Discover more from The Pick and Roll
Nurturing Success: Coach McKillop on Steph Curry, Davidson College & Australian basketball
The Davidson College of today, is inextricably linked to the brilliance of Golden State point guard Stephen Curry.
Before Curry rose to stardom as a hot-shooting, wily playmaker, many hoops fans likely never knew about the existence of Davidson, much less its Division I basketball program. But Curry’s prominence changed all of that, and left a legacy that continues to see the Davidson program thriving in earnest.
For those not aware, a quick lesson on Davidson College is in order. As a small liberal arts school in the state of North Carolina, Davidson was recently named by Forbes as the 10th best liberal arts school and the best school in the south, just ahead of the acclaimed Duke University. More interesting however, is the school's unique 'honor code' that allows students benefit from a unique set of freedoms that includes take-home tests and unproctored, self-scheduled final exams. It is apparent that trust, honor and respect underpin Davidson's educational ethos and ultimately their remarkable success.
A little known fact, is that Davidson's biggest asset might not be Curry, but rather head coach Bob McKillop, who has been the driving force behind their basketball program, and without a doubt, the main reason for Davidson's continued success.
When I was presented with a chance to speak with the Davidson basketball icon, it sounded like an opportunity too good to refuse. So it came to be, that I was up and at awake at 6am in Melbourne, Australia, ready to talk about Davidson, Stephen Curry's impact on the program and recruiting.
“I've been coaching at Davidson for 26 years now,” McKillop firmly says. “The court is now named after me, and it is where my kids played. I am not going anywhere.”
When one reads through McKillop's achievements in his time at Davidson, it quickly becomes apparent as to how successful he has been. As a 9-time Southern Conference Coach of the Year, the accolades are almost too numerous to outline. Under McKillop, the Wildcats have ventured to the NCAA Tournament an impressive 7 times, and a further 5 times to the NIT. Such is his stature, that the basketball court inside John M. Belk Arena at the Baker Sports Complex was officially named after him in February 2014.
However, it was in 2008, and with Curry on the team, that he enjoyed his deepest run in the NCAA tournament. That year they collected wins over some amazing teams including Gonzaga, Georgetown and Wisconsin, narrowly missing out on a fairytale run to the Final 4 at the hands of eventual champions Kansas, by a margin of just 2 points. Yet, even with Curry having since departed, the Wildcats made the Big Dance as recently as 2013.
Curry's journey with Davidson
I became familiar with Davidson thanks to Curry's time with the program, and it was only natural for me to try to find out a little more about his time at school and under McKillop's tutelage. Unsurprisingly, McKillop spoke glowingly of his most famous recruit.
“[Curry] was not highly recruited by other schools due to his size. He was small and with a slight frame,” outlined the well-spoken McKillop. “As a coach, I like to consider the player's genes. When we recruit we also look at the father and the mother. With Stephen, both his parents, Dell and Sonya, attended college and were successful both on and off the court. Of course his father Dell went on to become a great player in the NBA.”
For a player that received very little attention from other schools during recruitment, Curry certainly turned into an outstanding player. The diminutive guard averaged 21.5 points and 2.8 assists per game while shooting better than 40% from beyond the arc as a freshman. By his 3rd and final year of school, after declaring early for the 2009 NBA draft, he was posting a nation wide best 28.6 points with 5.6 assists per game.
Thanks to his outstanding play, he made the basketball world sit up and take notice of Davidson.
“Stephen represented the best of everything his parents represented,” McKillop further explained. “On the court, he was always one step ahead of the play. He had tremendous vision, while his shooting and dribbling were spectacular.”
With a clear level of excitement in his voice as he continued to recall Curry's time at Davidson, McKillop went on to state that his protégé's achievements were not just restricted to his on-court success.
“We are a small school of around 1,800 students,” said McKillop. “He had a 3.0 GPA and was well ahead of schedule to graduate before he left early to head to the NBA. It is also worth noting that such is his dedication, Stephen has since come back to the program to work towards graduating.
“One other aspect about Stephen is his humility. He had the adulation of the entire school, yet still managed to be a regular guy and never put himself on a pedestal.”
The more we talked about Curry, it dawned on me that he may have imparted a greater legacy at Davidson than I initially gave him credit for. He had certainly left a huge impression on his then coach, and achieved success both on and off the court. McKillop further explained that Curry still provides value in the recruitment of players, with almost all recruiting prospects stating familiarity of the Davidson program thanks to the NBA star.
McKillop put it simply, “[Curry] has his fingerprints all over the program.”
