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Klay on Klay: The Warriors Guard on the Hidden Art and Craft of His Game

Klay Thompson is famously low-maintenance, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t work hard. One of the most gifted, natural shooters to have ever played the game, the Splash Brother puts a ton of work into everything around his stroke—the off-ball movement, the playmaking, the floor reading. Here, he and his coaches talk about how much effort goes into his easy-looking game.

Klay Thompson Ryan Simpson

“What is this, Microsoft Excel? I haven’t used Excel since college.”

Klay Thompson was experiencing nostalgia for his Washington State school days. I was showing him his own stats on a spreadsheet because I wanted to see whether he found the numbers as fascinating as I did.

This was the point of interest: Thompson finished 1,466 possessions off screens over the previous three seasons. The next two closest players had only 926 (JJ Redick) and 878 (Paul George); few others had as much as half. Thompson is as much of an extreme outlier launching shots off screens as James Harden is shooting out of an isolation. “Jeez. Yeah. That’s crazy,” Thompson responded, and whistled, “Well, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.”

When Thompson and I chatted October 1, neither of us could’ve expected him to start this season shooting only 13.9 percent from 3. But he’s gone through dry spells before. He ran cold at the beginning of the 2016-17 campaign, hitting just 20.8 percent of his 3s in his first 53 attempts. Shooters shoot, but sometimes they miss. Thompson checks in at 41.9 percent from behind the arc, over his career; he will soon resume lighting nets on fire. It can just take him time to warm up. He can be like that in person, too. Despite his happy-go-lucky persona, I was told Thompson can run hot and cold in an interview setting. Initially, I worried I was in Oakland on an emotionally chilly day.

Thompson was tired when we started chatting; he had just finished his post-practice workout shooting with Warriors assistant coach Chris DeMarco, whom I later spoke with. But the shooting guard lit up as soon I opened my laptop and we broke down stats and video of him shooting off screens. This was his comfort zone: talking about the finer points of his game and the work that he puts into it. I visited the Bay Area to learn about how Klay Thompson does what he does with a little help from the man himself.

Klay Thompson is his own motion offense. He looks like a dancer on the court. He stops and goes, jukes and pivots, leans and hops, and weaves around his teammates’ screens to create space to unleash his jumper. Few players move as much as Thompson, who logged an average 1.3 miles per game on offense over each of the past two seasons, ranking in the top 20 for distance, per Thompson scores 1.25 points per possession when shooting 3s off screens over his entire career, per Synergy, which is like the equivalent of LeBron James shooting in transition. “He has a great feel and a sense for moving without the ball like Reggie Miller did, like Rip Hamilton did,” said Warriors head coach Steve Kerr. “There’s constant movement with an understanding of angles.”

As a viewer, it’s hard enough to spot Thompson in the clip above. Imagine how difficult it is to defend him going through screens. Everything is in sync: from Kevon Looney springing Thompson loose to Kevin Durant passing before Thompson is in position for a shot, like a quarterback passing to his receiver. Thompson starts and stops like he’s following a skittering beat that only he can hear. At the same time, he’s reading the defense.

Thompson told me he watches for the space between himself and his man while keeping an eye on the help defenders. It’s high-level multitasking. If his screener’s defender is in the paint, it means it’s easier for him to scurry back out to the 3-point line. In the above play, Anthony Davis and Ian Clark are both in the paint, while Jrue Holiday gets lost in the screen maze.

It’s a well-worn cliché, but Thompson is a student of the game. He grew up in an NBA household, the son of Mychal Thompson. His father gave him an early basketball education, and he later spent three seasons at Washington State. Thompson was drafted 11th by the Warriors in 2011 and is now in his eighth NBA season, but he’s still majoring in shooting. Through film study, drills, and sideline advice, Kerr has helped Thompson become more patient and relaxed off-ball. “Coach Kerr taught me a lot about changing pace,” Thompson said. “Going more than just one speed and taking your time to get to your spot. My shot’s so hard to block, so it’s about making it hard for the defender to get around the the screen and contest.”

