Reggie Miller was asked on a radio interview recently which NBA player he would entrust to educate young players on shooting form.
“Klay Thompson”, he said without hesitation.
There was no second thought to his response, a concept Thompson is familiar with when he catches a pass beyond the three-point line.
A compliment from Miller to be sure, it only begins to exemplify what Thompson represents within a Golden State Warriors team working on acquiring dynasty credentials over the next fortnight.
The NBA Finals is lending viewers a fourth consecutive contest between the Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers, and it is worth noting that Thompson, the Warriors’ silent assassin who can also defend an opponent’s best perimeter player, has been as consistent in his two-way mastery as these two franchises have been in coming to blows in June.
Honing his attributes on both ends of the floor, Thompson has worked himself into arguably a more important role than his trio of All-Star teammates. To be sure, that is not a miraculous rise given Thompson’s size and talent landing in a situation like Oakland, but it is nonetheless a lofty achievement given he played his college basketball at Washington State as a point forward and was, stylistically, a different player in subtle ways.
Thompson received the ball far earlier in actions than he does in the NBA, a league where he has mastered the art of effective scoring through limited dribbling. Before his professional days, he was far more likely to receive a catch on the first pass, often initiating a dribble to the basket or shot creation by way of ball handling, as opposed to savvy runs off of ball screens and fakes. Thompson is certainly capable of dribbling to the basket downhill, but struggles to escape in tiny windows when he has to spend longer than even he would want on the ball.
His body profile, like most in college, was a much simpler straight up-and-down lanky version, and although it is often not presented this way, his athletic development should be praised given the situations Warriors head coach Steve Kerr places him in on defence and in an offensive system headed by sharpshooter Stephen Curry. To add, Thompson handled the ball more in college because of his position on the floor – not a traditional shooting guard – with the remit being to score rather than shoot, all the while noticeably slower doing it.
His role had positives when making the transition to the next level. The up-and-under layup that Thompson often goes to from a corner drive is evident in college, as was his becoming familiar with finishing in contact, which was more likely because of his need to create more off the dribble.
During his three seasons in college, Thompson was a two-time Pac-10 (now Pac-12) First Team selection while 733 points in his junior season were the most by a Cougar player ever. He has continued to produce such records in the NBA, once scoring 37 points in a single quarter, but the situational development is noticeable, made obvious given his surroundings on draft night. After three years in the northwest, Thompson was selected one place behind Jimmer Fredette in the 2011 Draft. Fredette, who holds dozens of scoring records for BYU including a 52-point game, bounced around the NBA and currently plays in China.
Prior to the draft, a scouting report on nbadraft.net included the following about Thompson’s weaknesses:
An average athlete who plays below the rim … Much better in the half court than in the open floor. His lack of elite athleticism gets exposed in the transition game … Lacks great foot speed, which inhibits his ability to take the ball off the dribble against quick defenders
Exploring Thompson’s career to date, his biggest transformation has hence come at the highest level, within one of the most terrifying transition teams in history where speed and positional flexibility is essential. The latter point about foot speed is still accurate in parts, but Thompson is much quicker off the ball and has turned an offensive weakness into a skill by simply not dribbling unless forced to.
Focusing his game has allowed Klay to get to his trigger spots and laser in on hitting threes, where he connected on a career-high 44% this season. When the Warriors lost this year, Thompson shot just 39% from that range. When they won, he hit over 45% of them.
The laid-back Los Angeles native has only once failed to hit 200 threes in a season, his rookie campaign, and the further he gets from his college days, the more immediate he is at entering the passing lanes for what are today high-percentage shots. Thompson understands that a perimeter shot with a clean look at the basket is the scenario in which he poses most threat to the opposition, rather than putting the ball on the floor and convoluting the mass of playmakers Golden State already possesses. Thompson has an instinctive nature that enables him to turn from wing-stopper to three-point threat in less than three seconds, and has developed a perfect shot fake to compliment his similarly described shot, which accentuates his improved speed given defenders bite on it while running back toward their own basket.
It is these skills which make him so dangerous, not just affecting game-to-game results but regarding the wider accomplishments of Golden State. Opposition players and fans know he is a very good shooter, but seem more likely to take the view that expects Curry and Kevin Durant to be the players who do not miss, and ultimately be the difference. Thompson is the quiet one – no mouth guards, no burner accounts on Twitter – who hangs out with his dog Rocco on an off day and strolled into road arenas with more success this season (147 made threes) than he did at Oracle Arena (137).
Thompson will not seek attention, but he puts games away nonetheless.
His quick shooting trigger is where confidence in himself begins, and it will not end no matter how many he misses to begin a game. He attempts 24.4% of his shots between 16 feet and the three-point line, compared with just 5.4% between three and 10 feet. Thompson barely bothers with layups – 12.1% – if he has caught the ball with any amount of air space. Why dribble when you can make a shot from distance just as comfortably?
This assuredness is as much Thompson understanding what he can and cannot do on the dribble as it is predicated on the system in which he exists. And other professionals have taken notice.
