Full Disclosure: I’m a sucker for the underdog. I think most people in our society are. Because of this, I’ve been a Tristan Thompson fan since he came into the league. While being the fourth pick in the 2011 NBA draft hardly suggests the status of underdog, Thompson assumed that role as the "other first round pick" along with Kyrie Irving, as well as the player who was a complete surprise in being taken over Jonas Valanciunas, despite rumors of the Cavs being intrigued by him.
J.J. Hickson’s desire for a hefty paycheck after the 2011-2012 season and his inconsistent play helped make sense of the Cavaliers decision to draft a power forward. The more I read about Thompson, the more I was excited when he was picked. Thompson was described by Chad Ford as a player who is "long, athletic and has shown a terrific motor on both ends of the floor". John Hollinger’s 2011 Draft Rater had Thompson rated as the 3rd best prospect in the draft. Combine that with a great offensive rebounding rate and the ability to block shots at the collegiate level, and it seemed like Thompson had some elite skills that would help him contribute at the NBA level while giving his admittedly weak offensive skill set some time to catch up.
We all know how Thompson’s first two years with the Cavs have gone. Thompson’s rookie year was decent enough. He started the season coming off the bench behind Anderson Varejao and Antawn Jamison, and became the team’s (very undersized) starting center when Varejao got hurt and Ryan Hollins, Samardo Samuels, and Semih Erden played like Ryan Hollins, Samardo Samuels, and Semih Erden. Thompson also showed promise as an offensive rebounder and shot blocker, had his free throw shooting improved from beyond terrible to simply terrible, and finished the year making the NBA All-Rookie Second Team.
As the 2012-2013 season progressed though, many fans became more and more frustrated with Thompson. Despite Byron Scott stating that no player had worked as hard or improved more in the summer, the results of that work were just not there. Then Anderson Varejao went down for the year, and Thompson’s play immediately took off. While some of this can be attributed to more opportunities with Varejao out, the increase in field goal percentage cannot. Thompson went from getting his shot blocked seemingly constantly to becoming an effective offensive player with a slightly above average PER. This was a huge surprise considering teams could focus even more on Thompson with Varejao out. In fact, one would have guessed that his field goal percentage would have dipped even lower. Thompson’s improved play garnered positive attention from the fans, earned him two third place votes for Most Improved Player of the Year, and quieted the Thompson/Valanciunas debate somewhat. Finally, Thompson began to emerge as a leader on the team at a time when the Cavaliers badly needed one.
So who is Tristan Thompson, or who will he be? Thompson has been compared to big men from Tyrus Thomas, to Emeka Okafor, to Ben Wallace, to Serge Ibaka. His character, age, work ethic, and athletic ability leads one to believe that he is capable of another significant jump in improvement, or at least that he can maintain his post-Varejao injury level of play when Varejao returns. Per NBA.com, Thompson ranked 6th in the NBA in offensive rebounds per game among players playing 25 or more games, was 17th in total rebounds per game, and his shooting percentages and PER jumped significantly from his first to second year. Defensively he rates as among the strongest players on the Cavaliers, although the rest of the team was so bad that is like saying he is the fastest turtle in the race.
It’s not a stretch to think that Tristan Thompson will thrive under Mike Brown. He could potentially become a very good to elite defender who succeeds offensively by working hard, using his rebounding to create offense, and by not trying to do too much. He may not have the shot blocking of Ibaka, but he is a better rebounder. He doesn’t have the size of Okafor, but he is a better athlete. He may not be the defender Ben Wallace was, but he should be a much better offensive player. Tyrus Thomas with better intangibles is simply not Tyrus Thomas. However, looking at these players does give you a good idea of what I think Tristan Thompson’s future in the NBA is. A very good defender and rebounder, and an effective offensive player who can be an important part of a contender, make several All-Defense teams, and possibly make an All-Star Team or two in his career.