Exclusive Q&A: Klay Thompson Gets Defensive
By: Jesse Taylor
Most clichés are cliché because they’re true. Like “hard work pays off.” How does Klay Thompson, who came out of college with every draft analyst listing “defense” as a weakness (and I mean “every” – find one who didn’t) and who looked lost on that end of the court during his rookie year, become one of the best defensive shooting guards in his second NBA season? Hard work.
Like most, coming into this season I assumed Klay was a bad defender based on what I read and what I saw during his rookie year. It wasn’t until his sophomore season, when I started watching him exclusively for a series of games before the All-Star break as part of The Klay Thompson Watch that I noticed 1) he was guarding the other team’s best offensive wing player and 2) he was actually very good at it.
In terms of the best defensive shooting guards in the NBA, it’s Tony Allen and then everyone else. Kobe Bryant made second team all defense last season, but that was more on reputation than his play. This year he has fallen off so much, he is completely out of the discussion. Same with Dwyane Wade. After Allen, at shooting guard you probably would list Andre Iguodala (more of a 3 but plays some 2), Avery Bradley, Thabo Sefolosha, Aaron Afflalo, Iman Shumpert and … Klay Thompson?
Yes, Klay has been that good on defense. That he has made this jump only a year after been known as a defensive sieve is quite remarkable. His on-ball defense has been more impressive, but his team defense has seen the biggest improvement.
Brad Paisley and LL Cool J understand racism more than Klay understood team defensive schemes last year. He sometimes continues to have lapses in focus that negatively impact the Warriors team defense, like forgetting to rotate when away from the ball, but he understands where he needs to be and who he needs to help much better this season.
This defensive development has been critical to the Warriors success. Stephen Curry has not played like an “elite” defender, as Mark Jackson labeled him at the beginning of the year. He has been quite sub-par. Part of Klay’s defensive improvement is his ability to guard both point guard and shooting guards – even small forwards at times. This let’s the Warriors make adjustments from game-to-game, putting Klay on the other team’s best wing player.
In four games, Klay has held James Harden to 21 points on 31% shooting. Harden averages 26 points on 44% shooting. And closer analysis shows most of Harden’s buckets and free throws against the Warriors came at the expense of other defenders.
Tony Parker is the perfect example of the flexibility Klay provides to Mark Jackson. In January, Parker torched Jarrett Jack and the Curry-less Warriors, scoring 25 points on 10-18 shooting with 8 assist in the Spurs victory. A month later, Jackson put Thompson on Parker for most of the game and Klay frustrated the water-bug point guard. Parker shot 38% and scored 18 points with just 3 assists as the Warriors won on national TV.
People forget these defensive details when they say Curry and Klay are not a good match in the backcourt. In fact, because of Klay’s defense, there are not many better matches for Curry. The only better partner is someone who can guard 1s and 2s while also being able to set Curry up on offense. So outside of guys like LeBron James, Harden and Russell Westbrook, I’d say Klay is an ideal backcourt mate for Curry.
Game after game after game this season, Klay has frustrated his opponent with his long arms and constant feet movement. Always in position, opposing guards are finding it difficult to get up shots without Klay affecting their release.
I sat down for a chat with Klay to discuss all things defense. To my surprise, based on his TV interviews, away from the camera he was very open, expressive and actually quite excited to discuss defense.
What follows is an edited transcript of our talk. For players who want to work on their defense, I’ve included video links to display some of the defensive drills Klay discusses that have played a role in his improvement.
At what point in the season did the coaching staff decide you were going to guard the other team’s best wing player?
I think I just earned it because of my play throughout the season. All summer long, me and Coach (Darren) Erman worked on defense an hour a day, everyday. Coach Jackson and Coach (Mike) Malone noticed it. At the start of the year, they saw how I was moving my feet a lot better than they thought I could.
So I was playing strong defense at the beginning of the season. As the games went on and I was doing a good job against some great players, I think the assignments just came eventually as I earned it more and more.
When did you notice the difference in your defense and realize that you were able to stop some really good players?
I’ve always thought I could play defense, going back to high school and then college. I think my shooting and scoring always outshined it.
As for the NBA, it was probably midseason this year when I thought, “Oh, I can actually guard some of these guys.” That’s when the confidence really came.
Was there a certain player or a certain game where it really hit you?
Yeah, I’d say when we played the Spurs at home and wore those T-shirts. Remember that game?
Yep. Who can forget the yellow jerseys?
Tony Parker came into that game really hot, averaging like 24 and 10, and shooting high 50s from the field. (note: Parker was averaging 29.3 points on 57% shooting in his previous six games and 9.1 assists in his previous seven games)
I thought I did a great job against him in that game on national TV. I thought people finally noticed then that I could be a versatile player, not just an offensive guy.
You mentioned defense being a strength going back to high school and college. But looking at all the draft experts, it seemed they all listed defense as a weakness for you. How do you explain that?
