AAU coach helped steer Klay Thompson — son of former NBA player Mychal Thompson — to the Cougars.

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Outside the windows of Tony Bennett’s car, the Palouse hills of September rolled past, a tableau of farmhouses and silos and long, curving driveways.

The recruit from Southern California, the quiet, studious kid, eyed the surroundings. Bennett, the Washington State basketball coach, held his breath, knowing that the absence of asphalt and Carl’s Jr. can be a deal-breaker for the Cougars.

“It’s beautiful,” said Klay Thompson.

Right then, WSU thought it might have something. Or maybe it was a couple of months earlier, when Thompson’s trainer and AAU coach told Bennett they could land Thompson if they’d work at it.

Or maybe it was the night of Jan. 29, five weeks ago, when Thompson rained 28 points on Arizona State on the road, hitting 8 of 10 three-point attempts and announcing to the Pac-10 that on a shortlist of the league’s best freshmen, he belongs.

Thompson and the Cougars come to Edmundson Pavilion on Saturday to play Washington in the regular-season finale. Thompson averages 13.3 points and shoots 43 percent on threes, and is one more bit of evidence that no matter how much coaches work at it, recruiting remains an inexact science.

Klay is the middle son of Mychal and Julie Thompson. Mychal, a 6-foot-10 center, was a 13-year pro with the Blazers, Spurs and Lakers, picked No. 1 overall by Portland in 1978 to be the successor to Bill Walton and his persistent foot problems.

Two things about Klay that were true years ago: He could shoot, and he had the same serious expression he wears today.

“Since he was a third-grader, he could shoot threes,” says Mychal, a radio commentator for the Lakers. “He’s always been a mature and confident young man. Even back in grade school, he was always a kid under control and not overwhelmed by situations.”

Early in his Santa Margarita High School career, Klay and his older brother Mychel, now a forward at Pepperdine, hooked up with a nearby trainer/AAU coach named Joedy Gardner. His father of the same name was coach at West Virginia from 1975 to 1978, and Gardner had a solid career at Long Beach State in the early ’80s.

Through Gardner, Klay would play with and against a cavalcade of former and current L.A.-area players: Arron Afflalo, Michael Roll, Tayshaun Prince, Cedric Bozeman, Tyson Chandler, Kevin Love, Renardo Sidney.

“Joedy is one of the best shooting and technical coaches in the country,” said Mychal Thompson.

Klay didn’t exactly need a wholesale overhaul. But Gardner used his odd arsenal of props — towels, rubber bands, hula hoops — to help the 6-6 Thompson develop arch and balance.

“I said, ‘This kid’s going to be special,’ ” Gardner recalls. ” ‘Everybody’s going to come after him.’ “

Well, not so much. Thompson had a solid junior season but didn’t attract a lot of attention, perhaps because he was slender, maybe because he had spent a minimal amount of time on the AAU circuit.

“I was hoping teams in the Pac-10 would start paying attention to him,” Mychal Thompson says. “Nevada jumped on him really early. Tony [Bennett] was the only [Pac-10 coach] to jump on him. I was like, ‘What am I missing here?’ “

Later, there would be heavy irony in Nevada’s interest. For the time being, Klay was under the radar, even in July before his senior year, when Mark McLaughlin of Inglemoor High committed to the Cougars, fulfilling their need for a rangy, big backcourt player.

But before July was out, McLaughlin had asked out of that commitment, and suddenly, WSU was in the market again for a swing player.

Now, enter an old Bennett friend — Mike Burns, who had been a WSU assistant with Tony in 2003-04 under Dick Bennett before taking the Eastern Washington job. Dismissed at Eastern in May of 2007, Burns agreed to a summer stint as coach of an elite AAU team that included Thompson, as well as future UCLA players Jerime Anderson and Jrue Holiday and Arizona signee Jeff Withey.

Burns talked to Bennett, expressing his disbelief that Thompson wasn’t more highly recruited.

“The big rap was, could he guard?” Burns said. “But we’re playing the Atlanta Celtics in early July, and the only guy I could get to guard one kid on the Celtics was Klay.”

Then Bennett dialed up Gardner, who had earlier touted Thompson as a good prospect. It came down to WSU, Notre Dame and Michigan, in part because the Cougars and Bennett had a friend in Gardner.

“We sat down at lunch, and Klay asked me where I’d go,” said Gardner. “I told him, and that’s where he went.

“The system is perfect, the way they come off screens, plus Tony’s character is very positive. He’s a man who means what he says.”

McLaughlin, meanwhile, signed with Nevada and was tripped up by NCAA Clearinghouse issues. He attended a prep school in New Hampshire and left, but a spokeswoman at Nevada says he is on track to join the Wolfpack next fall.

In Thompson, the Cougars gained a player who is getting more adept off the dribble and might, as a freshman, have the best pure shooting stroke in the Pac-10.

“He’s wired to score,” Bennett says. “Like a lot of young kids, he loses some vision and gets exploited [defensively]. But he’ll have a nice future if he gets stronger and keeps working on individual improvement.”

There was a time when Thompson projected himself in a USC uniform. As Trojans coach Tim Floyd explained recently, another local product, Malik Story, committed to them as a ninth-grader and they thought that position was covered so they didn’t recruit Thompson. But Story couldn’t get into school and is now at Indiana.

“I ended up at a great place,” says Thompson. “So I can’t complain.”

All of it leaves his father shaking his head at the trend toward uber-early commitments. “If you miss out on a kid,” says Mychal Thompson, “there’s always another one to come along.”

Somehow, for the Cougars and Klay Thompson, it was that simple.

Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or bwithers@seattletimes.com