Last Sunday, a little before 6 PM PST at Oracle Arena, Klay Thompson caught the ball on the right wing and rose up. Behind the Warriors bench, assistant coach Bruce Fraser followed the flight of the ball with his eyes. Thirty-five miles away in Hillsborough, Ca., watching on TV, Pinewood High coach Doc Scheppler did the same. Meanwhile, across the Bay in San Rafael, Tom Poser prepared to pause the DVR and, across the country in a Detroit suburb, veteran NBA shooting coach Dave Hopla took notes. All had a hunch about what might happen.
At the time, Thompson was mired in a playoff-long shooting slump that had become a recurring topic during the slow news cycle of the Finals. Can anyone fix Klay? Has he lost his touch? Analysts on the Warriors flagship radio station had begun suggesting Klay play fewer minutes, lest he become an offensive liability, and even wondered if Cleveland should leave him open. At Warriors practice on Saturday, a throng of reporters had asked variations on the same question: “What’s wrong?” Were Thompson endeavoring to follow the advice so often given to ailing shooters—“just stop thinking about it”—it would have been near impossible.
And yet, Thompson sounded optimistic. So did Fraser, who said Thompson looked better in practice, like “the old Klay.” “No predictions,” Fraser said. ‘But I feel good. He’s too good of a shooter.”
Now, on Sunday, Fraser watched as Klay’s second three-point attempt swished clean, igniting a mighty roar—part joy, part relief—from the Oracle crowd. By the end of the night, Thompson had knocked down 4-of-7 from deep while scoring 22 points in the blowout win.“Klay can shoot again”, tweeted Mercury News columnist Tim Kawakami with a touch of sarcasm, because of course Klay could always shoot.
And yet, as so often happens with Thompson, an All-Star playing fourth fiddle on a stacked team, his performance was overshadowed. By the dominance of Kevin Durant. By Draymond’sDraymond-ness. And, perhaps most of all, by the creative genius of Splash BrotherSteph Curry, whose triple-double included his usual quota of what-me-worry thirty-footers.
Indeed, to watch Curry in a game like this, bombing and twisting and swishing, is to understand why, as Hopla says, “Everyone wants to shoot like Steph.”
This may be true, but there’s a difference between appreciation and emulation. That’s where Klay comes in.
Across the Bay from Oracle, Poser coaches youth teams, including his sons’, and runs occasional basketball clinics. A former big man at UCSB, then overseas, he understands the urge to mimic one’s hero; after all, he watched a HakeemOlajuwon skills video so often as a boy that he knew it by heart. So when kids at his clinics want to drop in rainbows like Steph, Poser patiently demonstrates Curry’s form. Just as he demonstrates Michael Jordan’s shooting style, and Larry Bird’s. “And then,” says Poser, “I make them all shoot like Klay.”
Some of the reasons are obvious. While Curry is fun to watch, he is difficult to mimic—unless you also happen to have both world-class hand-eye and lateral quickness. He shoots from a variety of release points, contorts his body to get off shots, takes preposterously deep threes, and often fires at full tilt off the dribble. Klay? He is a jumpshooting metronome: plant, pop, release. If possible, one gets the sense he’d prefer never to dribble; when he scored 60 points in three quarters earlier this season, he did so in only 90 seconds of possession. His shot contains no wasted motion, especially from the waist up. It is replicable, if not always exciting. “I’ve even begun shooting like Klay myself,” says Poser. “It simplifies everything.”
Hopla agrees. A former shooting coach for the Knicks, Raptors, Pistons, and Wizards, Hopla signs his emails “Best Swishes,” answers his phone with one word—“Basketball”—and once hit over 1,200 free throws in a row. He travels the country, talking at camps, and he doesn’t always like what he hears. “Unfortunately, everybody wants to do all of the fancy stuff instead of fundamentals,” Hopla says “They want to be like Steph, dribbling between the legs.” Stationary jumpers are a harder sell. “Klay Thompson catching and shooting is not glamorous, unless he hits a ton of them and they show them all on the highlights.”
Even Fraser, who’s spent years working with Curry, concurs. “If I’m teaching someone how to shoot,” Fraser says. “Klay is the model.”
This appears to be something of a theme. In asking around, I heard it from coaches at high schools, developmental leagues, and clinics. Their message to young players: Appreciate Steph. But be like Klay.
Thompson is a somewhat unlikely candidate for the role. His father, Mychal, was a power forward who made just one three-pointer during his 12-year NBA career. Instead, Klay learned his form from the father of one of his middle school teammates, a doctor named Josef Kaempf. Early on, Klay’s shot spun sideways, until he strengthened his wrist. He only then blossomed in college and the pros.
What Klay has going for him is size, strength, and a simple, methodical approach that led Slate to recently wonder if he were, in fact, a robot. Some NBA players can talk for hours about their craft. Shane Battier once spent the better part of two days explaining perimeter defense to me. Kevin Love could lead a seminar on the tricks of rebounding. Klay? When I interviewed him a few years ago about shooting, he spoke of, “exploding through my feet” and “keeping my wrist strong” and “finding the zone”. Sure, he had favorite spots—the left corner, for example—but he preferred not to drill too far into the psychology. In Klay’s world, you see the ball, then shoot the ball. Which is part of what makes him so effective.
