Steve Nash and the making of the modern point guard

Traces of Nash's game can be seen when any star NBA point guard takes the floor. (Photo: Mark J. Terrill/AP)

When Steve Nash announced his formal retirement from the NBA last week, the conversation about his legacy that followed inevitably looped back to nationality. As the comet of Canada basketball, the player who reached heights never thought possible for someone north of the border, Nash was either credited with the explosion of homegrown Canadian talent that followed him or forced to fight for that credit head-to-head against Vince Carter. But a sparring match with VC actually sells Nash short.

Captain Canada’s real legacy isn’t inspiring the golden generation of Canadian basketball players—it’s inspiring the golden generation of NBA point guards.

Nash’s development into a pioneer of modern point guard play wouldn’t have been possible without the 2004 rule change that saw NBA officials clamp down on hand checking on the perimeter. Knowing he would need less strength to fight through hedging defenders and more agility to change direction on a dime, Nash lost 15 pounds that offseason—the visionary saw the way the game was going and beat it to the spot.

The following year, his first in Phoenix, Nash—given the freedom to create and call plays on the fly in Mike D’Antoni’s liberal system—exploited the new rules to the limit. He transformed the Suns from a 29-win team to a 62-win team on the way to his first MVP season and a league best PER of 22.

Gregg Popovich, Mike Budenholzer and Steve Kerr have all admitted to stealing from D’Antoni’s offensive system to keep up with the evolution of the game. Well, you can’t steal the offence without the right conductor, a “Nash type” point guard.

The closest current facsimile is Warriors point man Steph Curry, who Kerr scouted while he was Phoenix’s GM before taking the reins in Golden State. Curry’s dead-eye shooting from deep is the first major point of comparison, but his ability to toss one-handed runners high off the glass and watch them teardrop through the hoop is another carbon copy of Nash. In fact, Kerr even hired long-time Suns coach Alvin Gentry as his offensive coordinator to give Curry the same offensive freedom Nash enjoyed in Arizona. The comparison isn’t one the potential MVP shies away from. “S/o to @SteveNash hanging it up for good!” Curry wrote on Twitter when the news became public. “Inspired me to play the way I do and paved the way. Congrats on all your success and enjoy life!”.

Budenholzer, scouted Nash heavily in his time as a Spurs assistant, has his all-star point guard Jeff Teague reversing the pick-and-roll and rejecting it to break down the weak side of the defence the same way Nash did. Why? Because Nash proved again and again just how hard it is to defend.

By adding previously unimagined attacking and passing angles to the pick-and-roll, Nash turned what had been a bread-and-butter procedural play into pure excitement. Chris Paul, one of the biggest devotees of the church of Nash, has patented the low, skip-bounce pass out of the pick-and-roll, while backing up to create a better angle. A move Nash made famous.

During a stint with the U.S. Olympic team, Paul had D’Antoni’s video staff cut together tapes of Nash exploiting the pick-and-roll so he could learn from the master. Paul and Clippers teammate Blake Griffin now run a version of the play that is awfully reminiscent of Nash and Amar’e Stoudemire’s Suns heyday.

Pick any standout floor general in today’s NBA and you’ll recognize Nash’s influence: Tony Parker’s patented floater in the paint or the way he “Gretzky’s” the basket, circling along the baseline and keeping his dribble long enough for a teammate to get open for a scoring opportunity; Damian Lillard’s one-legged, step-back floater off the dribble—unsurprising given that he constantly asks Trail Blazers assistant Jay Triano to get him pumped up with stories about Nash; former Suns teammate Goran Dragic’s ability to finish at the rim with either hand.

It’s so shortsighted, so humble, so Canadian to limit Nash’s influences to Canuck ball handlers. As Kevin Pangos plies his trade in the NCAA Tournament, as Tyler Ennis finds his groove after being traded to the Bucks, as high school-phenom Jamal Murray decides which NCAA program to commit to, they will all inevitably be linked to Nash. But the debt they owe Captain Canada has a lot less to do with their passports than their instinct to pass first.

Nash used intelligence and effort to put himself two moves ahead in a leapers’ league. He taught himself to finish with either hand in unpredictable and unorthodox ways— to zig when he was expected to zag—and that improvisational aspect of his game can be seen in modern day point men.

It’s not just the Canadians—when we watch the guards of the future, we are seeing Nash’s game re-take the court.

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