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‘He means so much to the Cougar nation’: Former teammates, opponents reflect on Klay Thompson’s career at Washington State

UPDATED: Fri., Jan. 17, 2020

By Dan Thompson For The Spokesman-Review

Marcus Capers has told the story before, the story of how he ended up with the ‘0’ and Klay Thompson ended up with the ‘1’:

A game of one-on-one, played to 11, with a comeback for the ages.

Down 10-4, Thompson scored seven straight points to claim No. 1, a number that will never be worn again by anyone else at Washington State University.

It was clear to Capers then – shortly after they arrived on campus before the 2008-09 season – that Thompson was going to be a pro.

“After we played one-on-one, I asked him, ‘Why are you at Washington State?’ ” Capers said. “He said, ‘No one recruited me.’ I said, ‘I find that hard to believe.’ ”

Capers plays for the London Lightning in the National Basketball League of Canada, and he is trying to get to Pullman by Saturday evening, when Thompson’s No. 1 will be officially retired at Beasley Coliseum, joining Steve Puidokas’ No. 55 as the only numbers retired in WSU program history.

But as Capers reflected on Thompson’s legacy as a basketball player, he went much farther than calling him a great college player, or even an elite professional.

Thompson, Capers said, has helped change the game.

“When he got drafted by the Warriors,” Capers said, “I thought that might be scary with him and Steph (Curry), not knowing (then) that they were going to have the impact where every kid, instead of going for a layup, they’ll stop and shoot a 3-pointer.”

To those who coached him and prepared to stop him, and to those who played with him and against him, Thompson was an elite player who deserves credit for every accolade sent his way.

“I have the utmost admiration and respect for him as a player,” said Herb Sendek, now Santa Clara’s coach who was at Arizona State when Thompson played at WSU. “What he has accomplished is absolutely remarkable, and (he) is truly one of the game’s great players.”

Mark Few’s teams twice beat Thompson and the Cougars during what was the rivalry’s zenith.

“Awesome, awesome player,” the Gonzaga coach said on Thursday. “Just a great person, very focused on his craft, one of the best shooters in the history of the game. … Unbelievable role model, I think, for young people and everybody, and embodies what’s good in the game.”

Steven Gray was a guard on all three of those Gonzaga teams. He, too, lauded Thompson’s excellence.

“The level he’s gotten to, it’s crazy when you look back,” Gray told The Spokesman-Review last summer. “You knew he could shoot, and I thought a lot of that was because of the situation, but he’s proven beyond a doubt what he can do.”

‘Is he gonna transfer?’

After the 2009 departure of Tony Bennett, the head coach who recruited Capers and Thompson, Ken Bone, was named head coach at Washington State and started calling players to check in with them.

But he couldn’t get Thompson to answer him.

“Early on, (Klay) would not return phone calls,” Bone said. “I tried texting him numerous times … we could not get him to respond. Holy smokes. The first thing that comes to your mind: Is he gonna transfer?”

But Bone, who is now an assistant coach at Pepperdine under head coach Lorenzo Romar, reached out to Mychal Thompson, Klay’s father who played 935 games in the NBA.

“He said, ‘Don’t worry about it. He’s coming back. He’ll call you tonight,’ ” Bone said, recalling the conversation with Mychal. “Sure enough, that night Klay called.”

Around his coaches, Bone said, Thompson was not particularly outspoken. But he was driven to excel, and he had basketball instincts honed by being around his father.

“Klay’s advantage was he grew up with his brothers, and his dad knows the game,” Bone said. “Klay reminds me a lot of Brandon Roy. Brandon, like Klay, (has) unbelievable instincts. To be able to anticipate things, it’s like they see at a slower pace.

“Their ability to make plays without the ball and anticipate what’s gonna happen is hard to coach. You can try to run these drills over and over and hope they start doing things, but that’d take years.”

