Team USA's Klay Thompson Breaks Down the Skills That Make Him a Shooting Star

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Team USA's Klay Thompson Breaks Down the Skills That Make Him a Shooting Star
Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

After a spirited practice at the United States Military Academy at West Point last week, the Golden State Warriors' Klay Thompson had enough energy to break down a player's shot far less crucial to Team USA's hopes in Spain—mine.   

"I see you," Thompson said in assessing this writer's shooting form. "That's not bad." Still, the Warriors sharpshooter suggested I begin my setup a bit higher for a quicker release. Coming from one of the best shooters on the planet, I gladly listened to his advice.

This past weekend, Thompson received validation of his own game when he became one of only 12 American players in the NBA to be named to Team USA's official roster for the FIBA World Cup. In an international field of play that caters to long-distance marksmen, Thompson should be a hot hand in Spain.  

The 24-year-old guard is the portrait for the modern-day shooter. He owns the record for most three-pointers made over the course of a player's first three seasons (545). In 2013-14, while averaging 18.4 points per game with an improved mid-range and off-the-dribble game, he shot 41.7 percent from downtown and hit 223 threes—second only to his backcourt sidekick and Team USA teammate Stephen Curry (261).

While at West Point, Thompson spoke with B/R about the tools and tricks needed to get to his level of expertise. Below are 12 shooting keys gleaned from the conversation, presented here in a first-person perspective and edited for clarity and length.

 

1. It all starts with the same pregame routine.

First, I need to make five shots from five different spots in the mid-range area. Then, I need to make three spot-up three-pointers, three transition three-pointers and one three from five spots around the arc. After that, I do a couple of pin-downs from each side, and then I've got to make three in a row from each baseline corner. I start at the top and run to the corner. I've got to make six total.

I created the routine and took some things from the Warriors' coaching staff. I used to shoot a lot more before the game, and then I went through a shooting slump last season in January. Former assistant coach Lindsey Hunter told me to cut my routine down, saying, "Don't leave your game on the floor." So I cut my routine in half, and my shooting percentage went up in the following months. It used to be 30, 40 minutes. Now it's 15, 20 minutes.

I don't adjust my routine to the opponent. I try to make the defense adjust to me, rather than adjust to them. But some teams are so different defensively, like the Bulls and Grizzlies, that you're not going to get a lot of easy touches in the paint or off the curl, so you've really got to work for everything you get.

I'm still open to new ideas. This Team USA experience has given me a chance to see what everyone does pregame. I saw Derrick Rose closing his eyes and controlling his breathing. He was visualizing the game. It's been cool to see how he approaches the game and be on the floor with him, because he was once an MVP.

 

2. The key to moving without the ball and using screens is changing speeds.

I watch guys like Steph Curry, Reggie Miller and Kyle Korver. All of them are really good at lulling their guys to sleep and then sprinting off a pin-down. When you do that, you either lose your defender or he's trailing you hard and you can throw a pump fake, and he goes around you.

I've learned to stop, walk my defender into a screen and spin off real quick. It's a lot about changing speeds, keeping your hands ready and staying active. I tried to pick up a lot of stuff from Kyle, who I shot with a lot recently when he was on Team USA. He's great at moving without the ball.

Rocky Widner/Getty Images
Klay Thompson has taken some shooting-off-the-screen cues from Stephen Curry, from Golden State to Team USA.

 

3. Reading screens is a feel thing with your defender and point guard.

I don't predetermine whether I'm going to curl off the screen or if I'm going to flare off it. I just feel it. And I don't really look at my defender's feet or where he is. That's a feel thing, too. It's more about my personal footwork, coming off screens. If my defender is going to cheat and go over the top, I'm going to plant my foot and step back one or two feet. I also try to use my height. I'm 6'7", and it's tough to block my shot. It only takes me about a second to get a good look.

You've also got to develop chemistry with your point guard, because he's got to read if you're flaring off the screen or if you're curling. Steph and I are getting good at that. We've played three years together now. He knows where I like the ball—on the right side of my body, right beneath my shoulder. And because he's such a great passer, he'll give it to me there every time.

We both think we have a lot of room to grow. I've never played with someone who shoots better than me, so he pushes me. Hopefully we can break some more shooting records if we just stay humble and stay together.

 

4. Sometimes you need to play a little physical with your defender to break free.

I try to get his hands off of me. It might be a foul, but you can always give a defender a little shove just to get one or two feet of space. That's all you really need. If he's trailing me and has to run around the screen, he's not going to be able to get to my shot.

 

5. Long swingmen defenders are typically the toughest matchups for mobile shooters.

It used to be Andre Iguodala, but we've been on the same team since last year. He's good for me in practice because he wants to guard me. Matt Barnes is pretty good at fighting through screens because he's long. Paul George is good at it, too.

Someone who's not as tall but is a great defender is Tony Allen. He's good at avoiding screens and getting back on defense.

Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press/Associated Press
Thompson calls Matt Barnes (pictured here defending the Warriors' shooting guard in this year's playoffs) one of his toughest defenders.

 

6. Many half-court sets are designed for great shooters, especially because their running off screens can put an entire defense on alert.

I can't give away all the plays, but coach Steve Kerr has told me he's going to implement a lot for me and Steph moving off the ball. We have a simple floppy action everyone knows. It's just a single screen or a double screen on one side. I start under the basket and go out either way.

Sometimes we'll audible plays. It's not like football where you have multiple calls. If a team is going to top block me, we have a call for it and I'll just run off the other side, moving off a screen set by the big man on the other block. Sometimes Andrew Bogut is on the weak-side block and David Lee is on the strong side at the free-throw corner. Depending how the defense is playing me, I can either move off D-Lee or Bogut.

