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Is it sustainable? Tristan Thompson showing signs of rim protection, offensive improvement

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His game may not be pretty, but Tristan Thompson has had a solid start to the 2014-15 season.

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David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

About twenty minutes after the Cleveland Cavaliers had made Kyrie Irving their franchise cornerstone with the first pick in the 2011 NBA Draft, their slot to pick came up once again. Jonas Valunciunas and Jan Vesely, were popular choices amongst fans, but General Manager Chris Grant had other plans. He drafted forward Tristan Thompson from the University of Texas. Criticism of the choice was immediate and, for the most part, hasn't gone away.

Fear the Sword asked Thompson on Saturday night before the matchup with Valanciunas' Toronto Raptors if he gets any extra motivation in playing the Lithuanian big taken a spot behind him.

"No, not at all. We don’t choose where we get drafted, that’s the front office guys. Chris Grant me at four. Colangelo drafted him at five so it is what it is. He’s a great friend of mine, he’s playing well, and I’m happy for him."

The response is typical Thompson. He works hard, keeps his head down, and doesn't act like there's a chip on his shoulder or take silly slights or look for ways to gain momentary edges because, well, he's going to give you everything he has regardless.

#nodaysoff

A video posted by Tristan Thompson (@realtristan13) on

Thompson posted this to Instagram late on Thursday night. There's simply never been a doubt about Thompson's work ethic or drive. The question has always been whether that would translate to good basketball play. 14 games into his fourth season, it seems like a good time for a fresh look.

Taking a step forward defensively, or small sample size theater?

The biggest arbiter of Thompson's long term worth will almost assuredly depend on just what kind of defender Tristan Thompson can become. Thompson spent his second and third season averaging over 31 minutes a game, oftentimes guarding the opponent's most dangerous offensive big. His block rate consistently fell, and while he did an admirable job guarding pick and rolls and was usually a fairly capable one on one post defender, he struggled to understand when and where to rotate and was consistently slow getting out to the perimeter on stretch bigs.

With the addition of LeBron James and Kevin Love, and early health from Anderson Varejao, Thompson's minutes have sunk to a much more manageable 23.7 per game. The project big many expected to come off the bench, provide energy, defense, and offensive rebounding has finally been able to jump into the role in his fourth season. Instead of taking his bench role as a demotion, Thompson seems to see it as an opportunity.

Indeed, the nba.com/stats defensive tracking data is showing that Thompson is giving the Cavaliers exactly what many see as the team's biggest need: rim protection. Opponent's shooting within six feet of the basket with Thompson as the closest defender are shooting 49.1% from the field, 8.6% below the league average rate of 57.7%. Opponents are shooting just 50.6% at the rim with Thompson as the closest defender.  It's just been 14 games, sure, but it's encouraging all the same. Thompson is also blocking 3.1% of opponents two point field goal attempts, up from 1.1% a year ago.

Fear the Sword asked him what he was doing differently this year defensively:

"Just getting stronger over the summer, watching a lot of film. Seeing ways to impact the ball, especially around the rim. If it’s not blocking a shot, using verticality. Just being able to contest it. Might not block a shot but just your presence there, long arms, you can change a shot."

Tristan is indeed a lot stronger this season. Part of Thompson's value comes from his versatility. Going into the season he had spent time guarding both centers and power forwards. Problem was, he hadn't shown consistent success against either. Bigs who can guard both positions and provide rim protection are valuable in today's NBA. Time will tell if Thompson can continue to provide both.

Limited offensively, but that's part of the plan

On the surface, it appears that Thompson has made modest offensive improvement. He's getting his hands on more offensive rebounds than ever, flying around and gaining extra possessions for the Cavaliers. His true shooting rate of 54.2 isn't particularly good, but it's a bit higher than his career rate of 51.2. He is using 17.1% of Cleveland's possessions while he is on the floor, which is about what you'd want, though it could go down a bit. The biggest positive change in Thompson's game started last year: more and more of his shots are coming around the rim, and more and more of his shots around the rim are going in.

Here's his shot distribution chart from last season:

Tristan distr 2013

And here's where he has taken his shots this year:

Tristan early shot distr

What does this mean? Whereas just 51% of Thompson's shots came at the rim last season, a full 66.7% of them have come at the rim this year. And while he made just 55% of his attempts at the rim last season, he's made 63.7% of them in this young season. He's playing smarter, jumping quicker, finishing stronger, and still gets to the free throw line, where he's shooting 71% from the line.

His jump shot remains non-existent at this point. He doesn't make good offensive reads, and his passing isn't approaching where you'd hope it to be, though he is in a new offensive system with a totally new role. I'd like to see his true shooting jump up a few points. But, if he is finishing at an above average rate at the rim, defending, getting extra offensive possessions, keeping his usage rate down, it's hard to complain too much.

What lineups are working for the Cavaliers in the early going

Cleveland has had an uneven start to the season, and Thompson is one of the guys who has been both a cause of the inconsistency and a reason for optimism that things will get on track.

He tells Fear the Sword that there is "Always room for improvement. That’s why we come in here ready to work and get better. We just continue to grow. We are getting better every night. It’s a long season, a lot of games, a lot of practice time."

Indeed, and coach David Blatt is still trying to figure out what players work best in what roles and with what different players. Thompson has an overall negative net rating thus far, with opponents outscoring the Cavaliers by .4 points over 100 possessions with him on the court, per nba.com/stats.

Lineups with Kyrie Irving and Thompson have been largely disappointing over the last few years, but there's reason for optimism early on this year. When Irving, Thompson, and LeBron James have shared the court (131 minutes) the Cavaliers are outscoring opponents by 4.6 points per 100 possessions. Irving and Thompson lineups with Kevin Love or Dion Waiters (!) have been similarly successful. These trends will be interesting to watch as the season progresses.

I still don't know where Tristan Thompson's career is headed, or if he will be able to give the Cavaliers what they need as they attempt to surround James, Irving, and Love with championship parts. I feel pretty confident he will maximize his talents and abilities, and that's worth rooting for. It might be worth investing in.

All stats courtesy of basketball-reference.com unless otherwise noted.

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