Saturday, October 1, 2022

Shaquille O’Neal says Warriors’ Stephen Curry is ‘by far’ the best player in the world: ‘I love that kid’

Four-time NBA champion. Eight-time All-NBA. Two-time scoring champ. Two-time NBA MVP, including the only unanimous selection in league history. All-time leader in 3-pointers made. For any other player, this resumé alone would merit significant consideration as the greatest to ever play basketball.

But for whatever reason, fans, analysts — and especially former players — have consistently neglected to include Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry alongside the usual GOAT candidates of Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Wilt Chamberlain.

Whether it’s because of his cherubic visage, the fact that the majority of his points come from a shot that didn’t exist in the NBA until 1979, or simply the mind-warping reality that he plays unlike any athlete who came before him, Curry has traditionally been seen as an anomaly — a freak with a God-given, superhuman pension for throwing a ball into a hoop, whose immense success is purely the result of rule changes that limit the brutal physicality that would have relegated him to mediocre status in any preceding era.

To a large degree, Curry silenced those critics with his breathtaking performance in the 2022 NBA Finals, which earned him his first Finals MVP trophy — one of the few unattained accolades left to place on his mantle. Since June, critics have been much more willing to place Curry in the pantheon of NBA greats, since he’s rendered it impossible for them not to.

Case in point, Hall of Famer and current TV analyst Shaquille O’Neal recently heaped praise on Curry that seems all too uncommon. On the latest episode of “The Big Podcast with Shaq,” (h/t NBC Sports Bay Area) the former center — completely unprovoked — called Curry “the best player in the world.”

O’Neal was discussing the upcoming NBA season with his “Inside the NBA” co-star Kenny Smith along with his podcast co-hosts, Nischelle Turner and Spice Adams, when the subject of the Western Conference came up. Smith argued that the West could be as powerful as it’s ever been, and O’Neal rebutted by saying that the Warriors should be the outright favorites.

“Nobody’s gonna beat the best player in the world, Steph Curry,” O’Neal said.

When pressed about his statement, O’Neal didn’t hesitate to double down, saying “Yeah, by far. Hell yeah.” He then enumerated his reasons for categorizing Curry at the top of the list of current NBA superstars.

“The real ones are recognized by the championships that you have,” O’Neal said. “Nobody plays better than Steph Curry. He’s a tough shot taker, tough shot maker. I like where he’s brought his career. I love “Rocky” type stories. … Steph wasn’t highly recruited. So, to be able to work that hard and be the best shooter and one of the best players in the league, he gets my props for that. I love that kid.”

Smith backed up O’Neal’s statements by highlighting Curry’s unselfishness, and ultimately agreed that “last year, he was the best player in the world.”

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Even with Curry’s incredible 2021-22 season, there are plenty of basketball analysts who would still place players like Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kevin Durant and Nikola Jokic above him on their lists of the NBA’s top players. So for O’Neal, who once said that in a hypothetical matchup between his Lakers and Curry’s Warriors, he “would have laid his little a– out a couple times,” to etch Curry into the pinnacle of the NBA superstar hierarchy, is a testament to how Curry’s late-career greatness has helped alter his perception.

Warriors coach Steve Kerr and many others have noted how Curry is in the best shape of his life at age 34, so the accomplishments will likely continue to pile up over the next several seasons. When all’s said and done, we could be discussing Curry as not just the greatest player in the league today, but perhaps as the best to ever pick up a basketball.

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