Man, it’s funny you bring that up because I would read those and personally get offended. I was like, “Do these guys just not watch the games?” It was like every single one was “Weakness: Defense.” I took it personally, especially in the individual draft workouts, trying to show everyone I could play defense.
I mean, I’ve improved since then, but I also never saw myself as a bad defender in college. So I used to get really offended.
So maybe one guy wrote something and everyone else just did a copy and paste job?
Right, right. The thing about those draft guys is they can’t see every game and watch everyone play.
Even though you said you’ve always been a good defender, you also said you’ve improved a lot. What has been the biggest difference for you on defense from your rookie season to this year?
I’ve improved both physically and mentally, but the biggest improvement has been mental. Playing against everybody and knowing their moves.
What I’ve noticed the most is I’m picking up team schemes a lot better than I did as a rookie. I know where to be and how to help out my teammates. Like stepping in there to block out a big guy when one of our bigs rotates over to help the guards.
You spent an hour in the offseason working solely on defense. What exactly were you doing? For kids that want to get better at defense, what kind of drills should they be doing to improve?
Man, it sounds so simple, but we did so many shell drills. Four guys pass the ball around the perimeter and the defense sprints to their spot. All the great defenders are great at closing out. One of the hardest things to do in basketball is close out to your shooter with a live bounce.
Also, for young kids out there, I’d say just play a lot of 1-on-1. But on defense, don’t just check it at the top of the key. Start at the box, under the basket, and throw the ball out to the offensive guy on the wing and close out hard to try to keep him from scoring. That’s what’s really going to make you better. Not just standing there and playing defense.
Nothing is better than 1-on-1. It’s the best thing you can do to get better at defense.
What about actual training drills you did to improve your defense?
Outside of the hour a day on defense specific drills, I also did a lot of ladders and box jumps. Any kind of plyometrics. Things that increase foot speed and stamina. Also, just drills where you’re flying across the lane, closing out in good defensive position. Doing this for an extended period of time, you’re just going to get better at defense and get in better shape.
Because of drills like these, I can move my feet better than a lot of people thought I could. Having quickness and being able to use my length against shorter players helps out. I’d say my foot quickness is pretty underrated.
Hard work pays off.
Stamina has to be a critical component for you. On offense, you are constantly running around, using screens to get your shots. And on defense, you have to do the same because it’s usually against the other team’s best wing player. You play a lot of minutes and don’t have much time to rest.
That’s countless hours of conditioning. A lot of training and a lot of open gym. I love the job I have on this team. Not only scoring and moving off the ball, but defending the other team’s better players. It’s something I take pride in. Being able to play as many minutes as possible without tiring out. It really drives me.
But trust me, it’s not easy. Some nights you’re not at the top of your game, but you have to push even harder on those nights. It’s tough chasing around the other guys. They’re usually moving around a lot and coming off screens. You have to fight through those and take hits. It’s my job and I take great pride in it.
How important is the mental aspect of defense, in terms of having the confidence that you are going to shut your guy down?
It’s just as important as being in shape. If you can do it in your mind, it’s going to take you a long way. It’s going to push your body. Especially if a guy scores on you a couple of times, you can’t let that affect you. You got to guard him the same way. Do your best and think you’ll stop him every time. It doesn’t matter if he has 40 or 5 points. You got to treat him the same way every possession.
What role does video play in your defense?
It plays a big role; but honestly, I just enjoy basketball, so I watch a lot it. It’s just part of the process for me. Even if we’re not playing and I don’t need to scout someone, I’m watching anyway.
I have League Pass, so I’m always watching games. I focus on the guys who I’ll be playing against. Know what their strengths and weaknesses are. Whether it’s Tony Parker, who loves to get in the lane and shoot floaters. A great finishing scorer. Or if it’s Ray Allen, a great outside shooter. You have to play guys differently.
Have any of the guys you’re guarding been surprised by your defense. Have they said anything to you?
They’re always surprised because they think I’m just shooter. I’ve had a few guys say things off hand, just joking around. I enjoy it. It’s more just for fun.
Like James Harden? After four pretty hard-fought battles, he’s someone who comes to mind.
It’s funny, because I’ve been playing against James since I was 15 years old. So I really know his game.
What areas do you need to improve on the most to keep getting better at defense?
Probably just my upper body and lower body strength. The bigger guys are going to try to take me to the block and I gotta be able to hold my ground. Some guys make their living down there, so I need to make sure I’m solid playing post defense.
How would you rate your defense this season? Should you be in the conversation for NBA All Defense?
You go by each game and I’ve had some great games against some great players. I’d really appreciate that if I was in the conversation for All Defense, but some of that stuff is really political, I feel. I’m not going to be hurt if I’m not in it. But I’ve really busted my tail this year on the defensive end. If it’s not this year, one day I want to be in the conversation.