Under the Rainbow Jumper

by February 25, 2014


Originally published in SLAM 176

by Abe Schwadron | @abe_squad

Klay Thompson’s unceremonious introduction to professional basketball came on Christmas Day, 2011. On opening night of Thompson’s lockout-shortened rookie season, Golden State hosted the Los Angeles Clippers in a nationally televised game. Midway through the first quarter, Warriors head coach Mark Jackson looked down his bench and called on a then-21-year-old Thompson to enter the game.

“I got in, and I was nervous as heck,” Thompson recalls over the phone. “The second time I touch the ball, I feel like I’m wide open for an easy put-back layup—DeAndre Jordan came over from the weak side and threw that thing across halfcourt. That was my ‘Welcome to the NBA’ moment, three minutes into the game.”

It was an inauspicious start for Thompson, but only momentarily so. Had you bought stock in Thompson’s NBA career at that precise instant, you’d be printing money. Bathing in it. Popping champagne. Making it rain. Because two-and-a-half seasons later, Klay Thompson is one of the five best shooting guards in the NBA, and one half of the most dynamic backcourt in the League alongside point man Stephen Curry.

Thompson, who turned 24 on February 8, has steadily increased his scoring from 12.5 points per game in his rookie season to 16.6 ppg in his second year to 18.0 (plus 3.1 rpg and 2.5 apg) through the first 57 games of 2013-14. At 6-7, he gives smaller guards fits with his size on both ends of the floor, and bigger players struggle with his constant off-the-ball activity and quick feet. Thompson may be known for his jumper, but he’s worked since being drafted No. 11 overall in 2011 to become a complete player.

As Jackson puts it, Thompson is “a guy you fall in love with his ability to shoot the basketball, but has true shooting guard size and strength. He’s an elite defender. Night in and night out, we ask him to defend the best perimeter player.”

That Klay Thompson is helping the Warriors contend in the Western Conference is no surprise, though. Fact is, Klay had been introduced to pro ball long before his baptism by fire in the Bay. His father, Mychal Thompson, a native of The Bahamas, went No. 1 overall in the 1978 NBA Draft to the Trail Blazers—Larry Bird went No. 6 that year. Mychal played 12 seasons in the L, with career averages of 14 and 7 a night, and helped the Los Angeles Lakers win a pair of Championships in the late ’80s.

Mychal and wife Julie had three sons: Mychel, Klay and Trayce. Klay and his brothers grew up just south of Portland in Lake Oswego, OR, where the Thompson family lived until after Klay’s eighth grade year. Mychal Thompson remembers Klay, the middle child, as a quiet, inquisitive kid, who wasn’t quite as outgoing as his siblings early on, but was eager to learn.

“He was different from his brothers Mychel and Trayce,” the father, now in his eighth season as an analyst for the Lakers’ radio broadcast team, explains. “He took after his mother. He was a very quiet kid. Sometimes when he was little, we’d wonder where he was, and he’d be off in a corner reading his books. One of his favorites was Green Eggs and Ham.

Klay’s older brother would tag along to dad’s practices and games as a toddler, but Mychal was out of the League before Klay was 2. As such, Klay’s earliest real memories of dribbling a basketball are from his playmaking days in CYO rec ball, or shooting on the backyard goal his dad installed one Christmas, rain or shine, imagining himself as Penny Hardaway, Kobe Bryant, Reggie Miller or Allan Houston.

And yet, his most memorable childhood sports experience wasn’t even on the hardwood, though it does feature another legend out of Lake Oswego.

“Actually, my best team ever was my little league baseball team. I was on the same team as Kevin Love. We won state and everything. We were only a couple games away from going to the Little League World Series,” says Klay, who remembers playing every position but catcher, while Love was primarily a pitcher. “Kevin looked like a giant when he was on the mound. He was like 6-1, 6-2 in fifth grade.”

Around that same time, the legendary Thompson backyard battles began—always 2 on 2, always the same teams: Mychal, two-time NBA Champ, and his youngest son Trayce, now a top prospect in the Chicago White Sox organization, against his eldest son Mychel, who debuted with the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2011 and now plays for the Warriors’ D-League affiliate in Santa Cruz, and Klay. “Usually one of us would quit before the game even ended, because it would get pretty heated,” says Klay, while his dad claims the older boys would complain about him cheating in favor of Trayce. Whatever the outcome of any individual game they can recall, there’s little doubt that playing against dad had a profound effect on Klay’s development, subconsciously teaching him tricks of the trade before he even knew class was in session—word to Inception.