It’s even harder for defenders to stay attached to a player when they don’t know where he’s going. Thompson’s changes in tempo, timbre, and time make him unpredictable. He’s the perfect complement to his Splash Brother backcourt partner, Steph Curry, and two-time Finals MVP Kevin Durant. Thompson doesn’t need to touch the ball because he’s so brilliant without it. “Klay is constantly moving, looking for people to set screens for him. It’s like an offense within himself with his movement,” DeMarco told me. “There’s no pattern to it. There’s a randomness within the structure.”

Improvisation requires endurance. Thompson can run for miles and shoot an all-time level because of his conditioning. He has an incredibly strong core, which allows him to angle his feet and contort his body to make impossible shots possible. “It’s all strength, balance, and body control,” Thompson said. “Early in my career, I would shoot and sway right to left because my core wasn’t as strong. I learned how to train my legs and core a lot better because you’ve gotta stay solid in your balance. Conditioning is so big for shooting.”

Thompson is obsessive about keeping his body in basketball shape, training at game speed and intensity. “In practices and drills, he comes off actions that you see in the game,” DeMarco said. “He’s not wasting his time when he puts work in.” Thompson likes to make his rehearsals as physical as a live game, occasionally playing the instigator. He likes to nudge his defenders into screens to create extra breathing room to unleash a shot.

Watch Thompson’s hands: That shove might draw a pass interference flag in the NFL, but it’s rarely whistled in the NBA. “I just give a little push. Our big guys are so good setting screens, all you have to do is just hold up the defender a little bit,” Thompson said. “We don’t need that much time. Our offense is so simple. I just go where the defense isn’t.”

As a younger player, Thompson would sprint through a screen, regardless of a defender’s positioning. Now, he’s way more selective, rejecting screens and seeking the next chance. This is what he means by going where the defense isn’t:

In this Spurs game, Thompson had the option to run through the paint to the screens on the opposite end of the court, but he didn’t, since according to Thompson, Danny Green was deserted in the paint and LaMarcus Aldridge couldn’t help quickly enough off the screener. Thompson instead popped for 3. It was still under pressure, but he sinks it. “When I’m two or three bodies removed from somebody, that’s when it’s easiest to choose where I want to go,” Thompson said. “If my screener’s help is all in the paint, it’s easy to just pop out. And if he’s tied up on me tight, I just go backdoor.”

Thompson calls this a “top block”—when the defender (Indiana’s Monta Ellis and Chicago’s Denzel Valentine in the clips above) stays between himself and the 3-point line, rather than the basket. And if they do that, it’s a simple decision to cut to the basket because the big man makes that same read too. “It’s a ‘pick your poison’ on that play. Who do you help off of: Kevin or Steph? It’s a lose-lose situation,” Thompson said of the play against the Pacers. “Look how open we keep the key, too. We rarely have a big man clotting up the lane.”

On the occasion when there is a big man clogging the paint, Thompson can stop and do an about-face. Here, it looks like Paul George was expecting Thompson to race through the paint. But he uses his entire body to stop short: Thompson said he threw his momentum into his shoulders to sell a cut to the rim before planting hard back toward the 3-point line. And, since Steven Adams was all the way in the paint, he knew a help defender couldn’t slide over to contest his 3. “I learned a lot about [stopping on a dime] from watching Steph,” Thompson said. “He doesn’t use as much energy by using these shifty moves to get his man off.”

Thompson said that while growing up he closely observed Ray Allen, Reggie Miller, and Kobe Bryant. He also studied Chris Mullin, the Hall of Famer who spent 13 seasons playing for Golden State, was part of the legendary Run TMC trio with Mitch Richmond and Tim Hardaway, and established himself as one of the league’s premier shooters of his era. “I worked with Chris Mullin my rookie year, and he taught me a few good things,” Thompson said. “He helped me with a lot with staying low and keeping my shoulders square.”

