Possessing a uniquely specific talent is both a blessing and a curse.
Once Liam Neeson eviscerated a horde of nondescript bad guys in “Taken,” he was repeatedly cast as an action star for the next decade-plus. When the football gods blessed us with Frank Caliendo’s uncanny John Madden impression, it’s all we wanted to hear from him. It’s like when Bart Simpson became the “I Didn’t Do It” boy, reduced to a gimmicky catchphrase when he had so much more to offer the world.
It’s easy to shoehorn Klay Thompson, labeling him strictly a shooter. After all, he’s one of the best who has ever done it. In a bounce-back year after missing two-and-a-half seasons due to ACL and Achilles tears, he led the NBA with 301 3-pointers last season at a 41% clip, his best mark since 2017-18. Especially now that he may have lost a step defensively, many could see Thompson as a one-trick pony, albeit with an aesthetically breathtaking trick.
But for the Golden State Warriors to succeed this season, they’re going to need Thompson to be much more than a shooter.
The conversation began during the playoffs last May, when Warriors coach Steve Kerr approached his longtime shooting guard to discuss how NBA players can gracefully evolve as they age. At 33, Thompson listened as Kerr explained how he could impact the game in ways outside of his silky-smooth jump shot. The main answer at the time, and the one Kerr has continued to preach during 2023-24 training camp, is rebounding.
“What we’re really pounding home with Klay is the rebounding,” Kerr said before the team’s 125-108 preseason win over the Los Angeles Lakers. “If he can get more engaged on the glass — and it doesn’t necessarily have to show up as rebounding totals. It’s more, getting engaged in the fight, boxing out, hitting bodies. Because we know as a team, we have to be better in the margins this year.”
Thompson’s rebounding average has steadily increased from 2.4 per game as a rookie to a career-high 4.1 last season. He pulled down four rebounds in 12 minutes in the preseason win, but, as Kerr said, it’s not about the totals. It’s about getting in the mix, making things happen and sending a message that he’s not allergic to the paint.
Watch here as Thompson fights for two rebounds, getting a fingertip on both. In the second one, you can see him run in from his spot-up position in the corner to tip the ball out of bounds.
It may not look like much, but this continued effort will, at the very least, help prevent opponents’ transition buckets — Golden State was 18th in the NBA in fast break points allowed last season. At most, it will lead to offensive rebounds, where the Warriors are so deadly with Steph Curry waiting at the 3-point line for a kickout. On the defensive side, finishing plays with a rebound will limit second-chance points, a key for the Warriors, who will be undersized a lot of the time.
So far, Thompson seems to have taken his glass-crashing to heart. It helps that he’s in great shape after an offseason featuring pick-up games, which he chose not to participate in last offseason due to a mental block after tearing his Achilles. It’s understandably difficult for Thompson to set his sights on other aspects of the game when he’s such a historically great shooter.
“I’m so in love with scoring the ball and shooting,” Thompson said. “Sometimes it’s equally as fun getting a stop, getting a good rebound, making an assist — the simple plays.”
One thing that will make the challenge of doing those little things easier is Thompson’s legendary competitiveness. The man wants to win basketball games, and if he’s convinced that rebounding, diving on the floor and defending centers will make that happen, then that’s what he’s going to do.
“Just his confidence, man. I think it’s infectious,” said Darvin Ham, who game-planned against Thompson throughout his career as an assistant before taking over as Lakers head coach. “He just has this aura about him, that you just know he’s gonna get it done, even when he struggles. … He’s just a killer, man.”
You need only watch Thompson size up Anthony Davis, arguably the best defender in the NBA, to see that he’s certainly not scared of anyone.
Ham’s word — “killer” — was also used by newest Warrior Chris Paul, who echoed the sentiments about Thompson’s will and drive. The 6-7 guard will need all of that determination if and when he’s asked to defend bigger, stronger players as the Warriors roll out their smaller lineups featuring him, Paul and Curry.
“Klay is probably a lot taller and stronger than people realize,” Paul said. “So when somebody hear him guarding a four, that ain’t — that’s fine.”
Indeed, Thompson showed some of his chops defending in the post during the Warriors’ six-game loss to the Lakers in last postseason’s Western Conference semifinals, and it looks like that’s carried into this season. Here’s an example where he took on the 6-8, 230-pound Rui Hachimura in the post, more than holding his own physically before swiping down to pick up the strip.
Despite what fans might think, those around the league know Thompson as so much more than a bucket-getter. Paul mentioned how he was tenaciously guarded by Thompson during heated playoff battles as a member of the Clippers and Rockets. The 17-year NBA veteran Rudy Gay, now competing for a Warriors roster spot, was sure to point out that Thompson’s offensive game is more varied than people may think.
“He’s good in the post, good at cutting. You don’t just score all those points without dribbling, without cutting. So those weren’t all 3s,” Gay told CBS Sports. “He’s been somewhat of a spot-up shooter at times, but he’s one of those players that gives you what you need. In that instance, he does that. I see him as a more complete player than what people outside of here think.”
The bottom line, which Kerr mentioned prior to the Lakers preseason game, is that this isn’t 2017 anymore and the Warriors can no longer, in his words, “out-talent” the opponent. You may think of the Warriors as a flashy, skill-based team, but they’re going to have to win the game on the margins, which means rebounding, winning 50-50 balls, also limiting fouls and turnovers.
If they’re successful in those areas, Thompson’s buy-in will be a key reason. And, despite his excellence in the field, it will have absolutely nothing to do with his shooting.
“When I was hooping this summer, I just tried to focus on doing the things that allow the team to win — whether that’s hitting the open man, taking the open shot, playing defense and not being so pressed to have to score for my team to win,” Thompson said. “Just to try to be a complete, cerebral player. I thought I did that well, and hopefully it shows this season.”