“Effortless and pure” is how Chris Mayes, a shooting coach in Europe who has worked with Real Madrid’s Jaycee Carroll, describes Thompson’s shot. “One of the most beautiful actions, and always the same.”
You can trust his shot then, just as you can trust his defence.
Thompson, standing at six foot and seven inches, has a long wingspan and a level-headedness that was made for good defensive instincts. Evidence of his high-quality defensive techniques can be found in the decisions that Kerr made in game seven in the Western Conference Finals against the Houston Rockets, playing Thompson despite his having four fouls early in the second half. Yes, it was a game seven, but his value is such that you have to play him when there is attached risk. Thompson remained on James Harden, then switched onto Eric Gordon, all-the-while gesturing toward the bench throughout the contest that his coaches should keep him in. It was classic Thompson, a ‘trust me, I have got this’ kind of message that is a microcosm of his rare but worth-waiting-for anecdotes, otherwise known as ‘Klayisms’.
A man who once yawned before knocking a dictaphone out of a reporter’s hand when asked what it felt like to represent Team USA, it is not stated enough that Thompson’s carefree character directly impacts a successful Warriors culture, one that for the first time faced questions about its identity and togetherness this season.
Thompson’s field goal attempts, three-point attempts and (as a result) points were all down this season, but he never unsettled the pack with a wayward comment or misstep. Curry is the initiator, Durant the scorer, Draymond Green the motivator. And Thompson is the leader of calm and quirky.
Asked this week why the Warriors seemed so relaxed when facing double-digit deficits against the Rockets, Thompson said: “Because we know we can make an 11-point lead evaporate in about two minutes of good basketball.”
Thompson is the definition of that obliteration, something the Warriors so often hand out to opponents in the third quarter of games after awakening from their slumber.
During a stretch of play in the aforementioned fourth quarter against the Rockets, his all-around game was showcased. Thompson sped down the wing on a break, received a pass from Curry and instinctively knew Clint Capela was running back to block him. He faked to shoot, Capela went flying, and Thompson calmly but quickly made the three. He then ran back down court and picked up Eric Gordon, overcame a switch, used his body-on-body strength to bounce him away from making progress to the basket – he does this frequently – and when Gordon’s pass found Trevor Ariza on the wing, Thompson zoomed to help Curry. When the ball returned to Gordon, Thompson recovered again and closed out, preventing a clean look and drawing a miss. That was all in the space of 20 seconds, a tiny window into his persistence and ability.
Thompson’s defensive strategy involves heavy ball denial, to the point where his opponent will oftentimes have to go back to the ball to get hold of it, Thompson almost hugging his man. He lifts both of his feet rapidly in defensive stance, conscious never to cross up his feet and remain as much as he can in front of an opponent.
Former Warriors head coach Mark Jackson, who was instrumental for the Warriors in establishing their defensive philosophies, also told Thompson to ‘be like Reggie’, referring to the Hall of Famer Miller’s constant movement off the ball. Kerr has preached that himself, telling Thompson that he is at his best when gravitating the defence, which ultimately gets he or others open. It is another skill that he has worked on since his Washington State days; running off screens, setting backdoor picks and high screens for ball handlers, trusting patience before getting his shots. He will cut hard to receive a pass, and flare out to the corner and relocate if it does not come his way, understanding that one cycle through the offence is not the end. Other times, he is simply a decoy.
It is not just off the ball, either. Brooklyn Nets swingman Joe Harris, who faced the Warriors in the 2015 Finals with the Cavaliers and is someone who has become a good three-point shooter and defender himself, told GiveMeSport this week that the Nets’ scouting report for the Warriors this season instructed defenders never to leave their box out of Thompson after a shot, because he is always a threat to relocate for a second attempt.
That constant movement has helped build Thompson into one of the highest stamina players in the league, venturing through a tireless slalom that is only half the task he is entrusted with when adding in locking down, or at least limiting, highly-skilled opponents.
During the upcoming Finals, Thompson will see time on J.R. Smith, Kyle Korver, Jeff Green and George Hill, even LeBron James when necessary. His on-ball defence allows Draymond Green to act as the quarterback behind the frontline, the lead communicator nearer the basket who in turn initiates Thompson’s scrambling help defence, which can lead to turnovers and transition offence.
Thompson, then, is a highly educated two-way player, knowledgeable enough to know that one breeds success in the other. His shot has been well-documented, a Splash Brother by trade, but he is as pure and drawn-up an asset as the Warriors need.
“I do not care that I am talked about third or fourth”, Thompson said during the Rockets series about Golden State’s hierarchy. “I get paid handsomely, play in a great place in the Bay Area, and we compete for championships year in and year out. From day one I have been a Warrior, and I am thankful to be here because we have a good thing going.”
While pundits almost always pay testament to the Warriors’ other stars or their front office for smart drafting, Golden State’s locker room understands that if Thompson plays up to his abilities, fully executing the skills he has either developed or acquired since his college days, they are even more unbeatable against these Cavaliers than the odds suggest.