January 16, 2019

Golden State Warriors shooting guard Klay Thompson has a knack for “putting the ball in the hoop.” And often doing so under great duress.

As my internal-mind-GIF-player repeats Thompson’s stupidly contested shots during The 37-Point Quarter, I wondered to myself how much he eschews the pressure of defenses. So I looked at the data.

Of the players with at least an average amount of qualifying SportVU-tracked shot attempts through the end of January, Klay Thompson’s shots have been guarded the 20th-closest, about 7 inches closer than expected.

This figure leads the Warriors’ five qualifying players:


Here’s Klay’s total distribution of shots (where blue = defended closer than expected, and red = further than expected). Most of his shots are highly pressured, especially in that 1-foot-closer-than-normal range.


Not a king of the stepback like James Harden, Klay seems to thrive with defenders right in his face. Or at least, they are often flying in the general direction of his face. A couple of prime examples of Klay’s beloved shot follow below: a defender makes a half-second error, then all of a sudden has to sprint to get a hand in his face, but Klay doesn’t alter his shot form and just calmly drills it.

– Kobe Switches off of Klay, leaving Jordan Hill to scramble towards the ball.

– Warriors fast break, Kobe doesn’t step up until Klay is already set.

– My personal favorite of these three, Klay casually strolls around the 3-point-line, Wesley Johnson does not know a play is unfolding around him, Klay quickly sprints behind the line, catches and connects. Johnson hustles around Draymond’s slightly-moving-screen but it doesn’t matter.

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Let’s take a step back and explain where this “Expected defender distance” metric comes from. Largely, this can be predicted by shot distance. Due to the location of the basket, closer shots usually have closer defenders. This graph shows the average defender distance (y-axis) on shots taken from various distances from the basket (x-axis):

avgdefD by shotD

A couple other factors go into my calculations, however, including touch time and dribbles. For example, we expect post-ups to be much more closely guarded than catch-and-shoots. So how far away are defenders from Klay’s shots, by distance? The foot-by-foot areas in the above graph are a little too small for a good sample size, so I instead below grouped shot attempts into three pointers, and four different lengths of two-pointers:


As you can see, Thompson’s most common, longer shots tend to be guarded more closely than average, such is the respect for his jumpmshot. His “close” attempts, on the other hand, are probably a bit more rare because of his size, and typically occur with defenders further away than a typical “close” shot – think transition buckets, for example.

So it is apparent that defenders get scathingly close to Thompson in his favorite range. Either way, it’s not slowing him down, as we can see by his effective field goal percentage when compared to a typical NBA player’s efficiency:

avgefg by shotD

Combining these findings, we see that Klay is significantly more pressured on his jumpshots than a typical shooter, and yet he is shooting at a higher efficiency than a typical player. Let’s look at both of these ideas together.

The below chart shows in blue how closely a typical player taking Klays shots would be defended, and the expected efficiency of said shots. In red, we see Klay’s actual performance. Using the data for both this season and the previous one, we see not only how good of a shooter Klay Thompson has become, but how quickly he has done so:

You can clearly see this ability to hit jumpshots under such pressure is a marked improvement from last season.

Klay is lights-out when shooting as defenders close in or fly towards him this season. He is shooting upwards of 1.35 points per shot with players 1.5 feet closer than expected. But how many shots in this range is he taking? Is this just a fluke due to a small sample size?

Negative. Here are Thompson’s TOTAL points above expected (i.e. the red line minus the blue line) for the whole season.


So, can anyone stop Klay? Here’s a very small sample of Thompson’s defenders through January. Of note is how Wesley Johnson, Andre Roberson and Solomon Hill have all guarded him more closely than an average player-defender, and yet he has shot much better against them. The few who have slowed Klay down a bit include Trevor Ariza (14% worse eFG than expected) and Mario Chalmers (10% worse).


An interesting side note would be Joakim Noah’s seeming inability to stop Klay – SportVU has tracked him as the closest defender on 10 FGAs, but this was more likely due to a switch or Noah rushing to help (thus the far distance), since Noah obviously doesn’t typically guard twos. Noah, a former Defensive Player Of The Year winner, is certainly excellent on switches. Yet even a former DPOY cannot contain Thompson’s shot-making, no matter how close he gets.

Everyone knew long before the 37 point quarter quite how good of a shooter Thompson has become this season. Yet quantifying it like this adds statistical evidence of what the eyes keep struggling to believe. If Klay can keep up his Splash, the Warriors look pretty unstoppable.


Nathan Walker

I was born into a basketball loving family at the age of 0 in North Carolina. My mom a Carolina fan, my dad a State fan. Carolina was way better than State from the time I learned English until now, so I naturally sided with the Heels. In college I learned how to use Excel and discovered kenpom.com and I haven't closed Excel since.

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