Almost every NBA player evolves throughout his career in some way. But which stars have transformed most drastically since stepping into the league?
We’re talking about top-tier players who have changed the complexion of their attack in order to reach a new plateau. It’s not just about improving existing strengths, but upgrading how they approach the game.
Some of the league’s top dogs have adapted and modified their repertoires in amazing fashion.
Champions like Tony Parker and Tim Duncan expanded their skills and adopted fluctuating roles on title teams. Anthony Davis polished his shooting to become an inside-out force and is still morphing. Draymond Green has embraced the center role and increased facilitating duties over the last year. DeMarcus Cousins is now launching triples. Jimmy Butler exceeded everyone’s expectations and became a go-to offensive stud.
The list goes on, and those are all worthy honorable mentions. But they don’t crack our exclusive trio of active stars who’ve evolved the most. The following players have sharply changed their skills, stats and roles since draft day to become the juggernauts you see today.
Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors G
Drafted: No. 7 in 2009 from Davidson
Evolution: From a gunslinging combo guard to an all-around playmaker, shooter and defender
2009 Scouting Note: “One of the bigger concerns about Curry’s offensive game is that he does not project to become a prolific slasher at the NBA level. His first step is average at best…Defensively, Curry is extremely limited by his poor physical tools on this end of the floor. He lacks great height, length or strength, and possesses below average lateral quickness, making him a potential defensive liability when being matched up with some of the more explosive guards the NBA is known for.” -Jonathan Givony, DraftExpress.com in 2009
How He Changed:
Early in Curry’s career, Givony’s concerns were justified.
The reigning MVP wasn’t always an efficient driver, elite playmaker and solid defender. During his first three years in the league, he averaged fewer than six assists per game and posted shaky defensive ratings of 112, 111 and 108. As recently as 2011-12, he shot just 56 percent within three feet of the hoop.
He worked on passing execution, finishing skills and defensive footwork, and now he’s a different type of player. Curry has the quarterbacking finesse to average eight-plus assists per 36 minutes in any given season, shoot north of 70 percent within three feet of the rim and stymie opposing point guards.
The diminutive slasher does an amazing job of eluding shot-blockers and scoring deftly around the cup despite his lack of size or explosiveness. Thanks to upgraded shot-creating skills, Curry has bumped his free-throw rate from 2.3 attempts per 36 minutes as a rookie to 6.5 in 2015-16.
Curry’s also shown noticeable improvement sliding his feet on defense and disrupting perimeter attackers. He does a terrific job closing out on shooters, holding them to just 28.4 percent from three-land.
While Curry has evolved his game to eliminate or minimize weaknesses, he’s also evolved in the shot-making department, which was already a strength of his in 2009. If you watched any of his MVP season or his 2015-16 exploits, it’s clear he’s taking bolder shots more frequently. Curry’s simply become more comfortable with every type of shot, including ones from awkward angles and deep distances.
Steven Nash lauded Curry’s ongoing pioneering of the guard position, per the Toronto Star:
Just to be able to take those shots at an acceptable rate is itself an evolution. We’ve had a lot of gunslingers, a lot of volume shooters. but to take the shots he takes, even without the accuracy, is a revolution. And then, the accuracy: it’s remarkable…He’s a joy to watch, and especially given the path he’s come.
When someone as innovative as Nash refers to you as evolutionary and revolutionary, you’re from a different planet.
Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs F
Drafted: No. 15 in 2011 from San Diego State
Evolution: From secondary scorer and inefficient shooter to primary weapon and three-point weapon.
2011 Scouting Note: “(Leonard) does not have one aspect offensively that stands out or which allows him to consistently score the ball…he lacks the polish and skill necessary to consistently operate on the wing…He does not have break down ability off the dribble and he is especially shaky handling the ball with his left hand…His jumpshot (while definitely improved) is still very inconsistent.” -Borko Popic, NBADraft.net in 2011
How He Changed:
That was only one part of Popic’s scouting report, but it’s a reminder of the kind of offensive prospect Leonard was. He showed improvement at San Diego State and could attack the basket athletically, but he was drafted largely due to his defensive versatility.
Leonard morphed from a so-so shot creator who scored primarily via energy and off-ball cuts to someone Gregg Popovich trusts to run the offense. His ball-handling is still relatively simple, but he added effective spin-moves, hesitations and step-back footwork that we never saw back in 2011.
Most of all, his shooting development has been magnificent.
Leonard’s progress under Spurs’ shooting coach Chip Engelland was well-documented when the youngster rose to fame in the 2014 NBA Finals. He’s become even more deadly as a pull-up and spot-up shooter since then. After converting 29 percent from the college three-point arc in 2010-11, Leonard now tops the Association in three-point percentage so far in 2015-16 (42-of-84, 50 percent).
His usage percentage is at an all-time high (25.5 percent), yet he’s churning out a career-best PER at 26.2. Take a look at Leonard’s shot performance from his rookie year in 2011-12 (left) compared to this season (right):
San Antonio knew they had a strong defender and potentially versatile commodity when they plucked Leonard 15th overall. But I doubt anyone envisioned him transforming into such a multifaceted weapon.
LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers F
Drafted: No. 1 in 2003 from St. Vincent-St. Mary’s High School
Evolution: From good at little bit of everything to dominant at everything and any position
2003 Scouting Note: “He’s able to get by on his physical ability right now. The question is, what happens when he can’t just get by on physical ability alone? The mental side, the emotional side, those are unknowns… His shot is the one element of his game that has been red-flagged, but he has been working on that.” –Western Conference Scouting Director to ESPN.com’s Marc Stein in 2003
How He Changed:
King James is one of the few prospects in all of sports who actually met or exceeded the “chosen one” expectations.
As a small forward/point-forward entering the NBA out of high school, James was exceptionally gifted in several departments. He could defend, create, slash to the rim, finish adroitly and distribute superbly for an 18-year-old.
James did all of that as soon as he entered the NBA, but he also gradually expanded his mastery in other facets. The areas he’s improved the most (or added) during his career are perimeter shooting, low-post moves and game management.
In high school, he showed glimpses of promise as a shooter but it was still a pre-draft question mark. James ironed out his delivery enough to keep defenses honest and eclipse 35 percent from three-land in five different seasons.
When he moved to Miami midway through his career, he was asked to play in the post more. There was an adjustment period, but he quickly became a dominant asset in the paint, using a myriad of moves to generate high-percentage opportunities.
James’ game management and knack for steering his team in the most healthy direction has also been remarkable. He’s developed a tremendous feel for when to drive, pass or shoot, depending on the situation. It’s impressive to see how he’s learned to change roles throughout his career and adapt to what his group needs.
Stephen Noh of Today’s Fastbreak noted LeBron’s positional usage fluctuation per Basketball-Reference.com. Here are his regular-season numbers:
And here are his playoff numbers. Notice the drastic changes during the Miami years and return to Cleveland:
Like him or not, it’s impossible not to be in awe of LeBron’s skills and positional evolution.