Tristan Thompson was selected fourth overall in the 2011 NBA Draft, about 30 minutes after the team selected Kyrie Irving. Following a lockout that shortened training camp and limited coach's abilities to work with players, Irving proceeded to take the league by storm and have one of the greatest individual seasons a rookie has had in the NBA. Tristan Thompson, the project big, did not. Thompson, seen immediately as a reach pick, struggled mightily. If you looked closely you saw growth as the season went on; he became much better defending his man and understanding defensive concepts, and his free throw shooting percentage climbed steadily. Still, it was clear that there was a long ways to go, and it wasn't clear that he was going to be able to make it.
Things are decidedly rosier after his second season in the NBA. Tristan Thompson was the (only?) pleasant surprise of the Cavalier's terrible season. But, especially early on, it wasn't all that apparent to Cavaliers fans. He still looked uncoordinated, he wasn't getting shots to fall, he wasn't getting shots off (he was getting blocked at a historic rate), and he was letting his offensive struggles affect his defensive focus, which is where most of his value was coming from. Still, as I wrote in late November, it wasn't as bad as the Cavalier fan base and NBA world at large believed: he was already showing he could defend good offensive power forwards like Thaddeus Young, and his passing ability went from being a thing that existed only in theory to something that helped the starting unit, with Anderson Varejao and Kyrie Irving, play pretty effective offensive basketball. His usage rate decreased, largely because he was no longer a black hole; once he got the ball, he was able to keep it moving.
And he was proving that he could be a really versatile defender. Thompson is a proto-typical power forward in size, but he is strong enough to bang with many centers in the league. This was especially important with Anderson Varejao hurt, as Tyler Zeller struggled mightily to hold his own against virtually everyone. His elite athleticism makes him able to guard many of the pick and pop fours so popular in the league at a high level (as long as their name isn't Ersan Ilyasova ..). It also allows him, in limited situations, to guard some of the bigger small forwards; I maintain he is our best option to guard LeBron James in certain situations, for example, and this happened a few times against Miami.
Now, we all know the turning point of the season for Thompson was when Varejao got hurt against Toronto, ultimately missing a huge portion of the year. But I want to look first at what Thompson accomplished even taking November and December into account. The first thing is that he played all 82 games. He suffered an injury to his face that did not phase him, banged inside with centers as a 6'8 power forward all year, flies all over the place getting offensive rebounds, and didn't miss a game. Speaking of offensive rebounding, his 13.1 offensive rebounding rate placed him second behind only Zach Randolph among power forwards who played at least 40 games and averaged at least 25 minutes per game. He is an elite offensive rebounder right now. He also made huge improvements getting defensive rebounds, something that Conrad specifically wrote before the season that Thompson would have to get better at. He went from a defensive rebounding rate of 16.8, to 22.1. This is a huge jump, and isn't easy at all. His total rebounding rate left him virtually tied with Carlos Boozer, and behind only Tim Duncan and Zach Randolph among power forwards, which is pretty good. His true shooting percentage went from a truly bad 46.9% to a still not good enough 51.6%. This puts him the same territory as DeMarcus Cousins. His Player Efficiency Rating rose from 13.3 to 16.1. These aren't trivial gains. This is the difference between "energy guy off the bench" and "viable starter for 10-12 NBA teams". And it was his age 21 season.
But the numbers when Varejao went out are even more encouraging. In 57 games, he averaged 13.2 points and 10.2 rebounds in 32 minutes per game. He avoided foul trouble, averaging 2.8 fouls per game. For young bigs who often struggle with this, it is pretty impressive. He flashed a 15 foot push shot, he showed above average handles (!) and an ability to create for himself off the dribble. Without Varejao his passing ticked up another notch, and nearly had an even assist to turnover rate. Just two years removed from shooting 48% at the free throw line, he shot 62.1% in Varejao's absence. His true shooting was 52.6%. Can Thompson and Varejao co-exist? I believe the answer is yes, especially defensively. Varejao swallows up a lot of the rebounds Thompson gets, but given more time on the court together I don't see why there would be issues, especially with Varejao's expanding ability to hit mid-range jump shots. For Thompson, it is nearly impossible to know what wrinkles he will add to his game. In the meantime, even though Thompson's numbers did get better when Varejao went down, the team was clearly better with both of them together. Given health that seems to be elusive, the Thompson-Varejao front court could be quite good for the remaining two years of Varejao's contract. Zeller and hopefully Nerlens Noel can provide depth off the bench until Noel is ready to step in for Thompson.
I have spent a long time thinking about what Tristan Thompson's ceiling is, and ultimately, I think it is sort of a worthless exercise. The rapid improvements Thompson made were pretty unexpected, and I don't know if he can keep it up. Still, he has two full years of play in the NBA before his age 24 season. Think about that. While the offensive improvements have been really fun, I hope he holds onto his identity as a defensive force. There are a lot of really good scoring power forwards out there, and if Thompson improves defensively, I don't see a limit. You could see the shot-blocking he exhibited at Texas and early on in Cleveland come back. You could see stifling on-ball defense without fouling. You could see his athleticism cause more steals as he gets smarter and disrupts passing lanes.
A couple offensive moves to help us stretch the floor? That sounds great. A defensive beast capable of guarding both forward positions and some centers? That is why Tristan Thompson was the 4th pick in the 2011 NBA Draft.