PULLMAN – If Klay Thompson’s days in Pullman are numbered – and there has been some talk that’s the case, including from his coach – then the next nine might be the most interesting of the thousand or so he’s spent as a Washington State Cougar.
The 6-foot-6 junior wing will showcase his well-rounded game in two battles against the Pac-10’s upper echelon – Arizona tonight and conference-leading Washington next Sunday – and the two players he’s competing with for the conference’s player of the year award, UA’s Derrick Williams and the Huskies’ Isaiah Thomas.
Though basketball is a team game, there are individual awards and accolades attached. And Thompson, when pressed, will allow the competitor inside to emerge.
“It’s not my No. 1 goal, but I’m not going to lie and say it’s not important, because it is, “ he said this week of the possibility of being the conference’s player of the year.
“Shoot, if you are any kind of basketball player that’s what you strive for.”
Thompson has stated his case for postseason honors persuasively in the Cougars’ first 19 games – they are 14-5, 4-3 in Pac-10 play – and not just with his Hershey-sweet shooting stroke.
He is the nation’s eighth-leading scorer (22.9 points per game), but he also leads WSU in assists (4.3 per game) and steals (35) and is second in rebounds (5.4 per game) and blocked shots (20).
Thompson fills the box score so often it seems a game like Thursday night – 22 points, nine assists, eight rebounds, three steals and two blocked shots – gets lost in the flotsam of a 78-61 win.
“It’s not to the coaching staff,” said coach Ken Bone after the game. “It might be to fans. If it is, it is a shame, because he’s going to go down as one of the greatest players to ever come out of Washington State.”
Thompson is tied with Marcus Moore for fifth on WSU’s all-time scoring list with 1,458 points. The four players ahead of him all played four years for WSU.
Though he’s been non-committal about his future plans, it’s obvious by the number of NBA scouts that follow the Cougars, Thompson’s stock has risen this season.
“I hope his days are numbered here,” Bone said. “I know that’s his dream, to get to the NBA. Anybody that has those aspirations, you want to help and see them reach their goal. I think he has an opportunity to do that.
“If it’s after this year, we would wish him well and I think he would do well.”
But between then and now, there’s a little matter of the Pac-10 race – WSU is fourth, a half-game behind Arizona and UCLA, both 4-2 – and the player of the year award.
Williams started the year as the front-runner, and the 6-8, 241-pound forward has done nothing to hurt his candidacy. He’s averaging 19.8 points per game, pulls down 7.5 rebounds, makes 64.7 percent of his shot attempts and has gotten to the free-throw line 181 times (making 139), both tops in the conference.
“He’s probably the best finisher in the Pac-10 as far as above the rim,” Thompson said. “And he’s skilled on the perimeter too. He can pretty much do everything. He’s a really good scorer, really efficient.”
“(He’s) arguably the best player in our league, maybe even a first- or second-team All-American,” said Oregon State coach Craig Robinson. “You know, that’s pretty good.”
Williams was the Pac-10’s freshman of the year last season, when he averaged 15.7 points and 7.1 rebounds. But he put on a few pounds of muscle in the offseason while working hard on his shooting and it shows.
“He has the ability this season to finish off smaller players or even finish off against bigger players close to the basket,” said his coach, Sean Miller. “A year ago, he could really out-quick you and sometimes finish. Because he’s much bigger and stronger a year later, he’s got a lot of three-point plays.”
“He was only 18 last year,” said WSU’s DeAngelo Casto, who battles Williams on the inside. “With a young body that looked like that he has a lot of potential. He can fill it out even more. I just see him getting better. The sky’s the limit for that kid.”
Last year Casto gave Williams fits, both down in Tucson, where Casto scored the winning bucket as time ran out, and in Pullman. WSU won both matchups, with Casto outscoring Williams 35-29 and outrebounding him 19-13 in the two games combined.
For the Cougars to be successful tonight, Casto will need to get at least a draw.
“He’s going to have to come up big,” Thompson said. “It’s a huge challenge. I know he’ll be ready to meet it, because it’s an opportunity for him to show people what he’s capable of.”
Thomas did that Thursday night, leading the Huskies to an 85-68 win with 22 points and 10 assists. For the season, the 5-9 junior is averaging 16.8 points and 5.7 assists per game.
“If he is not one of the four or five best (guards in the nation), then I want to invite those guys who vote to come watch film of him,” Miller told reporters afterward. “He is dynamic.”
But that dynamism won’t be on Friel Court tonight. The stage is reserved for Arizona and WSU. And Williams and Thompson.
It just might be their last rodeo in Beasley Coliseum.
“We would love to have him, obviously for another year, but if he gets his opportunity to go to the NBA, he’s like anybody else, he will do it,” Bone said of his star. “So there is also a chance he has six games left here in the Palouse. Sometimes it does surprise me that more people don’t come out to watch him, because he is spectacular.”