In the wake of Klay Thompson dropping 37 points on IPFW last night, I thought it would be fun this afternoon to look at some of the numbers after three games to get a handle on his early-season performance.
The conclusion? He's not just playing a little better than last year -- he's playing a lot better. And we're not just talking about the shiny point totals.
Granted, three games against mediocre-to-terrible competition isn't exactly the gold standard for measuring a player, but we've played some terrible competition the past few years, too, and nobody's done what Thompson is doing right now as a scorer. There are some differences between his freshman season and this young sophomore season that are so striking, it's incredibly encouraging going forward.
I'm the first one in line to tell you that I felt like Klay was an unbelievably underrated last year, even by our own fans. To do what he did as a freshman was just incredible -- if the one-and-done guys are on Tier 1, Klay was on Tier 2 (especially when you factor in his defense, rebounding, and the minutes he played last year).
But if there was one area where Thompson was lacking, it was being an efficient scorer. In that respect, he really was merely average last year, posting just a 97.0 offensive rating (basically, how many points Klay would be responsible for over 100 possessions, where 100 is generally average). That's good for a freshman -- I mean, Isaiah Thomas was only at 102.4 last year -- and it's especially nice because he used* a healthy 24 percent of the Cougs' possessions.
* The number of his team's possessions that ended as a direct result of him (basically shots, turnovers and assists).
But it's not great. Great is James Harden's 112.5 while using 32.7 percent of ASU's possessions. Great is Jodie Meeks' 117.4 while using 28.2 percent of Kentucky's possessions. Great is Stephen Curry's 117.8 while using 38(!) percent of Davidson's possessions.
Klay's now well on his way to great.After three games, his offensive rating is 130.0, even while using an enormous 33.9 percent of the Cougs' possessions. (Thompson appears to be taking Ken Bone's encouragement to be aggressive quite literally.) Granted, that rating is boosted quite a bit by last night's performance, but in three performances he's had one good one, one average one, and one ridiculous one -- and the average one was due mostly to an off shooting night early and some uncharacteristically poor free throw shooting.
In short, Thompson is actually transforming into the go-to scorer we all hoped he would become, because the true measure of a go-to guy is not how many points he piles up (hello, Allen Iverson), but how many points he piles up in an efficient manner (hello, Kobe Bryant). For a fanbase that's become almost pathologically obsessed with our expectation of disappointment, to call this a pleasant surprise would be the understatement of the month.
One of the things holding Thompson's offensive rating back last year was his stunning inability to get to the free throw line. As has been repeated ad nauseam, he only had 31 free throw attempts all last year. Well, he's already got 28 attempts this year, moving his free throw rate from an absurdly low 8.2 percent to a very good 59.8 percent. That's had an enormous effect on his ability to be an efficient scorer. Every time a player goes to the line, he's virtually guaranteed of having an average possession (one point), and when he shoots the way Klay does, he'll often have an excellent possession (scoring two points). Getting to the line with regularity is absolutely essential for a player to be an efficient scorer, and Thompson is doing it.
Here's another way to measure the impact of Klay's trips to the free throw line. True shooting percentage is basically a measure of what a player would have to shoot from 2-point range to match his overall output from 2's, 3's and free throws. Last year, his TS% was just 52.7 -- barely higher than his effective field goal percentage of 51.0. This year? It's up to 67.1 percent, nearly 4.5 percent better than his eFG%.
To wrap your brain around the impact Klay is having, imagine if you had a big man who never shot 3's and never got to the free throw line, but was making 67 percent of his shots -- and taking roughly 21 shots a game. That's what Klay's doing right now.
It's unreasonable to expect that Thompson can keep this sort of performance up for the rest of the year -- not when he's going to start facing taller, more athletic guards than what he's seen so far, and also become more and more of a focus of opponents' defensive game plans. (If he does keep it up, better say your goodbyes, because he'll be a top five pick in the NBA draft next year.)
But it's clear that Thompson is well on his way to making himself difficult for anyone to guard. Last year, he scored 43.9 percent of his points on 2's, 49.2 percent of his points on 3's, and 6.7 percent on free throws. This year, it's 46.9 (about the same), 25.9 (much lower) and 27.1 (much higher). When other teams start trying to take that lane away again, the 3-ball will come back and he'll be able to maintain his efficiency.
It's nice to have the demeanor of a go-to guy -- which Klay clearly has developed -- but that doesn't always translate into improved results. Quite often, it causes poor results. But when a guy is playing with that kind of confidence and it's impacting results in an undeniably positive manner? That's the kind of guy who has the potential to carry a team to a special place.