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A Star Without a Basketball

No one in the NBA does more with less than Klay Thompson, who forces us to pay attention even when he doesn’t touch the ball

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Klay Thompson rarely holds the ball for long.

His shots fire like rocks from a catapult. Each Thompson jumper delivers the same imagery. On his best nights, they seem always to deliver the same results, too. Mechanical repetition is a formula for scoring a lot of points. It’s not a recipe for making an athlete famous.

The most iconic game of Thompson’s career, the 41-point explosion in Game 6 of last year’s Western Conference finals against the Thunder, was a lesson in efficiency. With the rest of the Warriors struggling, Thompson heated up, taking quick shots and seemingly making all of them. Through sheer volume and repetition, he turned the tide of a game. There were no hesitations or ill-advised midrange jumpers and there was no wasted time. There was little to remember, in the micro sense. The 11 3s and the handful of utilitarian layups blur together into an impressionist’s reconstruction, excitement filling in the gaps between the few repeatable elements that we remember: a catch and a shot.

In basketball, possession of the ball is everything. Possession is cultural power and historical influence and the key to instinctive attraction. What an athlete does while in possession of the ball is what bridges the gap between being good and being important.

Kawhi Leonard won Finals MVP in 2014 after spending six games stifling the best basketball player on earth and making solid (and very efficient) offensive contributions. But few would argue that he approached superstardom before he began controlling the ball and his usage rate ballooned. Leonard has become unmistakably more valuable in the past few years as his shooting has improved, but his cultural resonance has accelerated while hinging on his own brand of possession-based plays.

It’s a given that we talk about players like Russell Westbrook. He’s a cultural lightning rod, a hyper-athletic destroyer. He dazzles our eyes enough to fool our brains. He is invincible and divisive. He creates moments and arguments. Even if we disagree with his values, it’s clear that he stands for something. Thompson, on the other hand, stands for very little. He plays good defense. He makes his jumpers. He loves his dog. He forgets where he is during interviews. Yet, he remains a constant in our conversations. It seems like Thompson should be a low-profile player, but somehow he isn’t.

It’s rare to see somebody like Thompson, a New World player, a 3-and-D wing with a civilian’s penchant for interviews, manage to be outstanding when judged by an emotional, Old World set of values; when he’s on, it’s impossible to look away. He’s a famous player who, because his best play has so much more weight than every other catch-and-shoot wing, can make his living with a role player’s skill set. Klay Thompson is our only minimalist star.

Advertisers are pretty good at zeroing in on the things that allow athletes to pass the eye test. It’s telling, then, that Thompson’s shoe commercial, made in 2015 by his sponsor Anta, is rather, uh, uneventful.

The 15-second-long spot shows Thompson dribbling down the court in a darkened, empty gym. He stops, rises, sprouts Devil Gene–esque wings and hits a deep jumper. That’s it. It’s a bizarre commercial, and one that makes me wonder if it sold enough shoes to make the wing animation worthwhile, but it also zones in on a morsel of a larger appeal. Here, we are directed toward what gives Thompson his visual importance. Here, too, all we have is a shot.

It’s interesting, too, that Thompson’s spot, even with its abridged stature, is an exaggeration. Thompson spends a third of the commercial dribbling, spinning, and doing things that he generally isn’t known for, for the sake of entertainment. The James Harden commercial that I wrote about a few weeks ago felt like it needed to be cut to fit into one minute; a commercial about Thompson needs to be stretched to reach 15 seconds.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Does any athlete do more with less than Klay Thompson? This season, nearly 54 percent of his shots were catch-and-shoot attempts. Over 66 percent of his shots came before he even put the ball on the floor. Almost 78 percent of his shots came with a touch time of less than two seconds. These aren’t particularly uncommon numbers for players tasked with shooting 3s and then receding into the shadows, but for a player like Thompson, one of the league’s premier scorers, a player who scored 60 points in a game as his team’s third offensive option, this is remarkable. Through pure volume, Thompson has forced us to care about him. If Michael Jordan’s or Steph Curry’s or Kevin Durant’s finesse caused us to watch them, Thompson has worked his way into our memories like a battering ram. When he’s shooting well, no single moment is remarkable, but the collective impact is staggering.

There aren’t a lot of comparisons for Thompson’s brand of influence. Perhaps only the world’s top strikers, athletes positioned at the top of a massive field and uniquely tasked with producing quick scores, are talked about so much despite such sparse possession of the ball. The most appreciated positions in football — quarterback, tailback, receiver — are all possession-heavy and flashy. Thompson isn’t just unique among basketball players. Across all sports where possession is a near-requirement for superstardom, he is an anomaly.

Sport is art in motion and press conferences are soap operas. The most revered athletes are the ones who are able to contort the presumed physical laws of our world. The most discussed athletes are the ones who want to participate in our discussions. Usually, to be a star, you need to be at least one of the aforementioned archetypes. It’s best if you’re both. Klay is the only one who may be neither.

This phenomenon, perhaps, is a Warriors-specific occurrence. His stardom is elevated by his team’s profile. His failures, like his poor shooting (38.3 percent) so far this playoffs, are minimized as the media focuses on his higher-usage teammates. He is one of the few stars in the league with the luxury of being able to disappear, to play poorly or minimally or uninterestingly and still largely avoid any negative attention. Then, once the right night comes, he rams the door down with massive numbers.

In music, a motif is a short melodic phrase that is repeated to help form a larger structure. Motivic retelling is what gives improvised solos their hook. It is what, alone, can create grand fugues. It’s what made Motown groups into hit factories. Here, what is true in music is true in basketball. A game is made thrilling by uncertainty, but often conforms to repetition. Sometimes, it’s nice to have a road map, to be guided by a motif. Maybe this is the essence of Thompson’s stardom: not that he produces a singular moment, or that he directly preaches to our emotions, but that when he is in one of his hot streaks, watching each shot go in is like hearing a song circle back to its center.

When Game 1 of the Finals starts Thursday, Thompson may not even be one of the five best players on the court. For a player that can play at an All-NBA level, avoiding the glare of the spotlight is a singular, freeing position. Thompson’s 2017 NBA Finals will be remembered only if he is spectacular. If he’s merely good, it will be forgotten. If he’s bad, it will be forgotten. And if he’s downright awful, that, too, will be forgotten. But even if he is outstanding, we probably won’t remember all that much specifically. We’ll just remember that there was a catch and a shot.