Roy, the Pac-10 Player of the Year in 2005-06 and the sixth pick in the 2006 NBA draft, was at the University of Washington for three of the years when Bone was an assistant there under Romar. In 2006-07, Roy was named NBA Rookie of the Year with the Portland Trail Blazers.

But injuries limited him to 321 games in five seasons in Portland. He retired for a year, attempted a comeback with the Minnesota Timberwolves in 2012-13 but only played five games there and retired for good after that.

Thompson entered the NBA in 2011-12 and has played 615 games, been named to five NBA All-Star teams and won three NBA titles with the Golden State Warriors.

“I don’t think any of us coaches would take credit for the success he’s had,” Bone said.

But entering Thompson’s sophomore season at Washington State, in 2009-10, Bone recognized that the Cougars were going to need Thompson to be more than just a shooter.

During his freshman year at WSU, Thompson started all 33 games and averaged 12.5 points, third on the team behind seniors Taylor Rochestie (13.2) and Aron Baynes (12.7). But about half of Thompson’s total points (414) came from 3-pointers (204), and just 28 came at the free-throw line. That was 6.8% of his total.

As a sophomore, though, Thompson diversified.

“He found new ways to score. He was driving it, he was posting up, he was getting to the free-throw line,” Bone said. “We needed him to score and not just come off screens and shoot.”

He scored 609 points as a sophomore (19.6 per game) and went 133 for 166 (80.1%) at the free-throw line, where he got 21.8% of his points.

Capers said Thompson considered going pro after that season but opted to return for his junior year, when he again led the team in scoring at 21.6 points per game and made 39.8% of his 3-point attempts.

After that season, Capers said he remembers Thompson telling him that he hoped to be picked in the lottery but that the future star didn’t think that he would. Capers, though, was certain of his teammates’ talent – as was Golden State, which selected him 11th overall in the 2011 NBA draft.

“Out of all the dudes we played, or anybody I watched,” Capers said, “I didn’t think nobody could shoot better than him.”

There are few who have. Thompson’s NBA career 3-point percentage of 41.9 ranks 13th all time. Atop that list is Steve Kerr, his coach at Golden State, who sank 45.4% of his 1,599 career 3-point attempts.

But of those 13 players, only two have attempted more 3-pointers than Thompson’s 4,290. One is Kyle Korver (5,622 attempts). The other is Curry (5,727).

“In basketball, certain players and certain teams change the whole style. Like, LeBron made the point forward and the all-around game (popular),” Capers said. “And now I look at Klay and Steph (Curry), they are a better version of (Detroit Pistons players) Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars.”

More than a shooter

What has made Thompson great, however, isn’t simply his shooting, in the estimation of Daven Harmeling.

Harmeling, now the head boys basketball coach at King’s Way in Vancouver, Washington, was a senior at WSU during Thompson’s freshman year. He was at that one-on-one game when Thompson claimed No. 1.

He said he knew then that Thompson would be a great fit for their team because they didn’t have anyone else who could shoot like that. But Thompson wasn’t just an offensive force.

“Ever since he was 18, his on-ball defense was uncanny,” Harmeling said. “Most catch-and-shoot guys are notorious for not being able to guard.

“That on-ball defense that’s so important in the NBA, he’s elite at that. Who else in the NBA can guard (James) Harden and the best 3s, 2s and 1s? I don’t think there’s anybody better at keeping him in front and contesting shots.”

The Cougars knew then, Harmeling said, they were taking the court with a pro. But they didn’t expect this from Thompson.

So what changed?

“He just kept getting better,” Harmeling said.

Harmeling is making the trip to be in Pullman on Saturday. It’s not terribly convenient in his schedule, but it’s something he said he couldn’t miss.

“He means so much to the Cougar nation,” Harmeling said, “and it’s a tangible sign of respect to be there to honor what he did in Pullman and what he’s gonna likely do in the future. … It’s one of those things where I wouldn’t miss it for anything.”

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