They're both really good at setting screens, which is a bit of a lost art. A lot of times you see offensive calls where the rhythm isn't right between the screener and shooter.

To make it work, we've got to be patient and wait for the screen—even when we're dribbling our guy off the big man. Old point guards like John Stockton, Mark Jackson or Magic Johnson were good at backing their defender in, using the big man and then going off the screen.

 

7. Some players can get away with not being in top shape; not shooting guards.

The best shooters are in great shape, whether it's Steph, Ray Allen or Kyle Korver. Those guys don't stop moving. In the fourth quarter, especially, the game slows down a lot. You can't get as many transition looks, so you've got to be in amazing shape.

That's why during the season, I get a lot of reps on the elliptical machine that makes you use your arms. Sometimes late in the game when you've got a good rhythm, you do shoot with your arms. You can make shots like that. It's a lot of push-ups, a lot of pull-ups, a lot of repetition shooting. During the summer, I probably do like an hour, hour-and-a-half of shooting every day. I don't necessarily want to get bulkier, but be in great shape.

It's also important for me to run a couple of miles every day in the offseason. And when I do my practice shooting, I try to get a lot of shots on the move because those are what I'm going to get most in the game. I'm always going to be able to stand still and shoot, but the great shooters can sprint into shots and they can backpedal into shots.

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Thompson said the kind of shot Ray Allen made to win Game 6 of the 2013 Finals—backpedaling into a three-pointer in the baseline corner—is the most difficult for a shooter.

 

8. Speaking of backpedaling into shots...

Those are the toughest shots in the NBA—to backpedal, and then set your feet and get your balance, especially in the corner, like the shot Ray Allen hit in Game 6 of the 2013 Finals. People think that's an easy corner shot, but no—it's momentum going all the way back, and then you've got to collect yourself and go straight up and shoot it. When I shoot, I try to plant my heels because that's when I get my balance, and then I just explode through my toes.

My college coach, Tony Bennett, once told me my freshman year that when I shoot, envision water going from my toes to my fingertips in one fluid motion. All the great shooters' shots are like a reverse waterfall—Steph, Kevin Durant, James Harden, Kyle Korver. They've all got one fluid motion—no real hitches in their shots.

I've always had good footwork and balance, and good feet coming off screens. I think that's from playing multiple spots every year when I was younger, whether it was football or baseball. It all carried over. And I had a gift with the quick release. Once I grew into my body in high school, I was able to come off to an NBA three. That's a tough shot, curling into an NBA three. Not a lot of guys can do that.

 

9. Certain non-basketball sports are helpful for improving accuracy and conditioning.

I try to do other activities to stay in shape, whether it's tennis or golf, where I walk 18 holes. It's exhausting. A lot of shooters are really good at golf, Ping-Pong, pool or sports like that. It helps your mental toughness because you're going to hit bad shots.

My golf game has improved. I'm breaking 100, so I'll take it. I play with Steph, and he's the best I've played with so far.

My favorite is Ping-Pong; I've always loved that. Paintball is fun, too. I also like to swim a lot. I love the ocean, and I've heard it's good for your joints. Tim Duncan swims, and that guy is still playing at 38.

Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images
Thompson admires future Hall of Famer Tim Duncan's longtime swimming passion to stay in top shape.

 

10. While he wasn't the most athletic, Chris Mullin is the one player every shooter should study.

Growing up, I watched Ray Allen, Rip Hamilton and Allan Houston, but there was always something special about Chris Mullin. He wasn't athletic, but he knew how to get to his spot, and he never let the defense speed him up. He made the game look so simple.

He wasn't flashy. He just had his compact, smooth jumper, and he was one of the smartest players in the game. To average 25 a game and be slow and not athletic is an unbelievable testament to his skill and his work ethic. When he was with Golden State, he helped me a lot. He told me to get my center of gravity lower to help me explode on my shot.

 

11. Being off-balance is usually the main reason for missing jumpers.

I can tell right away why I missed. With me, it's usually my balance, where I'm leaning to one side too much. At the start of the game, I try to get my feet set, get my balance right. But if I'm hot in the game, I'll make those shots in the flow.

During the game, I try not to think about a miss, but you try to get an easy one, whether it's curling to the rim or getting to the free-throw line. As a shooter, once you see that ball go in once, that's all you need. You feel like you've got your rhythm back.

After the game, I study film. I'll watch it with an assistant coach, the head coach, a player—it doesn't matter. I just like someone there to give me feedback. Sometimes you're going to have a bad night. That's going to happen in the NBA, and you just have to accept it.

For me, shot selection is crucial, too. If I'm taking good shots, I'm shooting a high percentage. If I'm rushing my shot, taking a contested three or mid-range shot, it's a low-percentage shot. My shot selection has gotten better each year.

Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images
Thompson hopes to expand his scoring options by working more inside the paint.

 

12. The next phase for shooters means diversifying their scoring opportunities.

I realize how hard defenses run at me, so I've got to master the pump fake to draw more fouls. I saw that with Chandler Parsons recently on Team USA. He's got a great pump fake and can get guys off their feet.

Once you get to your spot off the dribble, you can get defenders off-balance with a quick pump fake or you can jump into them. I've gotten better at that, especially from the three-point line. Guys know most of the time I'm going to shoot, so I just need to give a good pump fake to get in the lane.

I've also been working on my floater. Steph shoots floaters and finger rolls that I've never seen before, so I try to watch him. His finger-roll game is crazy. I'm also getting better in the post.

Coming out of college, I felt like I was ready as far as moving without the ball, and catching and shooting. But when I got to the NBA, it was getting in the lane, shooting little jumpers and finding that little pocket pass. That's what I really had to develop, and still need to, in my career.

 

Jared Zwerling covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

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