Cougars’ Thompson: the one that got away

Seldom are there opportunities for do-overs in sports.

But I would bet that USC wishes it had another chance to recruit Klay Thompson.

Thompson now stars as a guard for Washington State, an off-the-map destination for what might be one of the Pac-10’s best players. The sweet-shooting sophomore has emerged as one of the country’s most potent threats, ranking fifth in the NCAA in points per game.

USC will have to find a way to contain Thompson tonight when the Trojans play Washington State at the Galen Center, but few teams have had luck corralling him. And as Trojan defenders prepare to lock him down, they’ll also have to consider that they could have been playing alongside him.

Thompson’s emergence as a star seemed unlikely just a few years ago when he was playing in USC’s backyard. Throughout his career at Santa Margarita Catholic High School, Thompson was always known for having a great shooting stroke. But questions persisted about how his skills would translate at the next level, even after a standout senior season.

Despite having offers from several schools, Thompson was essentially ignored by the Pac-10. Yet Washington State, which under former coach Tony Bennett developed a reputation for overachieving with lightly recruited players, seemed like the perfect fit for the second-generation basketball star (Thompson’s father is Mychal Thompson, the No. 1 overall pick in the 1978 NBA Draft).

Less than two years later, Thompson has made plenty of schools regret overlooking him — including USC.

“It would have been cool to go to USC or UCLA at the time, but they already had guys recruited at my position, so it was difficult to get an offer from either of the two. I understood the situation,” Thompson told Sports Illustrated this summer.

The Trojans looked at Thompson but already had a commitment from Malik Story, a player who began his career as a highly touted prospect but fizzled after a tumultuous senior year. Story never enrolled at USC, instead starting at Indiana and then transferring to Nevada.

Former USC coach Tim Floyd tried to explain last year why Thompson slipped through his fingers in favor of a player that never made it to campus. But hey, it’s not his problem anymore.

Still, Thompson’s story reveals plenty about the previous administration of Trojan basketball.

Floyd had an odd habit of reaching for stars and burning up in the atmosphere when he fell short. He was able to bring in NBA-level talent, but it often created great roster turnover that forced the team to plug leaks on a yearly basis.

The influx of stars often came at the expense of players like Thompson who are capable of overachieving. Floyd also often ignored positional needs, instead bringing in a glut of swingmen no matter the team’s landscape.

It’s true that elite talent often separates the top-tier teams from the rest in the NCAA. And Floyd deserves credit for bringing in the current players as well as assembling what would have been a stellar recruiting class.

But it was Floyd’s pairing with O.J. Mayo and whatever happened subsequently that got USC in hot water with the NCAA. And it wasn’t until this year that, without a star on the team, many of the former role players started to flourish.

There should always be room for players like Klay Thompson ­— more coaches just need to realize it.

USC’s handling of Thompson also brings into question a NCAA-wide practice: recruiting too early. Surely there was a time when Story looked like a better prospect than Thompson, but there’s little value in making prognostications on players who are still growing.

Story committed to USC before his sophomore season, but Floyd took commitments from players so young that they hardly knew where their high school locker was. Plenty of schools race to lock down players as early as possible, but the pledges rarely tend to pan out. Since when are 14-year-olds capable of committing to after-school plans, let alone a college?

Schools have to begin making inroads with prospects as early as possible — it’s a reality of the recruiting game. But schools should be aware that their evaluations need to continue into the later years of high school. Some players plateau and others, like Thompson, are late bloomers but show great potential.

Perhaps it would have taken a circuitous route for Floyd to get Thompson to USC. But there’s no question how much the Trojans could use him — Thompson has made 44 three-pointers this season, which doubles Dwight Lewis’ team-leading total of 22.

There’s nothing USC coach Kevin O’Neill can do about it, but tonight he might wish that USC hadn’t let Thompson be the one that got away.

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