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Klay Thompson and Gordon Hayward: An Exercise in Fit and Potential

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Both signed new deals before the season began. Both have lived up to them, and more, in the early going. Which one is the better player?

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You guys already hate me for the title. As the resident of the "Hate Klay Thompson Club" I'm not going to fare well by the time I get to file through these comments at night. So let's get it over quickly. I think Gordon Hayward is a better basketball player than Klay Thompson. I think Klay Thompson is a better fit on this team - barely. He's a better fit on some other teams; think Cleveland Cavaliers or San Antonio Spurs. But on most up-and-coming contenders? Gordon Hayward offers the most talent and production. Okay, done. Let's move on to the rest before the pitchforks are set aflame.

The improvements are real with Thompson. He's much better off the dribble, is set up in much more efficient areas on the floor, and is confident as a finisher against smaller and larger defenders. The sustainability appears legitimate as well. He's shooting at career-high percentages from the field and the three-point line. The defense is at his usual solid level, and when buoyed by the ferocious wing combo of Andre Iguodala and Draymond Green, this team gets real nasty.

Gordon Hayward plays at a much different style. He functions much less off the ball and shoulders much of the burden as a high-post release valve or pick-and-roll ballhandler. The Utah Jazz might not operate at elite levels of offense with him as their No. 1 option, but Hayward has improved to the point where he can hold his own much more effectively as a creator. It helps that Derrick Favors seems to have taken a step forward, and Quin Snyder's system has also put him in better areas.

A lighter breakdown of improvements bewtween the two is fun. Both players are getting tangibly better to the point where a layman scout like yours truly is noticing the goods.

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Two things: Thompson did not even come close to having that little trick in his arsenal last season. A spin move and off-hand shove against Lance Stephenson, a noted good defender? It doesn't hurt that Lance loves to flop on anything and probably flailed himself off balance after Thompson blew by him into a gorgeous finger roll finish. Secondly, Thompson has markedly improved the persistence with which he argues with referees. Perhaps a little counterproductive, but he hasn't made a huge habit out of it and it seems to add an edge to his game. That strut after the finish encapsulates how much confidence Klay has in his game right now.

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As for Hayward's improvements:

What a gorgeous set. Hayward fakes a baseline screen, comes to the free-throw line, fakes another screen for a cutter and sprints to a dribble-handoff into a pick-and-roll. Hayward gets stonewalled but flips a cross-court pass that requires both strength and vision. Those are passes that the LeBrons and Boris Diaws of the world make in their sleep. Hayward is slowly getting there.

And there is perhaps the difference between what is admittedly a much slimmer margin between Thompson and Hayward than I thought in the offseason. Thompson's defense is a tad overrated while Hayward's is still a work-in-progress but not awful. Hayward doesn't shoot as well, mainly because the shots are less open - note Thompson's isolation adventures as a drag on his offensive number. Hayward can dribble and initiate an offense. Thompson can shoot the lights out faster than anyone outside of his backcourt mate.

The closing difference between the two works more like two horses charging forward without one racing exponentially faster than the other. Though Hayward represents the better overall package in terms of dribbling, creating, and creativity, Thompson still is the preferred fit alongside Stephen Curry. The Golden State Warriors need an otherworldly shooter more than an improving off-the-dribble creator. Regardless of which player is better, both are on their ways to becoming great players because of burgeoning, ascending skillsets that make them scarier by the game.