The Thompsons moved to Los Angeles before Klay started high school at Santa Margarita Catholic, where he soon developed into one of the best young players in Southern California. He led his SMCHS squad to a Division III State Championship appearance in his senior year, averaging 21 ppg along the way.

Perhaps more importantly, though, was Thompson’s newfound proximity to Newport, where every summer he’d play in a men’s league rich with big-time talent, like Josh Childress and NFL superstar (and former DI power forward) Tony Gonzalez. As a 15- or 16-year-old, Klay would pick their brains about life as a pro. And then, after three seasons at Washington State, where he set the single-season scoring record his junior year, he was a Golden State Warrior.

Prior to the start of this season, Jackson turned some heads when he went on record calling Thompson a top-five shooting guard in the L. So far, his premonition has proved damn prophetic. “Definitely,” agrees Warriors forward Harrison Barnes near the season’s midpoint. “It would be hard to find five that are better.” If the eye test isn’t enough for you—you know, stuff like his impeccable shooting form and beautifully fast release, or his long, Scottie Pippen-ish arms that hog passing lanes—then consider the stats.

Thompson is fifth in scoring among NBA shooting guards who play at least 35 minutes per game, and earlier on this season, he was as high as No. 4 in effective field goal percentage (which takes into account the added value of threes vs twos) among SGs with at least 900 minutes played this season (behind only Kyle Korver, Wesley Matthews and Dwyane Wade). Thanks to the advanced statistics of the NBA’s brand new Sports VU cameras, we can glean, too, that he is top-four among any NBA players when it comes to “points per touches,” while he also runs more in distance every night than anyone in the League (an average of 2.7 miles per game) as he frees himself up for open looks.

“I think I’m up there. I think I can be top five,” Thompson offers. “But it doesn’t come down to individual stats. It comes down to winning…Like to me, Manu Ginobili, he’s still a top-five shooting guard, and he only averages 12 and 5. But he’s so efficient and the way he impacts the game, you gotta give him credit and put him in that upper echelon. I think I can get there.”

Thompson got an up-close-and-personal look at Ginobili last spring, when the Ws fell to the Spurs in the Western Conference Semis. But it took San Antonio six tough games to dispatch of Golden State, including Thompson’s Game 2 explosion of  34 points, 14 rebounds and 3 steals, which led to a chorus of “That Boy Good!” from around the League.

Klay’s defense has improved, to the delight of both his dad and his coach—he even swatted away a Chris Paul driving layup to beat the Clippers on Christmas Day 2013 (revenge!)—but his catch-and-shoot ability is still his calling card, and it’s what makes he and Curry so dangerous as a duo. As Nets head coach Jason Kidd noted, in all seriousness, before an early January game against the Dubs, “We have to locate Curry and Thompson at halfcourt. Because their range is at halfcourt.”

Indeed, it seems the only folks who haven’t noticed Thompson’s ability to light it up from anywhere on the floor are the engineers of NBA 2K14. As the consensus best gamer on Golden State, he would know. “I love playing with myself. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t. I shoot every time,” Klay says with a laugh. “They killed me in my rating, though, they gave me a 73.”

When he’s not on the court or on the sticks, you can find Klay watching Hardwood Classics, from Oscar Robertson and Pistol Pete to Magic to MJ. And not just because of the humor he finds in the short shorts his dad and Co. used to rock. Rather than set career goals or write down numbers and trophies he’d like to achieve, Klay has learned to appreciate the mindset of the greats before him. “I was watching NBA TV the other night and John Havlicek said, ‘As long as I play hard every night, numbers take care of themselves, and my talent will show.’ That kind of put things in perspective for me, just to try to do the same thing.”

Mychal, on the other hand, isn’t shy about setting lofty goals. “I think he has all the tools to be a special player,” he says. “He’s got the right attitude, he’s got great work ethic, and I told him that if God blesses him with good health and he plays until his late 30s, he could be a Hall of Famer.” Funny, since even with all that praise, dad still won’t give his son the nod for best in the backyard.

“I still think if we had a rematch, me and Trayce against Klay and Mychel, we could beat them, because I could still back Mychel down in the post, and Trayce is stronger than Klay, so he could muscle him out of the way,” Mychal laughs, adding, “Don’t tell Klay I said that.”

When Klay is relayed the message—sorry, Mychal—a week later in BK, he rolls his eyes. “Man, he can barely run.”