting.
Lon Kruger, Oklahoma’s coach, said his team watches the Warriors — “they’re fun to watch” — and can understand the comparisons. He’s got good passers, good shooters and guys who make plays for each other, “which is what the Warriors do.” But Kruger doesn’t study specific plays the Warriors run to copy them.
Musselman does; he’s remained a sponge for anything NBA-related that might work in the college game. Leading into the season, his first at the helm of Nevada, he had his players watch Warriors film about four times a week to study their spacing and tempo. Now, the Wolfpack run two Warriors side-out of bounds plays and one deep corner Warriors play. They’ve added a series called Brazil that is used by thePortland Trail Blazers.
No. 23 USC, which is off to its best start since the 1992-93 season, cut up film of the Warriors, San Antonio Spurs and Atlanta Hawks to share with their team in the preseason. The University of Portland’s Eric Reveno uses both the Warriors and Spurs film to inspire his team in terms of spacing and ball movement — and the increasing awareness of the importance of good three-point shooting.
“The analytics and the video and the Synergy and the stuff we’re all breaking down constantly is telling us all of these things,” Reveno said. “Guys that face the floor, create opportunities for others. Different lineups that are better than others and why. I think all that stuff that we’re all analyzing on our own teams and then all of a sudden you get a team like the Warriors, or even the Spurs, sometimes as an example of, OK, this is what it looks like. It reiterates the point.
“If you don’t have shooters on the floor with all the scouting and stuff that’s going on, the floor just gets very small because then (your opponent) doesn’t have to guard certain shooters.”
Reveno pointed out two West Coast Conference foes that remind him stylistically of Golden State: Gonzaga and its use of Kyle Wiltjer (who stretches the floor but can still post up), and St. Mary’s and its use of 6-10 center Evan Fitzner (who does the same, but rarely posts up). Randy Bennett’s Gaels share another statistic similarity to Golden State: he Warriors have the NBA’s best assist/turnover ratio (1.90), and St. Mary’s has the best in Division I (1.87).
Davidson coach Bob McKillop, who coached Curry in college, said he’s noticed an increased demand for three-point shooters on the recruiting market. They’re “a hot commodity,” McKillop said, “because 3-point shooting redeems a lot of weaknesses and stretches the court.
“When Steph was with us, we actually had some very good shooters, but without Stephen Curry’s presence, those shooters would have never gotten their shots,” McKillop said. “And they got their shots because there was so much attention on Steph Curry.”
Golden State coach Steve Kerr said he’s welcomed “a lot” of college coaches into practices since he’s taken over. One of them was Reveno, who visited during the Warriors’ playoff run last season. “College coaches look at styles of play and like the Warriors because they share the ball,” Reveno said. “And the discipline in which Curry works out and trains himself to have these absurd, crazy games that are mind boggling — the amount of work he puts in.”
Reveno said he loved the culture he saw and the sense that the team was filled with “a bunch of good guys.”
Afterward, he picked Kerr’s brain on the idea of keeping basketball instruction and workouts player-friendly. Warriors film sessions were relatively short and conveniently just off to the side of the court. The Warriors played music during practice warm-ups (something Portland implemented). Players were laughing and joking around, but intensely focused when they needed to work. “They talk about the NBA season being a grind; they’re trying to keep things enjoyable,” Reveno said.
There’s much to be gleaned from the Warriors, from both a coaching and playing standpoint. And it makes sense that people would want to model themselves after an undeniably successful, fun team. But, at the end of the day, no one can replicate the personnel that Golden State has.
“At the college level because of the rules, you are allowed to slough in the lane and spacing becomes much different,” Musselman said. “There’s hardly any college teams that can play a full Warrior philosophy offensively and defensively based on personnel. There are not a lot of college teams that have multiple dead-eye shooters. There might be a college team that has one or two, but not like the Warriors where they can stick four guys out there that are all nailing threes at a high clip.
“I think with all of us, meaning college programs that might be playing somewhat like the Warriors, I think you can take bits and pieces, but I think to say that you can play like them, and use their philosophy, I think that’s make-believe because everybody will try to be like them and just can’t. That’s why they’re so special. Otherwise other NBA teams would even try it.”