Toward the beginning of the 2011-12 season, while Mullin was a broadcaster for ESPN, then–Warriors head coach Mark Jackson invited him to a Golden State practice during preseason. Mullin had Thompson run a drill where he reached to the floor to overemphasize a motion that forced his body to stay low when going into his shot, so he could explode into his release with momentum generated from his legs. “It’s funny Klay would bring that time up,” Mullin told me over the phone. “I was in the gym really only that one time working with him.”

The advice stuck. Mullin, who is entering his fourth season as head coach of St. John’s University in New York, uses that same drill with his players today. And Thompson said it helped him learn how to create momentum before even receiving the ball, so that he wouldn’t have to “dip” the ball as often to generate force. “Why would you want to dip to get into your shot?” Thompson said. “You want to have a strong core in your legs, and he helped me train my body and to stay low.”

Thompson generates power through his legs. He said it came naturally; he’s been hopping into his shot since he was a kid rather than taking a one-two step. Thompson can do that too, but if you watch his lower body, the majority of the time both his feet will leave the ground as he’s gathering into his shot. “Klay’s shot is effortless because of his legs and tremendous core strength,” Mullin said. “I’ve never seen a guy like him.”

Mullin was in the crowd when Thompson scored a record 37 points in a single quarter in 2015 against Sacramento, though he was sort of on the receiving end, working for the Kings as an adviser. “I was trying to keep a low profile,” Mullin said. “But it was like witnessing an out-of-body experience.”

Thompson scored from everywhere that night. My favorite play from that quarter was when Thompson burst through “elevator doors,” balanced himself, and sank a 3.

Charlie Torres, Thompson’s trainer since 2011, told me they’d spent many hours working on this exact running motion, with Thompson sprinting directly away from the basket. It’s something Thompson frequently does in games, and it’s also a difficult shot worth training for. It teaches a player to plant their feet at an awkward angle as they catch the ball at a tough angle and then to rotate their hips to balance as they release the shot. “Klay’s taught me. I’ve learned from him,” said Torres, who has passed along the knowledge to other shooters he’s worked with, like Josh Richardson and Eric Gordon. “The best thing I’ve seen from Klay is that he can find a rhythm no matter where he catches the ball. Klay doesn’t need to play with the ball before shooting it.”

That Kings quarter was the culmination of all the work Thompson had put in the prior summer, leading up to USA Basketball tryouts. Lots of great things have happened in Thompson’s career, but his most formative experience might have been those months following a first-round series loss to the Clippers in 2014. That’s when he immediately began training to make the USA Basketball team. Thompson worked out with Torres for 38 straight weekdays in the lead up to USA Basketball practices and focused on improving his shot fake, drawing fouls, and defending smaller players. Torres said that around this time they had a shooting-challenge drill during the end of a workout, where Thompson would have to hit at least three of five shots from five spots on the court.

One time, Thompson kept falling short on the last set, and he asked Torres who had done the best at the drill in the past. Torres said it was Steve Novak, who usually hit at least four of five from each spot. Thompson snarled and said, “Novak? Fuck that.” The next time through the drill, Thompson caught fire and completed it.

“Klay is so competitive. It doesn’t matter if it’s Ping-Pong, pool, golf, or beer pong. It doesn’t matter. It’s the factor that separates the guys that are good and the guys that are great,” Torres said. “Klay has an ability to turn it on, even when he’s tired. Most people just don’t have that.”

A running theme you hear about Thompson, no matter whom you talk to, is that he uses everything as motivation, and no one is harder on himself than he is. Thompson ended up making the USA Basketball team and played a central role winning gold in the World Cup over Serbia. The following season, he made his first All-Star and All-NBA teams, executed one of the great quarters in NBA history, and helped the Warriors win their first title of the modern era.

Thompson hasn’t stopped improving, even as the Warriors have racked up two more titles. As the roster has changed—particularly after they signed Durant—he has adapted. “His game has evolved,” DeMarco said. “He’s really grown as a player getting to the rim and finishing and becoming more consistent on pull-up jumpers.” Thompson is a deadly shooter off the catch, and over the years he’s improved at making plays off the dribble.

