The Improbable Unassuming Rise Of Klay Thompson

It’s funny how things work out sometimes.

Seven months ago, hordes of critics berated the Golden State Warriors’ decision to exclude Klay Thompson in any deal involving the potential acquisition of Kevin Love.

And for good reason — while the Warriors would have missed Thompson’s tenacious on-ball defense, his partner on the wing, Andre Iguodala, provides a similar, if not superior, brand of perimeter D. Meanwhile, Love, at the age of 25 at the time, was coming off a 26-12-4 season and was/is, in theory, an ideal complement in the frontcourt alongside Andrew Bogut, an elite defensive anchor.

Fast forward to present day, the same group of pundits are emphatically applauding the Warriors — namely, their head coach, Steve Kerr, and their head consultant, Jerry West — for their patience and foresight.

Coming into the 2011 NBA Draft, Thompson was primarily labeled as a three-point specialist, often compared conservatively to the likes of Marco Belinelli and Kyle Korver.

However, Klay has progressively evolved his game since entering the league, especially on the defensive end.

In particular, while playing under the Dubs’ former head coach, Mark Jackson — in an effort to keep Curry fresh, out of foul trouble, and unexposed — Thompson would usually be given the toughest individual assignment, taking on the challenge in containing the Western Conference’s slew of elite point guards.

While Thompson did an admirable job using his length to bother the Chris Paul‘s and Damian Lillard‘s of the world; at 6’7″ (in shoes), he would have his fair share of struggles keeping up with six-foot jitterbugs while fighting through a gauntlet of screens.

As well, the opposition, to avoid the confusion of cross-matching, would often deploy their long-limbed defensive-oriented wing on Curry and their point guard on Thompson. Consequently, Jackson would try to capitalize on the mismatch by putting Klay on the block in an isolation post-up situation.

As a post player, Thompson usually resorted to taking a contested turnaround jumper over the smaller defender after several crab dribbles. Not surprisingly, with Thompson’s combination of size and shooting touch, he was able to yield fruitful results in such instances.

In fact, Klay produced 0.91 points per possession in post-up situations over the past two seasons, per Synergy Sports; significantly higher than the league average for post-ups of 0.86.

However, force-feeding Thompson usually stagnated the Warriors attack, and mitigated the team’s greatest strength: their three-point shooting.

Additionally, despite playing in the post, Thompson was still unable to increase his scoring opportunities at the rim or on the charity stripe. In fact, only 18.9 percent of his field goal attempts derived from 8-feet-and-in last season, per NBA.com, and his free throw rate remained at a dreadful 14.7 percent. 

Klay Thompson’s Shot Chart, 2013-14

Shotchart_1422158764770

* LA = League Average  DST = Percentage of Shot Distribution

** Data courtesy of NBA Stats 

Through three seasons, Thompson had been a glorified 3-and-D player. However, the hype and exposure surrounding the Splash Brothers put Klay on a preconceived pedestal — particularly on the offensive end.

Klay’s shooting ability, though, has been as proficient as advertised. More specifically, he has shot above 40 percent from beyond the arc in each of his four seasons in the association while attempting over 40 percent of his field goal attempts from said distance over the past three years.

With that being said, prior to this season, Thompson provided little of anything else. In fact, Klay had achieved a below average PER for each of his first three seasons as well as a disconcerting win shares per 48 minutes mark.

Klay Thompson’s Raw Per Game, Per 36, and Advanced Statistics

Per 36 Advanced*Data courtesy of Basketball-Reference

In addition, before the incumbent campaign, his lack of a handle severely limited his overall game; thus, producing middling true shooting percentages and underwhelming assist rates.

For such reasons, many were quick to put a limit on Thompson’s overall potential, as well as his capacity to hone his ball-in-hand skills, especially when considering his age and development curve when compared to the other young sharp-shooting off-guards in the NBA, namely Bradley Beal.

With trade rumors swirling, Thompson would begin his personal breakout (F-U) tour this summer at the FIBA World Cup while representing his country. His inspired play spearheaded team USA’s quest for gold, and many considered Thompson to be the best wing throughout the tournament.

Most notably, in addition to his usual brand of hounding on-ball D, Thompson also showcased a newly established aptitude in attacking the rack.

Accordingly, Klay has brought his aggressive mindset back to the Bay Area into the NBA season.

Under the guidance and leadership of Kerr, the Warriors have disposed of their over-reliance on Thompson’s length when facing elite point guards; instead, opting to utilize Curry’s newfound ball pressure and active hands, in conjunction with the insertion of Draymond Green into starting lineup, to stifle the opposition’s pick-and-roll attack.

As such, it has freed Klay to concentrate solely on his defensive responsibilities as a wing — such as, providing help at the nail, running shooters off of the three-point line, and locking down likesized swingmen in isolation situations — as opposed to expending extensive energy chasing around guards that are five inches shorter.

