Looking out for his Cougs: In midst of NBA playoff chase, Klay Thompson talks Pac-12 realignment, WSU women’s hoops and mentoring
March 27, 2023 Updated Mon., March 27, 2023 at 9:32 p.m.
DALLAS – This season marks Klay Thompson’s 13th in the NBA. The 11th pick in the 2011 NBA draft out of Washington State hasn’t played in Pullman for some time but the Cougars remain near and dear to his heart.
Thompson, 33, admits seeing his former conference, the Pac-12, in its current state of flux, is tough to watch.
“I haven’t even thought about (where WSU might end up),” the Golden State Warriors guard said after a practice last week in Dallas. “It’s a pretty sad scene, seeing USC and UCLA leave, but it’s (all about) the almighty dollar.”
The WSU product admits he was proud to see the Cougars women’s basketball team win the Pac-12 Tournament for the first time. “It was incredible,” he said. “Did something the school’s never done before, win a basketball championship in the Pac. It’s really cool to see those ladies just come together and do something that will last forever.”
Last Tuesday, the Warriors practiced at Southern Methodist University in preparation for a Wednesday night contest in downtown Dallas against the Mavericks. And one longtime member of the press who attended SMU couldn’t help but get Thompson’s thoughts on WSU possibly joining a conference farther east like the American Athletic Conference, which the Mustangs call home. “That’d be crazy. That’s too far east, too much travel,” Thompson said.
Another former Cougar, CJ Elleby, who spent several seasons in the NBA with Portland and is currently in the G-League, raves about Thompson’s mentoring of WSU products such as himself, a role which the longtime Warrior is more than happy to take on. “I’ve got a soft spot for all Cougs, especially guys trying to make it to the next level because I was in their shoes not too long ago,” Thompson said. “CJ, as a professional whether it’s in the NBA, G-League, or overseas is going to play a long, long time.
“I love his resiliency. He went down to the G but didn’t let that deter him from where he wants to go, and he’s been playing great. Same with guys like Mouhamed Gueye, who is coming out for us this year. He’s going to be a pro. Malachi Flynn (is with Toronto), we’ve had a lot of good pros come through like (Aron Baynes). We always got a special relationship when we spent so many formative years in the same place, Pullman.”
Steve Kerr has coached Thompson since 2014 and in that time, he’s seen Klay grow from a young player still trying to find his way in the NBA to a savvy veteran now happy to pass on everything he’s learned to the league’s next generation.
“Well, I think it’s an area where he’s grown over the last couple years. For much of my time here, he hasn’t had to play that role,” Kerr said. “When I first got here, he was one of the younger guys. We’ve always had a lot of vets on our team who stabilized things and allowed Klay to do his thing.
“The last couple years, he’s advanced into a different stage of his career and of our team’s run where he’s an elder statesman. He’s had to take on more responsibility as a vet for sure and as a mentor for these guys. It hasn’t always been easy, especially because he’s had to go through two major injuries during this transition.
“During the last couple months, I’ve really seen him grow more comfortable in that role, talking to his younger teammates more, giving them advice, just trying to do the right thing as a vet leader.”
Steph Curry is not only a longtime teammate of Thompson’s but he’s also one of Klay’s best friends. In fact, when Thompson had his No. 1 retired by WSU in January 2020, his fellow Splash Brother tagged along for the festivities.
And like Kerr, Curry has seen Thompson’s status as a veteran mentor with the Warriors elevated in recent seasons.
“I know they respect Klay and everything he’s done in his career, what he puts into the game and what he’s fought back with his injuries,” Curry said. “(He’s) just trying to make it about basketball. Early in the year, he got distracted by a lot of different outside talk, noise and distractions around who he was and who he was trying to be.
“Once he just started playing basketball and just enjoying the game, that’s a testament (to him). There’s a wisdom built into there as to how you’re supposed to approach it no matter what you’ve done in your career. He’s connected with the young guys, (Jordan Poole) especially, like every vet should, building them up, giving them encouragement but also showing them about the work you put into it and how all of that stuff matters.”
The day the Warriors practiced at SMU happened to be March 21, exactly 15 years to the day that Curry went from a previously unknown commodity at Davidson to basketball’s next big thing after he dropped 40 points, 30 in the second half, to help Davidson edge Gonzaga 82-76 in the opening round of the 2008 NCAA Tournament, a day Steph still recalls vividly.
“All the time. It’s part of your story,” Curry said. “There’s a documentary coming out about that story (in July on Apple TV). It’s a big part of how I see the game. I learned a lot those three years I was there. That’s obviously a big part of my story. I was probably an inch shorter and 30 pounds lighter 15 years ago. Pretty cool to reminisce for sure.”
As the reigning NBA champions, the Warriors have found a target on their backs all season. With six games to play, Golden State – which suffered a bad loss at home to Minnesota on Sunday – is sixth in the Western Conference and occupying the final guaranteed playoff spot, just a half-game ahead of the Timberwolves. Teams seventh through 10th are subject to the dreaded play-in game, a fate Thompson would rather avoid.
“It’s not ideal because you want to have the best record in the league, but we’re still in control of our own destiny,” Thompson said. “We want to avoid the play-in game, but it’s fun (being in a situation where every game counts). It’s better than being on the other side of it, which would not be in fighting position.”
Stephen Hunt is a freelance writer based in Frisco, Texas.
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