Someone as actively engaged with the art of offense as Thompson is never going to settle; he sees his career as an act of scholarship. If you want to know what the next level for Thompson looks like, it can be found in plays like the one above. The defender stays attached even after running him through a spin cycle of screens, but Thompson is still able to get a bucket. It’s a simple one-dribble pull-up, but Thompson has improved at scoring from all over the floor after numerous dribbles. He’s also rounded his game by expanding his passing skills.

“It’s extremely important for a shooter to be able to pass because of all the attention he gets from his defender and the guys setting the screen,” Torres said. That’s especially true for the Warriors; Thompson runs through so many curl screens that countless two-on-ones are created. With Torres, Thompson worked on fakes and simulated pocket passes to a cutting big man by passing the ball underneath tables on the court.

“It’s just about making the simple play,” Thompson said. “Teams are so happy just to jump at me that you just gotta hit that open man and then get to the top of the key and relocate. Early in my career, me and David Lee got a couple of those every game where I would come off his screen and just hit that little dump-down pass and it would lead to a dunk or a layup.”

The bigs of Golden State’s past—Lee, David West, Mo Speights, and Zaza Pachulia—are gone. Now, it’s a younger group—Damian Jones, Jordan Bell, and Kevon Looney—that screens to spring open Thompson and receives his passes. Defenses pay so much attention to Thompson that there’s often an open player somewhere on the court.

Thompson has gotten better at finding them, whether it’s passes over the top of the defense to a cutting big man or a kick out to an open 3-point shooter, like the clip above with the cross-court strike to Quinn Cook.

“We’re all in tune, man,” Thompson said, referring to his chemistry with his teammates. Thompson is cast as a improvising soloist, but he also knows when to let the band cook. As much as he uses screens to get himself open, he’s a willing passer, and sets them for others. That’s partially why it all works: Many of the 3s Thompson ends up shooting are because of a screen he initially set, whether it’s for Curry, Durant, or a big who can slip to the rim. The Warriors offense provides options, and it’s the job of the passer to find the open man.

In the above play, Curry breaks the ankles of pretty much the entire Suns defense; there might even be retired guys like Dan Majerle who are feeling sore. But watch Thompson’s subtle shift from the corner as he makes contact with Devin Booker; it’s the final piece of the play that got Curry open. Thompson gives as much as he receives. “When we keep the ball moving and keep bodies moving, good things usually happen,” Curry said during the 2018 NBA Finals. “When we’re dialed in offensively, we’re really efficient with getting into the paint, kicking it out, finding an open guy, whether it’s me relocating to the corner or Klay coming off a pin down.”

Thompson will turn 29 this season and will hit unrestricted free agency for the first time in his career next summer. With upward of a decade more of professional hoops remaining, Thompson could decide to wear a different uniform. And were he to hit free agency, it would be at a time when his particular skill set has never been more valued by this league. Every single team has shooting at the top of its wish list. The Lakers would definitely love a shot at pairing him with LeBron James. But the expectation across the league is that Thompson will re-sign with Golden State. Executives I’ve spoken with said they would be shocked if Thompson left the Warriors.

Durant’s situation is the opposite. The consensus is that he’ll strongly consider leaving for another big market, like New York or Los Angeles. Nothing is certain with months to go until free agency, but order could soon be restored across the league. Not much would change for Thompson though; he’s going to keep doing what he’s been doing his entire career.

“Guys don’t practice every once in a while and become long-term, consistent shooters. All the great shooters put the time in with a routine,” Mullin said. “There’s no way to be as good as he is without a discipline and a strong work ethic. Yet he has a beautiful, carefree, laid-back personality. It’s an incredible mix. He plays with ease, joy, and passion.”

Thompson embodies Golden State’s team spirit. There’s a long season ahead before its journey toward their third straight title begins in the playoffs. Along the way, Thompson won’t stop moving and shooting.

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