His activity on the defensive end has drastically improved, as well; averaging career-best steal and block rates, and is currently one of two guards in the association to average at least a steal and a block per game.

Similarly, without having to take point guards into the post. Thompson has been able to explore his opportunities as a ball-in-hand attacker when going up against opposing wings — thanks in large part to his improvement as a ball-handler; namely, his tighter handle and a refined hesitation dribble.

As a result, his allocation of shots, thus far, has been much more balanced. 

Klay Thompson’s Shot Chart, 2014-15

Shotchart_1422162760611

* LA = League Average  DST = Percentage of Shot Distribution

** Data courtesy of NBA Stats

As such, his attempts from 8-feet-and-in have spiked — and incidentally, he has increased his free throw rate by nearly ten percent, to .230.

ftr and FGA 10feetinThompson has been getting into the lane in a myriad of ways. Playing out of the flow of Kerr’s ball-movement inducing offense, Klay is creating scoring opportunities for both himself and his teammates through penetration off of dribble handoffs, weaves, and off-ball cuts — the staple of Golden State’s newly instituted offensive scheme.

Accordingly, he is on pace to set career marks in effective field goal percentage, assist percentage, and usage rate.

Usage Assist eFGMeanwhile, Klay hasn’t gotten away from his bread and butter, taking 41.9 percent of his field goal attempts from beyond the arc and converting them at a career-best 45.9 percent clip.

His improved efficiency from the three-point line this season can be attributed to the break-neck pace the Warriors has been playing at thus far. Specifically, Golden State has averaged 101.13 possessions per game this season, per NBA.com; a material increase when compared to last season’s pace of 98.53.

Consequently, Thompson has been unleashed in the transition game to receive a bevy of above the break three-point looks — his most efficient spot on the floor. In fact, approximately 75.4 percent of Thompson’s three-point attempts this season are of the above the break variety; up from 67.8 percent last season and 69.0 percent in 2012-13.

Moreover, Klay has done an outstanding job of leveraging his three-point prowess — particularly in open court situations — and attack aggressive closeouts off the bounce to, either, step back and pull-up for a wide open trey or throw down a vicious facial on an unsuspecting big.

Klay may be mild-mannered and lazy-eyed, but with a full head of steam, he has shown to have an appetite for rim-rattling dunks. Non-coincidentally, Thompson is converting on a career-best 67.7 percent of his field goal attempts within the restricted area this season .

FG RA

In addition, he has concurrently raised the efficacy of his pull-up game. Most notably, 30.7 percent of his shots this year come off the bounce — where he scores at an effective clip of 53.4 percent. Comparatively, last season, only 25.2 percent of his overall attempts came off the dribble, where he scored at an anemic effective field goal percentage of 42.0 percent.

With his improved handle, aggressive mindset, and expanded offensive role, it is no surprise that Klay is experiencing career highs in fast break points (FBPs), points in the paint (PITP), and percentage of field goals unassisted (%UAST).

FPB PITP

And of course, his breakout journey culminated last Friday night, when the Splash Brother poured in 52 big ones, including an all-time NBA record 37 third quarter points.

The performance itself was truly transcendent — 52 points aside, the game was in the balance up until his unexpected explosion.

In particular, after a red-hot first quarter, the Dubs cooled off drastically in the second. At the same time, DeMarcus Cousins was manhandling the Warriors; bullying Marresse Speights, getting to the line, while raining midrange jumper after midrange jumper over Andrew Bogut.

In fact, the Warriors were trailing at one point during the third before Klay began his barrage at the 9:44 mark. From there, Thompson would hit 13 consecutive shots, including an NBA-record nine third-quarter threes — to outscore the Kings 37-22.

He got so hot at one point, even his misses went in (see the 1:02 mark in the video below).

More refreshingly, he showcased his full repertoire of skills during the quarter — slashing to the hoop, finishing through contact, pulling up in the midrange, catching-and-shooting, stopping-and-going, the transition three… it was all there.

Such a performance will surely catapult Klay into All-Star status; this much is clear. But, looking down the road, can Thompson expand his game even further?

There are already supporters that liken him as the best shooting guard in the game — but, despite being the better defensive player, his overall offensive output still lags too far behind the likes of James Harden to validate such a claim.

While it was somewhat of a faux pas to dog at the incompetency of the shooting guard position over the last several years — don’t call it combeback, but, spearheaded by Harden and Thompson, along with Jimmy Butler, Monta Ellis, Kyle Korver, and Wes Matthews, as well as the immense potential of the up-and-comers, like Victor Oladipo, Bradley Beal, and Andrew Wiggins — the shooting guard position is in good hands.

Note: All stats are current heading into Jan. 25’s games