Since stepping into the league as a rookie in 2011 for the 23-win Warriors, Klay Thompson has made his mark predominantly as a defensive-minded, catch-and-shoot wing.
At times, Thompson’s taken the catch-and-shoot aspect of that over-generalized description to the extreme. He once scored 60 points on 11 dribbles in a 2018 game. According to NBA.com tracking, his frequency of possessions in which he touches the ball for at least six seconds has never exceeded 6.4%.
But something has changed since he returned two weeks ago from his two-plus year layoff. Thompson has been handling the rock. A lot.
In five games, Thompson is up to a career-high 14.5% of possessions with at least six seconds with the ball in his hands, per NBA.com. He’s dribbling more than even his junior year at Washington State, when he led the Cougars in assists. The Warriors need him to be more like the guy who led the Santa Margarita Catholic High School (CA) to the 2008 state championship.
“Steve (Kerr) was just holding me back, man,” Thompson joked after Tuesday’s win, “He didn’t let me handle the ball. The last time I handled the ball that much was in college, but in high school, I played the point a lot.”
Thompson starred for Santa Margarita Catholic for three seasons after moving from Portland to Los Angeles in 2003. Jerry DeBusk, an esteemed high school coach, was in charge of the Orange County school’s boys basketball program.
DeBusk had a demanding style and coached Thompson just like everyone else, despite his family’s NBA pedigree. The Eagles ran a motion offense, with four perimeter players orbiting around one post.
And Thompson, the best player he had in his 40-year coaching career, was the natural focal point.
“It was sort of an equal opportunity offense,” DeBusk told KNBR on Wednesday. “Being able to handle the ball was essential, and (Thompson) was very good at it.”
At times, Thompson brought the ball up. A 6-foot-5 guard, he’d push it in transition after defensive rebounds and often initiated the offense — as well as his teammate Jason Pancoe, who went on to play at West Point.
During Santa Margarita’s 30-5 season in 2008, Thompson was named the Division III California player of the year. In the DIII championship game, he scored 37 points with a state final record seven 3-pointers.
“When it got down to the nuts and bolts of things, we wanted the ball in his hands,” DeBusk said.
So, what was Thompson like as a point guard?
“He was skilled,” DeBusk said. “He wasn’t quite as big as he is now, but he was a tall guard, which I liked. He was efficient. Certain players, when they have the ball, there’s very little chance of having a turnover. His decision-making, he understood the game probably the best of any player I’ve ever had. He could recognize things and see the court.”
Golden State doesn’t need Thompson to be a traditional point guard. Not in their free-flowing offense that features Stephen Curry and Draymond Green as playmakers. But now without Kevin Durant, the Warriors lack a dominant isolation threat they can throw the ball to for a bucket. By beating his defender off the dribble or creating shots in the post, though, Thompson can take some of the burden off Curry.
In four of Thompson’s five All-Star seasons, at least 45% of Thompson’s shots came off catch-and-shoot situations. That’s down to 39.1% this year, per NBA.com tracking data. After over 30 months away from the court, Thompson’s handle looks as sharp as ever. And he’s putting it to use.
“Now, there’s probably more of a need for shot-creation, with the current roster,” Kerr said after Tuesday’s 102-86 win over Detroit. “Being able to go to Klay and post him up or clear a side, it’s absolutely a good option. He’s so big and strong, he can create his own shot and it’s usually a pretty good look.”
Against the Pistons, Thompson scored a season-high 21 points in 22 minutes — his first 20-point game since Game 6 of the 2019 NBA Finals.
There was still a healthy dosage of running off pin-down and flare screens, plus cutting off the ball, but Thompson also frequently drove to the rim and made smart decisions. On one play early in the third quarter, he dusted Cade Cunningham baseline going to his right and found Andrew Wiggins in the corner with a wraparound bounce pass. It was the type of play that signals how the current roster can click once everyone gets more comfortable playing with each other — Thompson as a secondary creator who keeps Golden State’s other shooters involved.
Thompson added four assists and one turnover against the Pistons, saying after the game he wants to be “as complete as I possibly can.” He’s playing freely and decisively. Like he’s in high school again.
“I’ve had it in my bag,” Thompson said. “I’ve been able to put the ball on the floor since high school. It’s just, my strength is obviously catching and shooting and cutting. But now that I’m getting older, I try to use my strength, try to get to the free-throw line a little bit more.”