June 23rd, 2011. The Cavaliers have already selected Kyrie Irving first overall in the NBA draft, and David Stern is again at the podium with the Cavaliers pick. Jonas Valunciunas is the popular choice, but there are questions about whether he will come to the NBA this season. Kawhi Leonard is an option, but does he have a position? Klay Thompson is a low murmur in the rumor mill, but there are questions about his long term potential. What took place would come to tell you quite a bit about Chris Grant, and when David Stern read the name "Tristan Thompson", there was a minor shock sent through NBA fans.
People that were plugged in knew about Thompson, a 6'8, rail thin forward born in Toronto, and playing his college ball at Texas. He was a tireless worker, a great rebounder, and got to the free throw line a ton. The problem? He didn't have any kind of offensive game, couldn't convert most of those chances from the line, and was just so frail in comparison to many NBA forwards. Amongst fans it was very different. A reach. A bust. We took some kid fourth overall that may never be able to score, defend, or do anything other than dunk? People had been hyping Jonas Valunciunas as a potential all-star, and we didn't even hear Thompson's name until some rumors of the Pistons being infatuated with him surfaced days before the draft. I had heard so little about Thompson that not only was I shocked when we took him, I had to look up his info because I hadn't even bothered to familiarize myself with him before the draft.
"He just needs to learn how to play and how to score"
-Jay Bilas, ESPN on draft night 2011
Thompson's rookie season went about as expected. In many facets of the game, he was bad. Very bad. His hands were shaky, dropping easy passes and turning them into turnovers, or giving his defender an opportunity to recover and losing his opportunity to score an easy bucket. Unfortunately, this did not lead to him passing, but him forcing an missing the shot. Bilas' words would ring true, as Thompson shot 43% from the field, 55% from the line, and averaged 1.4 turnovers to .5 assists a night. However it wasn't all doom and gloom, Thompson would rebound well for his position, and showed flashes (albeit small ones) of an offensive ability to use his elite athleticism and quickness to get to the rim, prompting ESPN's David Thorpe to put Thompson as the #2 player in his "Redraft" of the 2011 Draft:
2. Tristan Thompson
Take a look at the top 10 rookie rebounders (based on rebound rate). You’ll see guys who played four years of college, guys who have been pros overseas for years, and guys with huge, wide bodies that make it easy to soak up boards. And then there’s Thompson, who played one year in college and is still much weaker than most of his opponents. But that has not mattered.
Thompson really has very little clue how to play yet, especially around the rim, but he has been a very effective player on many nights. Given a few more years to figure things out, and considering he’ll be a long and elite athlete for a decade or so, it’s easy to imagine just how good he can be. He has All-Star potential.
For me, this was the first time I had seen anyone, especially a respected voice like David Thorpe mention the player (not the prospect) we were seeing as a potential All-Star. Immersed in hearing that he was a bust, and a wasted pick, this was great to hear.
Offseason, 2012. The Cavs are pondering what to do with another #4 pick, and Tristan's best trait, his incredible work ethic, is being put to the test. Like many 21 year olds, Thompson had a lot to work on, and looked like he was miles away. Thorpe spoke glowingly of his potential, but did he have the ability to reach that? Not everyone was sold, especially ESPN/Grantland's Bill Simmons
(Note that's too important for a footnote: I thought the Cavs should have taken Thomas Robinson, but they obviously passed after spending last year's no. 4 overall pick on Tristan Thompson — same position as Robinson, not as good — so instead of stashing potential stud Jonas Valanciunas abroad in 2011 and picking Robinson this year, they spent two top-five picks on the poor man's Robinson and Syracuse's sixth man. The lesson, as always: God hates Cleveland.)
Needless to say, Thompson entered last season with a ton to prove, and for a few months, he proved nothing. He was still out of place. He was still robotic. He was still taking forever to load up on the catch. He still could not shoot. Though still so young, the lack of progress was discouraging. Adding to his personal struggles, Thompson had no chemistry with starting center Anderson Varejao, manifesting itself noticeably during a game against the Indiana Pacers, in which a reckless Thompson would actually go over Varejao's back trying to get a rebound knocking it out of bounds, and prompting Varejao to turn and scream at his teammate right there on the court.
On December 18th, everything would change. Varejao knocked knees with a member of the Toronto Raptors, and would be listed as day to day with a seemingly minor knee bruise, that would then escalate to a split thigh muscle, that would cause a blood clot ending his season. For better or worse, Thompson was now the leader of the Cavaliers front court. Whether it was having more space to be himself, more confidence, or just pure coincidence, Thompson exploded. Having averaged a paltry 9 points and 8 rebounds to that point, he averaged 15 points and 11 rebounds in January. After the All Star break Thompson averaged 12 points and 10 rebounds a night. He showed a competent ability to drive, an awkward but effective hook shot, and strong leadership qualities to boot. If Thompson's career to this point was smoke, we had finally found the fire.
