Cleveland Cavaliers training camp is right around the corner and it's time to seriously start thinking about the upcoming season. While we wait for the preseason to arrive, I'll be talking a lot about expectations. What are our expectations for the team in general? What's our expectation for Kyrie Irving? I know everybody wants to talk about what we'll get out of Dion Waiters and Tyler Zeller in 2012-13. And we'll get to those questions. But to start us off, I want to look at what I believe to be the most significant question going into next season.
What can we expect from Tristan Thompson?
I don't have to tell you guys that the selection of Tristan Thompson with the fourth overall pick in 2011 was met with some criticism. Naturally, his development will go a long way towards determining how much better the Cavaliers get in the next several years. Other rookies were more prepared for the NBA last season. Some spent four years in college while Thompson spent just one and some just had more polished skill sets. Thompson was very raw as a rookie and it was quite apparent from watching him. He skills need refinement, he needs to get more comfortable with Kyrie, and he simply needs more experience on a basketball court. He got a chance to improve on some of those things last year and will have had a full offseason and training camp for the first time leading into this year's campaign. In a perfect world, those factors would lead to significant development and he'll have a much better sophomore season. But how much improvement is reasonable to expect? That's what we've got to figured out.
In 2011-12, Thompson averaged 8.2 points and 6.5 rebounds per game. He shot just 43.9% from the field, 55.2% from the free throw line, and played 23.7 minutes per game. On the surface those numbers don't look great, but when you adjust them for per-36 minutes, the totals are relatively respectable. Per-36 minutes, Thompson averaged 12.5 points and 9.8 rebounds, with the same percentages (obviously). For an incredibly raw rookie who was playing out of position for much of the season, nearing a double-double per-36 is by no means terrible. He also averaged 4.7 offensive rebounds per-36 last season, good for 5th among players who saw regular action. That's an incredibly useful skill to have. He had the fourth highest offensive rebounding rate, according to Hoopdata.com. Here are his full stats in case you don't know how to look up stats on the internet or use google.
Quick side note: I don't mean to gloss over defense in this post, but for simplicity's sake, I'm kind of going to. Tigger averaged 1.6 blocks per 36 minutes and certainly has the physical tools to be an above average big man defender. He needs to work on his pick and roll defense, primarily. Furthermore, he needs to add strength to handle bigger bodies in the low-post. It's hard to really express how we need him to improve until we see what role he's going to be playing/what other big men make the team. We'll revisit this at a later date, I promise.
When looking at Tristan's rookie year, there's three really obvious areas where he needs improvement: defensive rebounding, shooting percentage, and free throw percentage. While his offensive rebounding rate was 4th best in the league, his defensive rebounding rate (16.8) was just below average for a forward (16.9). With his incredible knack for getting offensive boards, adding above average defensive rebounding would put him into the upper echelon of rebounding forwards. Instead of 9.8 rebounds per-36, I'd like to eventually see Tristan bump it up to around 10.8-11.5 rebounds per-36.
We knew free throws were going to be a problem for Tristan. In his one season at Texas, he shot a pathetic 48.7% from the line, basically negating the fact that he drew fouls more than nearly any other player. He saw slight improvement in the NBA, shooting 55.2%. In order for Tristan to make the most of his penchant for drawing fouls AND to make him useful at the end of games, he needs to bring that number up to around 65%. A professional shooting coach and lots of reps should be able to make this happen in due time. There was some relatively significant improvement throughout the year, as well. Tigger shot 37.2% (!!) from the line in January and was able to shoot 53.3% in February, 61.5% in March, and 62.5% in April. That's a good reason to be encouraged. Of his glaring flaws, this is probably the easiest to fix and it seems as though he is on the right track to doing so.
Finally, we come to the shooting percentage. Thompson's detractors will immediately point to the 43.9% field goal percentage as the main reason that the Cavaliers should have drafted Jonas Valanciunas. Admittedly, Valanciunas managed to not miss a single NBA shot all of last year. Meanwhile, Thompson missed 248 shots! That stat alone tells the whole story. The Cavaliers obviously screwed up big time.
More seriously, though, 43.9% isn't a good number. League average for power forwards in 2011-12 was 47.7%, putting Thompson easily below average. I'm not denying that he needs to improve in this area, but I will say that it wasn't quite as bad as you think and could improve quite a bit with a few tweaks. One of the most glaring stats that I've noticed is that just 49% of his made field goals came off assists from his teammates. For a comparison, a whopping 71.9% of Anderson Varejao's made field goals were assisted on. That tells me that Thompson is trying to create for himself far too much. He's simply too raw to be trying to create that many scoring opportunities and would benefit from relying on Kyrie and the other ball handlers to set him up for easier shots. League average for forwards is 63.7% assisted. There's no reason for Tristan to have a number that far below average.
On that same note, Tristan needs to be playing with Kyrie much more. In 2011-12, he played just 524 of his 1424 minutes with Irving on the floor. When he had Uncle Drew on the court with him, Tristan saw remarkable improvement in his efficiency. He shot a perfectly respectable 50% from the field with Kyrie on the court, compared to 41% with Kyrie off the court. Similarly, his shooting percentage in the restricted area (right under the basket) skyrocketed (59% with Kyrie vs. 46% without). With Antawn Jamison now bricking thousands of midrange jumpers for the Lakers, Tristan will slide into the starting lineup at power forward and will get plenty more time with his fellow 2nd-year player.
This isn't the first time it has been mentioned and it probably won't be the last, but....Tristan simply needs to finish stronger. He's a beast dunker and he has surprisingly good touch around the basket. Despite that, he shot just 56.8% at the rim. League average for forwards was 64.0%. Heck, even Jamison shot higher than that (62.8%). Again this comes from getting easier looks and just being more confident with the ball. He showed off some simple post moves during Summer League and there's no reason this critical number shouldn't come up. His shooting percentages just go down more as you get further away from the basket (as one would expect) and he's been working to gain some midrange game. I'm not really that concerned about that. Blake Griffin shoots 27.7% from 10-15 feet and that's horrible. But he still produces at an elite level because he converts a crazy high 73.7% at the rim. Just make the highest percentage shots and you'll be perfectly fine.
So Tristan just needs to improve those three areas and he'll be a stud, right? Sure, but it's unreasonable to expect him to put it all together in just one offseason. But the bottom line is that we need to see progress is free throw shooting, defensive rebounding, and field goal percentage (specifically at the rim). His minutes will undoubtedly increase and he'll get plenty of time with Kyrie Irving. According to Terry Pluto, Tristan has been working relentless this offseason to get better and that's freaking awesome. Here's what Terry wrote about Tigger:
Tristan Thompson has spent more time at the practice facility than any Cavalier this summer. The goal for the 6-9 power forward is to average 10 rebounds and 10 to 12 points. He averaged 10.4 points and 7.5 rebounds in 28 starts last season -- and they want that rebounding number to rise. He's only 21.
Those are probably good goals, but I think they are a bit on the conservative side. If we assume that Tristan gets roughly 33 minutes per game I think it's reasonable to project 13.9 points and 10.6 rebounds (6 defensive, 4.6 offensive) per-36 minutes on 47% shooting from the field and 59% shooting from the free throw line. If Tristan has been working as hard as I think he has, there's no reason he can't meet and possibly exceed those expectations. If he puts up those numbers in just his 2nd year and combines that with above average to very good defense, I think Cavaliers fans will be very pleased with the selection of Tristan Thompson.
What are you hoping for from Tristan Thompson this coming season? Do you think Jonas Valanciunas is a magical unicorn? Would you rather have a basketball player or a unicorn?