In the third quarter of game two of this year's Western Conference finals, the Golden State Warriors were ahead of the Oklahoma City Thunder by ten points. Then, Steph Curry, in the words of one sportswriter, went "supernova": With 7:10 left in the quarter, Curry sunk an open three-pointer, then got fouled on another triple — plus a technical — making a four-point play, then made another triple, then a long two, then another three-pointer. Fifteen points in under two minutes. Golden State up by 20. Game over.
It was yet another display of Curry's absurd abilities, a collection of talents that have transformed NBA basketball. After winning the most valuable player award and the league championship last season, Curry followed up by leading the Warriors to the best single-season record in NBA history (73–9) and claiming another MVP award (unanimously, for the first time in league history). Now, the Warriors are a win away from another title, thereby setting off an explosion of barroom arguments about whether they could be the the best team ever, and if Curry is the best shooter ever — if not, heretical as it is to say, the greatest player of all time.
Just by looking at Curry, you would never guess that he's the most dominant player in the league. He's six-foot-three, 190. He doesn't bulldoze like LeBron or fly like Michael. His advantages are subtler. The remarkable quickness and off-the-charts shooting skills are ones that everyone knows about already. But the evidence also points to Curry being an extreme outlier — it wouldn't be wrong to say genius — in his ability to process sensory input, even in the most stressful, complex, and fast-moving situations. In simplistic terms, he's seeing more of the game, allowing him to exploit opponents' positioning to create shots, find passing lanes, and force turnovers. Moreover, he is at the forefront of an emerging practice, among pro — and even amateur — athletes, of training their perceptive powers, just like ball-handling drills hone their physical skills and sports psychologists help put them build a winning mind-set. In short, Curry is something of poster boy for an new era in sports, where superior neural circuitry is regarded as just as much of an advantage as a higher vertical or a sweeter jump shot.
It's "the cutting edge of sport performance," says University of Central Florida sports scientist Jay Hoffman. "It's being able to look at multiple stimuli on a court," he says: seeing not just where your teammates and their defenders are, but, like a judo master, recognizing where your defender's body is in space and using it against him. Curry "has the ability to see [all that stimuli], and get somebody into a position that's favorable for him," Hoffman says. "This is what separates great players from good players." In other words, Curry's brain is able to read his defender's positioning — a foot set at an odd angle, a nose edging his weight too far to one side — and use the right ball movement — a head fake, a crossover — to create open looks out of thin air.
In an interview I had with Curry earlier this year, he told me that training his perceptive abilities — what his trainer Brandon Payne calls "neurocognitive efficiency" — has helped make his ball-handling crisper, as well as boosting his creativity and giving him a better command of space on the floor. "In a game, there are so many different variables that are thrown at you — the defense, where your teammates are, how fast your body's moving, and you have to be in control of all those decisions," he said, speaking of a regimen that involves "neurological drills" combining simulated game situations with technical dribbling moves. "We overload in our workouts so that the game slows down in real life. It helps you become a smarter basketball player."
The proof is in the statistical pudding. In the 2015 regular season, Curry set a record with 286 three pointers. This regular season, he made a preposterous 402 threes, a feat that the New York Times equated to a baseball slugger hitting 103 (!) home runs in a season. Curry also happened to lead the league in steals. The ball, as they say, does not lie.
Watching Curry play, it's clear he is a member of the super-elite class of professional athletes that can dominate without being physically dominant. The best contemporary peer might be FC Barcelona forward Lionel Messi, and, before Messi, the Great One of hockey, Wayne Gretzky. University of Montreal professor Jocelyn Faubert, who studies athletes' vision, says that a Messi or a Curry set themselves apart from merely excellent pro players by their ability to extract more information from their vision. In a 2013 paper published in Nature, Faubert pulled pro athletes from the NHL, the English Premier League, and elite club rugby players and compared them to top college athletes and nonathlete students in visual learning tasks, using software called NeuroTracker. The experiment is a lunatic version of Three Card Monte: Participants watched eight yellow spheres in a 3-D projection against a black background. Four of them flashed red for a second before proceeding to bounce all over the place for eight seconds. The balls came to a stop; then the participants had to identify which balls were red to start out with. If they got it right, they did another round at a faster speed, then a faster speed, and so on. The pro athletes — regardless of the sport they played — were better at it than the college athletes and nonathletes. "What you saw was three populations, and exactly the same age," Faubert says. "It's a matter of, fundamentally, something different about the brain."
For a player like Curry, Faubert says, you can't isolate how much his perceptual intelligence is the driver of his excellence, since "all factors lead to top-level performance." But you can reason your way there: If a player is within the norm of capacities like strength and speed, then perception, and the decision-making it engenders, is a "crucial factor" in how the best athletes demarcate themselves from high level but nonetheless typical pros. "The perceptual and cognitive is probably the factor," Faubert says, after the physical requirements are accounted for. "You have to pick up information and use it correctly," he says. "It's probably one of the main distinguishing factors — to process information of what [athletes] see, feel, and hear."