Offseason 2012. That Cavaliers have yet another #1 pick, and Thompson is again promising to come back better than ever. In Las Vegas for Summer League, our Conrad Kaczmarek spotted Thompson, bulked up and shooting free throws right handed. There it was again, that amazing work ethic that Chris Grant had fallen in love with in 2011. Thompson looked to have grown some, and had developed serious strength as well. His next trick was unprecedented, as Conrad was right and the news of Thompson's switch of shooting hands blew up nationally. Playing with the Canadian National Team, Thompson's unprecedented work was playing early dividends.78% free throw shooting over 9 games, great defense, and an amazing motor and desire to grab every rebound in sight. The Canadians didn't advance, but Thompson played so far beyond a lot of expectations that excitement for his "debut" with this years Cavs was off the chart.
October 8th, 2013. The Cavaliers open their preseason against the Milwaukee Bucks. Thompson has the difficult task of guarding Bucks forward Ersan Ilyasova, a strong perimeter player and rebounder, as well as banging inside with defensive phenom Larry Sanders. Ilyasova started hot but left with an ankle injury, Thompson would finish with 17 points, 8 rebounds, 3 assists, and a block.
October 17th, 2013. Another test of Thompson's defensive mettle. The Cavs played the Detroit Pistons and front court players Greg Monroe, Andre Drummond, and Josh Smith. On offense, Thompson played well enough, but finished 5-13 from the field. He missed the few jumpers he took, looking rushed and awkward with it. Defensively though, Thompson would play a huge role in Smith and Monroe shooting a combined 11-28. The following night, against the Indiana Pacers, Thompson would again impress. Pacers forward David West, one of the best low post scorers in the game, would immediately test him. Two possessions in a row, West would pull Thompson to the low block, and attempt to back him down. His offseason of bulking up having paid off, Tristan held his ground, and forced West into two missed shots. Off the ball, he would destroy a seemingly easy hook shot from Roy Hibbert, blocking it into the third row. Hibbert would finish 2-6. West, having struggled with Thompson, would finish 5-11.
With Tristan's game, it always seems as though there is a confidence boost that propels him, and that may have been it. The following game against the Philadelphia 76ers, Thompson would score 15 points, and pull down 16 rebounds. He would defend perimeter oriented forward Thaddeus Young like a blanket, holding him to 16 points on 18 shots. On switches he caught Spencer Hawes a few times, with Hawes failing to score on him. He attacked the rim off of the dribble. He used post ups to set up drives. No longer looking like he was rushing into them, he hit jumpshots. Two days later against the Wizards, Thompson scored 17 points and pulled in 14 rebounds. Again, he was strong defending a true center in Nene, and a large body in Kevin Seraphin. They shot a combined 4-16. Again, Thompson was feeling great on offense, showing the same assortment of drives, jumpers, put backs, and energy. The following night against the Bobcats Thompson wouldn't fare as well, but on a back to back with the whole team lacking energy in the preseason finale, his 3-9 performance can be dismissed.
For the preseason, Thompson averaged 12.5 points, 9.1 rebounds, 1.3 assists, and .75 blocks in only 28 minutes a night. He shot 52% from the field and 66% from the Free Throw line, both improvements from his career numbers of 47 and 58%.
So where do we stand now? What is Thompson's ceiling? Is it still insane to think he could be an All-Star? The mere suggestion used to be insane, but let's remove the reach narrative from it, and consider a faceless player. You have a power forward, capable of being an elite defender, and having shown that against some of the best. He plays with relentless energy, and as a 22 year old was among the best rebounders in the NBA. In one offseason, he switched shooting hands, and added a reliable jumpshot. (Caveat: It was just pre-season, so his strong shooting performances fall under the "JJ Hickson wait and see" rule.) He is an above average ball handler for his position, and quicker than most too. He plays smart, and knows that he needs that jumpshot to set up drives to the rim. He also plays with a great point guard, and one of the best passing big men in the league. Is he Al Horford, like Chris Grant suggested on a recent broadcast, or something different? I'll leave that part up to you, but I have never felt better about the kid. If you told me he averaged 17 points and 11 rebounds for a season, it wouldn't surprise me one bit, and if you told me he made the All-Star team that wouldn't surprise me either.