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The Golden Breakdown: Klay Thompson is continually evolving

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Against the Lakers on Wednesday night, Klay Thompson showed signs that he is not slowing down his improvement as an all-around player.

Golden State Warriors v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

When Klay Thompson was asked about the difficulty of entering the 50/40/90 club, he had this to say:

Shows you how hard it is to do ... it’s such an elite club, only like seven or eight guys have been on it, so I would love to join it. Two of my teammates have done it. I think it would be special to have three guys on the same team accomplish that feat.”

Thompson is always looking to improve his game, despite already being a deadly three-point shooter — perhaps on track to be the second best shooter of all time behind his teammate Stephen Curry. He is still looking for ways to add more dimensions to his repertoire, to be more than just being the reincarnated NBA form of Chris Kyle or Simo Häyhä.

To paraphrase an interesting tidbit from Stan Van Gundy during ESPN’s halftime discussion, he mentioned that Thompson is an unproven commodity when it comes to being a playmaker and an initiator of the offense. Being surrounded by a plethora of playmakers, Thompson doesn’t really need to be the one bringing the ball down, initiating sets, and generating assists — he can just move off the ball and behind pindown screens, and shoot when he’s open.

During the Golden State Warriors’ preseason game against the Los Angeles Lakers on Wednesday night, Thompson posted a stat line of 20 points, 5 rebounds, and 3 assists, while shooting 8-18 from the field (4-of-9 from three-point range). A good percentage from beyond the arc is something to be expected from Thompson. But there were a few interesting sequences that signified something new from him: an intent to be more of a playmaker for his teammates.

Thompson’s improvement as a playmaker

In the sequence above, Thompson receives the ball from Andre Iguodala on the right wing and then receives a screen from Jordan Bell. Thompson rejects the screen and opts to drive to his right, along the baseline. This is a relatively rare sight from him — his confidence in opting to drive to the basket instead of pulling up for a jumper is a testament to his improved handle. He draws several defenders to him in the paint, which leaves Curry wide open on the weak side corner. Thompson recognizes this and whips the pass to Curry for the three.

This is also a reversal of roles — usually it is Curry who handles the ball and drives to the basket, drawing a crowd and passing it to a wide open Thompson on the wing or corner. With Thompson more confident and more willing to be the ball-handler, Curry is now free to roam and get open. Defenses will now have to be even more wary of an off-ball Curry potentially wreaking havoc on their carefully-crafted schemes to limit him.

Much like Curry, Thompson’s reputation as a long range sniper precedes him. In this sequence, his gravity allows him to feed a teammate:

The Warriors flow into a HORNS set, with Iguodala and Kevon Looney serving as the men on the elbows. The ball finds its way to Iguodala, and a weak side pindown action with Looney screening for Thompson is executed. Looney’s screen is effective enough to generate space for Thompson to pull up for a shot — if he did decide to go all the way through with a shot, it would have been a justified decision. Instead, Thompson makes the mid-air pass to Looney, who catches the ball for the easy dunk.

Looking back at the clip, Looney’s defender makes a half-hearted attempt to hedge Thompson, giving Looney the space he needed to spring free and get open. Being a playmaker requires the recognition of such split-second moments and making split-second decisions. Thompson shows that he is more than capable of being a split-second decision maker.

Here’s another instance of quick decision-making from Thompson:

Another pindown action for Thompson is called. Bell signals his intent to screen for Thompson. At the last second, Bell slips the screen and rolls toward the basket. Thompson’s gravity draws two defenders onto him, and he makes the quick pass to a rolling Bell. To the credit of the Lakers’ defense, they manage to recover well enough to prevent the Warriors from scoring in this possession. But this is another instance wherein Thompson is well aware of the attention that he receives on the perimeter, and subsequently uses that gravity to make a play for his teammate.

Vintage Klay Thompson in the Warriors’ motion offense

Despite Thompson’s focus on improving his playmaking skills, he will always be known for plays like this:

The Warriors have built their identity on sets like the one above. Curry hands the ball to Bell and proceeds to screen for Thompson, as if to initiate the split action sequence that has been a staple of the Warriors’ offense. Thompson curls around Curry’s screen and crosses over to the weak side. Meanwhile, Bell hands the ball back to Curry up top. At the same time, Kevin Durant curls around Damian Jones’ screen, which serves as misdirection for Thompson — he uses Jones’ pindown screen to pop out beyond the arc for the three.

Much has been said about Thompson’s ability to move without the ball, and this has remained a staple of his overall game:

Similar to the previous sequence, a bit of misdirection is employed here. Bell gets the ball up top from Durant, who proceeds to cut toward the hoop. At the same time, Thompson, who starts from the left wing, begins moving and uses the stationary Bell as a “screen” to get ahead of his defender. This creates space for Thompson to cut toward the basket, and Bell’s pinpoint bounce pass finds its way to Thompson for the layup.

Much has been said about Curry as the engine and heartbeat of the Warriors’ offense, and rightfully so. However — having mastered the art of moving off the ball and sowing chaos and confusion among opposing defenses — it can be argued that Thompson is the poster boy for the Warriors’ identity as a perpetual motion machine.

Will Thompson improve enough to become a playmaker worthy enough to be mentioned alongside the likes of Draymond Green, Curry, and Durant? Will he finally achieve his goal of being in the 50/40/90 club? Only time will tell. But for Thompson, if what he has shown in the preseason so far is any indication, there is nowhere to go but up.