In a related study, Hoffman, the UCF researcher, assessed the visual tracking speed of members of the Orlando Magic before the 2012–2013 regular season, and found that the better they were at visual learning, the greater number of assists and steals they made while comitting fewer turnovers. "Team sports value effective ball control, which essentially depends on the speed in which players can integrate and process multiple information sources within a dynamic 3-dimensional environment and react in a timely manner," Hoffman and his colleagues wrote. "In basketball, a player may use this ability to simultaneously monitor the movements and positions of several players ... as well as the basketball, all in relation to themselves, each other, and the basket. Individuals who excel in this ability allot themselves more time to make a positive play and avoid costly mistakes."
In Curry, that high-end information processing — along with all-star agility — is exhibited in the star's knack for creating spaces to make his own three-point attempts (traditional sharpshooters, like Ray Allen and Reggie Miller, did most of their damage coming off screens, catching and shooting). To hear Payne describe the process, he could be talking about an MMA fight. "We want Stephen to take control of his defender by giving him one-two moves to see how he might be a little bit imbalanced," Payne says. If Curry notices then the defenders nose is leaning to his left — betraying an imbalance in the torso — then he knows there's going to be space to the other side. "If the player is leaning left, we want to force the left foot to drop toward the basket, and we want to space backwards and to the left to give them a really odd recovery angle. It's hard to recover if your right foot is high, your left foot is low, and all of a sudden Stephen steps back to his left." Space made, the shot goes up.
You can see Curry master a defender's movements, Payne says, when he goes on a scoring run like he did in game four of the Western Conference semifinals against the Portland Trail Blazers. Coming back from injury, Curry scored 17 points in overtime — the most in an OT period ever, regular season or not. "A lot of times [a run] will happen when he homes in on what they're trying to do" to defend him, Payne says. Case in point: this ridiculous behind-the-back that freezes small forward Al-Farouq Aminu.
The science is just starting to document not just that visual perception is a driver of athletic performance, but something that can be improved. While Hoffman has not yet published research on how perception training could boost performance in athletes — more data needs to be gathered — he's seen athletes improve with NeuroTracker training. While not a part of an academic study, it appears that this is what's happening in Curry's physical-perceptive training with Payne.
In a typical training session, for example, Payne and his team might rig up FitLight Trainers — a system of touch-responsive, many-colored lights — either to a wall or standing in the center of a room. The brainchild of an Danish handball coach who wanted to increase his goalie's responsiveness, FitLight's wireless light system measures reaction time. The company tells Science of Us that it has thousands of clients all over the world, mainly professional teams — in the NBA, the NHL, Premiere League Soccer, as well as the U.S. Air Force and the Australian military. The lights track a player's hits, misses, and average reaction time — allowing trainers and coaches to gather granular data about player performance.
Payne's training regimen for Curry — and now his teammates Draymond Green and Harrison Barnes — focuses on "overloading" the athlete with multiple tasks. As Payne explains to Science of Us, if you have a tennis ball in one hand and a basketball in the other, and you're tossing the tennis ball back and forth at different angles with a trainer while maintaining a steady dribble with the other hand, that's an overload. Then, he might add a footwork element, so the drill is on the move instead of stationary. Then, on top of that, there is the James Bond tech: the lights, strobe-light-flashing goggles, and other stuff he has in his magic tote bag but doesn't want to reveal. While other trainers are adding perception-drilling gear to their regimens, Payne says that nobody that he's talked with is taking quite the same in-depth approach. "We find the player's tolerance, we start there, then layer in increased levels of difficulty to help that player become smarter and more efficient and quicker," Payne says.
The light sensors aren't the only tech enhancement Payne uses to push his athletes further. Payne will also use military-grade "strobe goggles" that suspend vision: A shutter will fire over either eye — kind of like a camera — and block out the wearer's vision, pulsing like a strobe light (with the rate and darkness of the strobe controlled by Payne's phone). The eye gets distracted multiple times every second, forcing the wearer to maintain concentration. They'll do five shots with the goggles on, five shots off. "It's like going through drills in a nightclub," Payne says. "If you're shooting 100 corner threes, and you can only see the rim 30 percent of the time, but you're still making it, that's a pretty good indication that you're able to concentrate through traffic coming at you."
Put another way: This is full-on Jedi. Payne says he wants to keep Curry reading situations at all times, all while performing complicated basketball moves. The light sensors — coded with different meanings, depending on the drill — present different game situations to Curry. He has to make decisions on the fly, all while making different basketball moves, like crossover or between-the-legs dribbles. "It kind of simulates game situations where you're coming down in transition and you see a defender's left leg's higher than his right and you gotta make a move to get by him," Curry said in a previous interview. "That happens in a split-second decision."
Faubert says that the better you get at the visual tracking, the more mental space you free up. Think back to when you first started driving a car, he likes to say: Trying to talk with your mom while operating the wheel and the accelerator could trigger a panic attack. But once you get used to tracking your speed and that of other cars, driving is a casual affair — you might listen to music or talk on the phone or, God forbid, text. Watching Curry over the last few seasons, that's what it looks like is going on: The more he's mastering multiple stimuli, the slower the game gets in his brain, the faster he's able to solve whatever riddle the defense is giving him. And the shots keep falling.