Shooters Shoot

When the Warriors added Kevin Durant last summer, some people thought All-Star SG Klay Thompson would have to change his game. Those people were wrong. Really wrong.
by February 16, 2017

The sports world lost its collective mind on July 4, 2016 when Kevin Durant announced via The Players’ Tribune that he was leaving the comforts of Oklahoma City to give the Warriors a spoil of riches. That same morning, Klay Thompson woke up, heard the news, then rolled over and went back to sleep.

This past summer, when he was in Brazil winning a Gold medal with Team USA, Thompson responded to questions about KD’s arrival in the Bay Area on pretty much a daily basis. Along with cookie-cutter answers about how excited the Warriors are and how great of a player Durant is, Thompson made waves when he was asked by The Vertical if he had any intentions on changing up his game now that another superstar had been added to the fold.

I’m not sacrificing shit,” he said. “Because my game isn’t changing.”

Thompson is one of the NBA’s more interesting personalities, and in the lead up to the 2016-17 season, he gave a glimpse into how he operates. Cool, calm and collected, Klay can come across as almost oblivious to fans. But make no mistake about it—he takes this game dead serious and he’s driven by a desire to win at the highest level.

“I see the same thing with Kawhi Leonard, you know? Just because they don’t show a ton of emotion, people may think they don’t care or just don’t show it—and he’s definitely a guy who doesn’t show it,” says Klay’s older brother Mychel, who plays forward for the Santa Cruz Warriors, Golden State’s D-League affiliate. “When he speaks, people listen because they know he’s not going to say something unless it’s really important or it means something. He’s a guy who’s not afraid to say what needs to be said either. He just wants to win, to be honest.”

For the media and those who follow the League on an obsessive level, the Warriors have all the characters you could ask for in a high-profile team. Stephen Curry is the baby-faced superstar, Draymond Green is the trash talker, Durant is the hero-turned-villain putting up monster numbers and Thompson is the laid-back dude who sips on Coors Light during his post-game media sessions.

“There’s a saying, ‘Still waters run deep,’ and yeah, he’s still, but there’s a depth to him and a major desire to master his game and win,” says University of Virginia head coach Tony Bennett, who recruited Klay and coached him during Thompson’s freshman year at Washington State. “He was quiet—you didn’t see all the fist-pumping and grabbing guys—but he was serious, he was respectful and he was a delight to coach. Even though he was quiet, there was something to him. You see the attributes, the beautiful stroke, his ability to elevate, but I liked his work ethic and things didn’t faze him. He had a poise about him.”

Thompson’s competitiveness can be traced back to his childhood. The son of NBA champion Mychal Thompson, Klay is the middle child between Mychel and younger brother Trayce, an outfielder for the Los Angeles Dodgers. The trio played just about every sport and still maintain a healthy rivalry with one another as adults.

“Everything definitely was a competition and still is a competition to this day,” says Mychel. “Me and my brothers play video games and we treat it like we lost a real game. We had a lot of broken windows in our house from rough-housing. We tried pretty much every sport: football, baseball, basketball, even hockey at one point because we were into The Mighty Ducks. We were typical, active kids.”

Growing up on the West Coast, Klay looked up to Kobe Bryant, one of his favorite players ever. While Kobe certainly couldn’t be described as laid back, Klay shares a similar cerebral quality in his approach to the game.

“I love how he put everything he had into the game of basketball,” he says of the Black Mamba. “He maximized his potential. Not a lot of guys can say that, and he gave everything he had for 20 years in this League. That’s why I really respect everything Kobe did. He gave everything he had and nothing was going to stop him. For an athlete, that’s rare. It was really his craft. That’s what I admire most about Kobe.”

Speaking of maximizing potential, few players in the League have blown up the way Klay has. Despite playing in California and being ranked as one of the top-100 players nationally in his class by ESPN, Thompson was only offered a spot by one Pac-12 school: Washington State. By his junior season, he was leading the conference with 21.6 points per game before declaring for the 2011 Draft.

“I had no idea that he would eventually become one of the best players in the League when he was a freshman, but you saw flashes,” says Bennett. “When he got it rolling, I thought, Man, this kid is unbelievable.”

Selected 11th overall behind the likes of Jan Vesely and Jimmer Fredette, Thompson has been a huge part of the franchise’s transformation from bottom feeder to world-beater. In the five years since Klay was drafted, Golden State has averaged 52 wins (including an NBA-record 73) and made two NBA Finals appearances, winning one.

“It’s surreal, it’s unbelievable. I never would have envisioned this to be honest,” says Klay of the Warriors’ recent run. “To go from winning 23 games my first year to winning about 70 games a year now, it’s ridiculous. The fan love and the notoriety our team receives now is crazy and that’s why I enjoy every day. Time is going by so fast. You have to enjoy every day.”

While Curry has racked up two straight MVP awards and rightfully been regarded as one of the best offensive threats the NBA has ever seen, it’s been Thompson who has come up huge when the team needed him most. Down 3-2 against the Thunder in the 2016 Western Conference finals, Thompson hit 11 three-pointers and scored 41 points to force a Game 7.

And while Curry’s offensive exploits over the course of the past two seasons have been well-documented, it’s been Klay who has put on the most impressive single-game performances over that same time span: a 37-point quarter against the Kings in January of 2015 and 60 points in 29 minutes against the Pacers in December 2016.

The addition of Durant in the offseason led to some thinking that Thompson would be the odd man out. But a quick look at the numbers, and Klay’s right: He hasn’t sacrificed shit. The sharpshooter is averaging 22.1 points per game this season (same as last year) on 17.3 field-goal attempts a night (same as last year) and he’s fifth in the League with 182 made threes.

“Nah, I haven’t really had to make any sacrifices,” reiterates Klay. “I knew I wasn’t going to have to sacrifice because a guy like KD fits into our system, and I’m not sacrificing because having a player like Kevin only makes us better in the long run.”

With Durant in the fold, the Warriors are averaging a League-best 118.4 points per game and have the NBA’s best record (46-9 at press time) at the halfway point of the year. There have been a few bumps in the road, including a Christmas Day loss to the Cavs and an OT loss to the Grizzlies in which they blew a 24-point lead, but the Dubs are the clear favorites to make a third straight Finals appearance. And with Klay and Stephen already publicly stating that they’d like to re-up for long-term deals with Golden State when their contracts are up, it’s highly probable that the Warriors could reach the Finals this season, next season and the season after.

Safe to say that all of those offseason questions about the team’s chemistry with the addition of Durant were overblown.

“Kevin’s been amazing for us,” Klay says. “His efficiency has been crazy. He’s willing to work every day and that’s why he fits on our team so well. He wants to be great and he wants the team to be great. I mean, he can fit into any system because he’s such a cerebral and versatile player that he’s elevated all of our games. I think we have the ability to be a great team for a long time and I knew he was a hard worker—but not this hard. It’s been a pleasant surprise and it’s a real joy to be on his team.”

Although Klay has a lot of basketball left in his career, he has already carved out a spot as one of the all-time great shooters. When he’s hot, he can drop 30 as effortlessly as any player in the world. His rise from a lightly recruited high schooler to one of the League’s best players has come as a shocker to many, but not to those who know him best.

“I’m proud of him. It’s not so much that I’m surprised because I know the amount of work he puts in, so it doesn’t really shock me,” says Mychel. “Whenever he shoots the ball I think it’s going in. So if he shoots 30 times, I think he’s going to have 60 because I think he’ll make every shot, honestly. I think he’s the best shooter in the world.”

Peter Walsh is an Associate Editor at SLAM. Follow him on Twitter @Peter_M_Walsh.

Photos via Getty Images