At its core, shooting consists of mechanics plus mentality. “Ask shooters what they’re thinking about when they’re really feeling it,” says Scheppler, “and they all say the same thing: nothing.”
Scheppler has spent four decades in coaching. He’s been named state coach of the year while leading a three-heavy, share-the-ball approach at Pinewood (“We Don’t Play Like the Warriors. The Warriors Play Like Us” is the team's motto). Jeremy Lin hired Scheppler as his personal shooting coach. And he regularly works with an array of local players, from 5th graders in the South Bay to Cal guard Sam Singer. Whenever he needs a visual model for players, he shows them clips of Klay.
Watching Warriors playoffs games the last few weeks, however, Scheppler noticed subtle tells of struggles. In particular, he thought Thompson’s shot was too high. “People always think more arc is good but that’s not true,” says Scheppler. “On an NBA three-pointer, you never want the ball to go higher than the top of the backboard, or maybe a few inches above.” In Thompson’s case, rather than snapping his wrist on his follow-through to create a powerful shot, he was holding it up for a moment, like you would on a floater, leading to higher ball flight. Says Scheppler: “That’s what happens when you’re hoping the ball goes in instead of knowing.” (This is still better than the next step on the shooting slump ladder: begging).
Compounding issues, Thompson faced an uphill battle because of the difficulty of his shots. That pin-down Kerr runs for him? It requires a player to sprint full-speed, pivot and rise up. What Thompson needed was a drive-and-kick look, or a transition spot-up, but those are hard to get when defenders are told never to leave you.
Even so, Scheppler wasn’t too worried. Unlike some players, Thompson’s problem was in his head, not his mechanics (Like Kerr, Scheppler is a devotee of “The Inner Game of Tennis”, which espouses that the mind needs to be quiet for the body to do its work). This is in contrast to, say Draymond Green. “Everyone says Draymond’s shot is flat but his arc is fine,” says Scheppler. Instead, Scheppler says Green is merely shooting it short—“don’t confuse short with flat”—because his shot is slow. “He doesn’t have a picture perfect release, but all he needs to do is jump quicker,” says Scheppler. “When he steps in to shoot the ball, he reloads, drops, and shoots, because he’s being careful. That momentary drop is a power leak. And that ball will miss short. All he needs to do is spring when he hits the ground.”
Durant? Scheppler says he’s an excellent shooter who occasionally jumps too high on his release. “Sometimes it’s an angry shot” says Scheppler. Iguodala? When he’s missing, he’s employing too much arc; jump quicker and he’d keep his ball flight down.
Then there’s Curry, who is in many cases is a great model. Chip Engelland, the longtime Spurs shooting coach, says of the Curry vs. Klay comparison: “It’s like saying should I swing like Mickey Mantle or Willie Mays? If you can emulate either of them, I think you’re doing OK.”
Indeed, Curry shoots in one motion (rather than someone like Monta Ellis, whose two-step shot limits his range). He uses his legs, and brings the ball in front of his face, not over his head. Scheppler uses him to teach the value of having lots of shots in your bag. The issue is not in imitating how Curry shoots, but how he plays. In trying to mimic his off-the-dribble game, and parking–lot threes, younger players sometimes put too much arc on the ball, heaving it hoopward. This leads to all manner of problems, most glaringly a tendency for hip and elbow rotation in search of power. Or they rush their shot, because they see Curry’s quick release, which, as Scheppler points out, is as much about his explosion as his quick hands.
But Klay? Anyone from a YMCA hooper to a middle schooler can imitate his form. Scheppler uses him almost prescriptively. Usually when he fixes a player’s shot, he tells them three things: bring your ball flight down (accomplished by snapping your wrist), jump quickly (power up from your toes), and flow forward (land in front of where you shoot). Says Scheppler: “Klay does all those things pretty much exactly how you want to.”
And, more and more, that’s a valuable skill. A couple months back, Jerry West told Rachel Nichols that he wished the league would take him off the logo, leading to a discussion about who would replace him. Lots of worthy names surfaced. But, as the league trends more and more towards a three-for-all mentality—the Warriors broke the Finals record for made trifectas Sunday—perhaps the most accurate depiction would be a silhouette of Klay in mid-release.
That’s getting ahead of the narrative, though. When the Warriors tip against Cleveland for Game 3, who knows which Klay we’ll see. Can one good game break him out of a rut? (Probably, thinks Hopla, who wrote “Shooting slump is over!!!” on his Game 2 notes) Will he do anything different? ("Nope," said Fraser on Monday, noting that Thompson’s “unique spin and trajectory” had returned). And, of course, how much does it actually matter? (Thompson’s defense is arguably more valuable to the Warriors right now anyway).
Thompson’s track record suggests a return to being a marksman; after all, this is a man who, when Sports Science had him take threes in the dark, hit 80% of them. But Scheppler still sees value in what Klay endured the last few weeks, even if Thompson may not. “Most of these guys are high alpha people that have complete confidence,” says Scheppler. “So often people put a negative connotation on missing shots. Choke is too strong a term. It doesn’t mean he’s a loser because he wasn’t hitting.” Scheppler pauses. “It just means he’s human.”