Tristan Thompson flourishing in starting role during Anderson Varejao's injury

USA TODAY Sports

Tristan Thompson entered the season with high expectations. The starting spot at power forward was handed to him with the departure of Antawn Jamison, and the reports indicated that no Cavalier worked harder than Thompson at improving in the offseason. The 21 year old has taken his lumps, both on the court (where he was forced to wear a mask for an extended amount of time), and off the court, from fans and media impatient with his progress. The former is predictable because Thompson plays a physical style of basketball and brings lots of energy. The latter, however, makes no sense. Lets explore why.

Both in the immediate aftermath of Tristan Thompson's rookie season, and in the preseason, Fear the Sword took a patient, and optimistic approach to what Cleveland should expect from the young power forward. Reading back on what I wrote in May, I was actually harder on Thompson than I remembered:

Offensively, he was just as raw as advertised. There is no post up game to speak of. He has a baby hook with decent touch on it, but has no clue how to get himself in position to use it. He travels when he does get the ball with his back to the basket (though his turnover rate isn't terrible, all things considered), and if a stronger Power Forward is on him, he can get bullied a bit and shoot falling away from the basket. This would be bad for a good shooter, and Tristan Thompson is not a good shooter.

Still, I liked what I had seen defensively:

Ultimately, he has all the tools to put his game together and be a great shot blocker and contester, while playing excellent on ball defense, and giving help to his teammates when they get beat off the dribble.

Conrad in the preseason set aside some specific areas of improvement he was looking for:

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 ... 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.

Basically, Thompson has made significant progress in all three areas, and, though it has been a bit easier to notice with Anderson Varejao missing the last nine games with a knee injury, the improvement holds up in his season-long numbers. In those 9 games, Tristan is averaging 13.2 points and 12.9 rebounds per game with 50% shooting from the floor and 72.1% from the free throw line. Not too shabby.

Offense

The league-wide average shooting percentage for power forwards is 47.1%. For the season, Thompson is shooting 47.7%, a marked improvement over his rookie year percentage of 43.9%. If you look only at the last 10 games, the picture looks even rosier; Thompson is shooting 51% over that period. The league average true shooting percentage for power forwards is 52.6%. Thompson is at 51% for the season, which is an improvement from last season when he was at 46.9%. In the last 9 games without Varejao, Thompson has a true shooting percentage of 55.6. Improvement across the board, with games interspersed that show real potential, should lead to a lot of optimism.

But it isn't just the numbers that show the improvement. Thompson is much more adept this year at putting himself in position to get off his baby hook. My eyes tell me he is traveling much less than he did last year, and despite about 8 more minutes played per game, his turnover rate is essentially unchanged. The league average is 1 turnover a game, and Tristan continues to be around 1.5, so more improvement in this area will be helpful. Tristan's usage rate has actually gone down this season. One theory for that is that he is no longer a ball stopper trying to force things. It still happens, but he has shown much more willingness to pass the ball out or keep it moving when he doesn't have good position. He has even shown flashes of being able to get some pretty assists. He isn't Marc Gasol, but he already has surpassed the number of assists he had as a rookie in 300 less minutes. I think this indicates he has a better understanding of his role in the offense, where his teammates are, and the game slowing down for him a bit.

Free Throws

Thompson continues his slow and steady improvement at the free throw line. After shooting 48% at Texas in his one season there, this became one of the most common and easiest complaints of fans disappointed with General Manager Chris Grant on draft night. So far though, this is one of the easiest areas to look at and come away with the conclusion that Thompson really is getting better. After shooting 55% as a rookie, Thompson is at 62% this year. Everything he does at the line is mechanical, and he shoots a bit of a line drive, but its working. His two free throws in Charlotte in crunch time were just as important to the team pulling off a win as Kyrie Irving's theatrics. At the very least, the worry that Tristan would never be able to play at the end of games because of foul throw issues appears to have subsided.

Defensive Rebounding

This is the area of Tristan Thompson's game that has me the most excited. The average defensive rebounding rate for a power forward is 18. Thompson was at 16.8 last season, which pulled down his overall rebounding numbers. He has always been excellent at getting offensive rebounds. This season, he has improved by 4 points, all the way up to 20.8. In the last 9 games without Varejao, though, his defensive rebounding has gone through the roof, going all the way up to 27.6. If he kept up that level for an entire season it would put him fourth in the league among power forwards playing over 25 minutes a game. If you look at his total rebounding rate over those 9 games and compared it to power forwards playing over 25 minutes a game, the only guy ahead of him is Kevin Love. It would appear that we have a potential elite rebounder on our hands. I understand I am splitting hairs, and it is a small sample size, but his positioning this season is vastly improved, and his energy and strength makes him really tough to box out. One of my underrated favorite things about this season have been the times where Tristan is so persistent on the offensive boards that he draws a foul on the poor soul trying to deal with him.

Frankly, there is a lot to love about Tristan Thompson' season thus far. His game looks ugly at times, and that isn't going to stop anytime soon. Twitter will continue to have meltdowns every time he gets his shot blocked. That is fine. But he holds his opponent to a Player Efficiency Rating over a point and a half lower than his own, consistently guards the opposing team's best big man, has improved in almost every single offensive metric, has seen his numbers soar without Anderson Varejao, and represents an excellent building block for the Kyrie Irving-era Cleveland Cavaliers. The argument isn't that Thompson is better than Varejao (yet, anyway); Tristan cannot pass like Anderson, or finish out off the pick and roll, or shoot, or guard certain NBA centers. But Chris Grant and Dan Gilbert have to feel good seeing the rebounding and defense out of their young big man. And with how Tristan Thompson works, it is hard not to root for him to succeed.

Much thanks to Basketball-Reference.com, Hoopdata.com, and 82games.com for the stats used here, and for Conrad in helping to use the sites.

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