“We have recruited some great players, including internationals, and their hero is Curry. They are all great talents and they have all joined a great program,” added McKillop. “We are building a new practice facility which is being partly funded by Curry, but also other alumni who can see the vision of the program. We also moved to the A10 (conference) which is a jump up in competition and further enhances our program.”
With Curry's success over three years at Davidson now in the record books, many questioned whether Curry could make a successful transition from college star to become the NBA star he is today. McKillop never doubted Curry's ability to succeed as a pro in the NBA, although Steph has managed to surprise his one-time coach with his durability.
“I am not surprised by the success he has been enjoying except for one thing; his health,” stated McKillop. “He is playing more than 80 games a season, is the primary guard, expected to play end-to-end while providing scoring but also assists. He is remarkably resilient and has been able to manage the toll on his body exceptionally well.”
Given his size and slight frame, McKillop was in no doubt as to why Curry has been able to maintain his ongoing health and remarkable durability. “He is so committed to a rigorous training program and with his preparation. He is never satisfied; his quest for excellence across everything he does is second to none.”
Of Australian recruitment
With Curry having departed and the team having made the move to the more competitive A10 conference, Davidson has already enjoyed success despite the increased level of competition.
For a school the size of Davidson, the Wildcats have been competing well above their weight division in college basketball over the last decade. Attracting players is a tough task given the other major programs in the region, including high-profile programs such North Carolina and North Carolina State. It is a key reason why McKillop has always been open to recruiting players internationally.
“I have been recruiting players overseas from since 1979,” added McKillop. “One of the first players I recruited was Bill Wennington when I was a high school coach back in New York. He of course went on to play in the NBA for many years, including alongside Michael Jordan with the Chicago Bulls. We now have four players from different countries, including Scotland, Nigeria, Finland and Greece.”
Discussing international recruitment directed the conversation to the increasing number of talented players from Australia and New Zealand playing Division I college basketball. Saint Mary's College, another small school has been successfully recruiting Australian talent for well over a decade, with distinguished alumni Matthew Dellavedova and Patty Mills both now playing in the NBA. McKillop was quick to point out that Curry's last game was in fact a Davidson loss to Mills and the Gaels in the second round of the NIT.
“We have not had any success in recruiting from Australia, despite [having] some links,” McKillop admitted. “Rocky Crosswhite is an alumni who was involved with the game down under. His son Ian attended Oregon so we missed out there. Then there is Derek Rucker who was a great Davidson player; someone who played professionally in Australia and is still living in Queensland.”
Derek Rucker was a star in the Australian NBL, and one of the best imports to ever play in the league. I learned that Rucker had been a Davidson star who had left such a mark that his number 11 jersey is now retired following his induction into the Davidson Hall of Fame.
“It has been hard to recruit Australians, as they all come in [to the country] via California, via the west coast,” McKillop added by way of explaining some of the challenges he has faced in recruiting players from Down Under. “They make stops along the way to many schools before they even see the east coast; by then, they have often already made up their mind.”
“I do really love Australian players though. Australian kids are as tough as nails.”
“We played against New Mexico last year and came up against Cam Bairstow and Hugh Greenwood. Those two are as tough as they come, but they were also skilled and both have great IQs.
“I also coached against the Australian team at the World University Games a couple of years back and we got beaten. Australians play really tough and are always really competitive.”
Pathways to continued success
Even though they do not (yet) have an Australian on their roster, McKillop advised he was always open to great talent. He also advised that despite being a small school, it did provide a lot of advantages and continued to provide players with an avenue to the NBA. He explained that Davidson is a great, small school, in a great location in an NBA city and with a flow of NBA coaches and scouts always coming through.
“Ty Kalinoski is an NBA level talent currently on our roster,” explained McKillop on one of his current players attracting NBA interest. “He was just named A10 Player of the Week last week, and he has a bright future ahead.”
The future is definitely full of promise. Zach Braziller of the New York Post described McKillop as a "forward-thinking offensive mind", and it could be one reason why the McKillop-led Davidson has continued to prosper, despite the fact that their most famous alumni has departed for the bright lights of the NBA for 7 years now.
“We will continue to recruit aggressively and at a higher level,” expressed McKillop in his desire to continue improving the program. “We want to continue to build the roster with the best available talent possible.”
It is hard to argue against the potential of Davidson becoming a dominant A10 team given McKillop’s plans for the future, their current success and above all, the undeniable exposure Stephen Curry brought to his alma mater. Davidson definitely owes Curry a word of thanks, but never forget: it was McKillop and his foresight, that gave Curry an opportunity to shine.