From a technical standpoint, Klay Thompson's jump shot is as close to perfect as it gets.
Not every player can fire three-pointers off the dribble like Stephen Curry. Not every player can load and release as quickly as Ray Allen. Not every player can maintain proper form while shooting it off balance like Kevin Durant.
Thompson has evolved into one of the league's premier 2-guards by rounding out his offensive repertoire, but his jumper has always been the foundation of his scoring. Whether it's flying off a screen, catching and shooting off a drive-and-kick or pulling up in pick-and-roll, his mechanics rarely deviate.
There is no one correct way to shoot a basketball, but certain mechanical elements are the foundation of almost every successful shooter: balance, follow-through, relaxed shoulders and spread fingers, to name a few.
If there's any single unifying feature, it's that great shooters rarely let extraneous movement creep into their technique. Thompson most certainly has this gift of a tight and smooth jumper.
Let's break down how this happens, piece by piece.
This is arguably the most crucial factor in reducing the time between the catch and the release—the pitfall of most shooters, in that it's the difference between a player even being able to attempt a shot or not. Every split second is crucial against the world's best athletes, and great shooters recognize how to cut corners.
Some players rotate the ball to line it up on the seams for an easier jumper. Others bring the ball down to a point of comfort before driving it back up vertically. Thompson, like any other shooter, does these things when he can. But where he separates himself is in the ability to execute these motions with lightning-quick speed.
Check out this Thompson jumper from the Golden State Warriors' recent game against the Memphis Grizzlies. As he curls around the screen, Draymond Green hits him with a pass that is slightly behind and about shoulder high. While this isn't a poor pass by any means, it isn't exactly optimal.
Yet before his defender, Courtney Lee, can even take a step toward Thompson to contest, the sharpshooter has already dropped the ball into his shooting pocket. Below on the left is the exact placement of Thompson's catch; the right is the split second before Thompson begins to rise up with the ball.
Notice that no player in either frame has even moved before Thompson executes his gather.
At full speed, it's a complete blur.
This, according to J.J. Redick of the Los Angeles Clippers, is what's arguably most impressive about Thompson's jumper, according to J.A. Adande of ESPN.com: "It's so easy, from deep range." Redick marvels: "His ability to get his shot off, no matter where he catches the ball—down, up high, whatever—it's right into that shot pocket."
Thompson is dipping the ball to his right hip to decrease the likelihood of an angular release. Rising with the ball from where he originally catches it (high and to his left) creates an awkward lift toward his release point. It's far easier to release the ball straight if the initial ball lift is straight as well. By bringing the ball to that point on his right hip every time, Thompson is ensuring the same shooting motion is in place on every shot.
If he were to shift the ball directly from the point of the catch to his release point, no two of his shots would be the same. Passes never come in at the same angle or the same speed. He'd constantly be adjusting to the pass, thereby utilizing slightly different gathers every time. That's how extraneous movement sets in and shots spray all over the place.
Many coaches try to eliminate this dip as much as possible, and at times you can see Thompson simply rise and fire with little dip. But what makes him a next-level shooter is two-fold: his ability to maximize the speed of the dip whenever he has to use it and his ability never to bring the ball below his hip.
Many players have to bring the ball farther down to reach a point of comfort. Thompson has established his at his waist, which means he is slashing time between the catch and the shot.
Balance is a tricky beast in jump shooting, particularly because most shots aren't of the standstill, catch-and-shoot variety. Players are usually on the move, whether it's sliding down to the corner, using a dribble or maneuvering around screens and defensive bodies.
Basketball isn't played in a vacuum.
The real problem is that balance, in terms of its accepted definition, is a bit of a misnomer for basketball. Staying balanced traditionally points to staying straight up and down, which is to say that the takeoff point and landing spot on a jumper are one and the same.
This is actually an incorrect shooting technique.
What's actually most crucial is keeping the body aligned.
This means that the entire body is in sync with itself. If a player is fading away, his upper body must contort backward in the same proportion as his lower body leans forward. The hips are an axis, but the body never bends at the hip. Everything moves together.
This is particularly important because the best shooters do not actually jump up and down completely vertically. More natural for the body is to drive the legs slightly forward while leaning back a touch. If the body is the hands of a clock, it isn't about being at 12 and six; it's more like one and seven (or 11 and five, depending on which direction the player is facing).
As he eases into the shot, Thompson's momentum isn't carrying him anywhere. He's dancing along the three-point line almost completely balanced. At the point of release, he's mirroring that pre-shot balance. Freezing Thompson's shot just as the ball leaves his hand would seem to indicate that he's jumping straight up and down.
Yet if we fast-forward the tape just a moment later, his legs are in front of the three-point line, while everything else is behind it.
This might look wrong and feel counterintuitive, but this type of body angling actually relaxes the upper body and the shoulders in particular.
If a player lands completely flat-footed and in the same spot as his takeoff, his shoulders remain completely tense on the follow-through. This tension naturally takes away from shot power because it focuses energy on the body instead of exerting force into the ball.
Try it yourself right now: Mimic shooting the ball and land in the same spot. Focus on your shoulders and how they feel.
Driving the legs forward forces the back to lean proportionally the other way. With the back sagging, so do the shoulders. Any tension, therefore, dissipates.
Now mimic a jumper again, but this time land with your feet just a touch in front of your takeoff point.
Even though Thompson isn't "balanced" by the typical definition, his body is in rhythm with itself. Nothing is actually out of whack.
Even if a player doesn't significantly bring his feet forward, you can tell he's applied proper backward body lean by the way his lower half reacts after landing. If he has to backpedal slightly after the shot, he's angled his body properly. (You might have noticed that your body reacted similarly on your mimic jumper.)
Notice how exaggerated Thompson's backpedaling is in the video above.
Thompson, by the way, isn't alone in this technique: Nearly every great shooter in the league naturally slants this way.
The final building block of Thompson's jumper is a natural extension of the previous point: minimal follow-through. Exaggerating the follow-through is widely held as the icing on the cake of a pretty jumper, but it's actually counterproductive.
Just as landing flat-footed adds extra stress to the upper body, holding the follow-through tenses the shoulders even more.
From a teaching standpoint, it's easy to see why the extended follow-through has caught on as a go-to technique: It hammers home the point that the shooter does not short-arm the ball.
The problem is that leaving that arm up in midair requires quite a bit of effort. Remember that we're always trying to eliminate extraneous movement and keep the shooting motion as clean and stress-free as possible. It's impossible to relax the shoulders when one is engaged by maintaining the arm in an unnatural position.
And that's what this final point really comes down to: The arm naturally wants to lie at rest on the body's side. It doesn't want to strain up in midair. A great shooter only needs to hold his release for just a split second after the ball is released. Once the ball is mid-flight, the job has been accomplished.
It's possible—and happens often—for shots to go in even with bad technique. Sometimes, some components are missing when others are prevalent. Thompson, for instance, has a tendency to hold his follow-through and land flat-footed in open catch-and-shoot situations.
Part of that is probably for effect, because, let's be honest: It looks nice when a shooter swishes a shot and holds his hand high up in the air. But when it comes time to make shots under pressure, Thompson tightens everything up and relies on the bread and butter of his mechanics.
It's those three main components—the ultra-fast gather, the angled body into a backpedal and the minimal follow-through—that make him one of the NBA's best marksmen.