Flashback to June 23rd, 2011 and yours truly watching the NBA Draft at my college house in Columbus. Knowing that Kyrie Irving was a near certainty and still basking in the warmth of our new point guard on board, the number four came as a shock to me. The pick: Tristan Thompson, the 6’9″ freshman power forward out of Texas. Admittedly, I had not researched Thompson nearly as much as other potential Cavalier selections leading up to the draft. I had my heart set on the seven-foot Lithuanian big Jonas Valanciunas, who Toronto took with the very next selection after the Cavs. Given the team’s structure at that time, I was not happy with the choice.
My biggest concern with the selection at the time was that we already had a young, talented power forward in J.J. Hickson. Adding Thompson immediately forced the Cavaliers hand to deal Hickson. With a lockout looming, that’s exactly what happened one week later under the gun when the Cavs sent J.J. to Sacramento for small forward Omri Casspi and a heavily protected conditional draft pick. I felt we were selling Hickson for 75 cents on the dollar only because of the lockout, and I felt with such few assets, giving possibly the best one up that we had not just drafted was not in our favor. While I’m still not thrilled with the trade itself, if the Cavaliers end up getting the first-round pick out of it and Casspi can contribute for the next few years, then it will have been a decent trade as long as Tristan Thompson becomes a real good player.
What I failed to realize at the time was the flaws in J.J. Hickson’s game. He was an incredibly gifted big man in the open floor and on the boards. But, he was inconsistent on offense, settled for and took far too many jumpers, failed to even come close to grasping Coach Scott’s new offense, and he was not always committed to working hard on the defensive end. In short, J.J. is a nice player, but he was never going to be a key cog to build around, and my logic back then was flawed. When you’re still reeling from being a 66-win team the year before and falling to the basement, there was probably a tendency to overvalue some of the players the team still had.
Now, for the real point of this article, to talk about what I’ve seen in Tristan Thompson in three short games of NBA action. First, he’s superiorly aware on the defensive side of the ball. His instincts are great, he always knows where the ball and his man are. Other than Varejao, he is easily the team’s best pick-and-roll defender. There was one play last night where he switched the pick-and-roll and covered George Hill who hit a jumpshot over Thompson, but it was good D nonetheless. While he can be out of position on the defensive glass once in a while, he makes up for a lot of that with his ability to block shots. Thompson has all the tools to become not just a good, but an elite, shotblocker.
On offense, the limitations of Thompson’s offensive game appear to have been exaggerated. While he isn’t a perimeter threat, Thompson seems to have at least a decent touch around the rim, since he’s shown the ability to finish with both hands from around the rim out to eight feet or so. Tristan has a chance to be an absolute menace on the offensive boards, and we’ve already seen him take a couple hard fouls from frustrated big men trying to box him out and keep him away from the bucket. He has also flashed some capable moves on the block to get those eight feet and in shots. I’m fairly confident that Tristan will be able to develop at least a foul-line jumper given a couple of years.
It’s not just the on the floor traits that have impressed me in the early going. Tristan’s personality and the way he carries himself in interviews is impressive for someone just 20 years old. He seems to have a great work ethic, and it’s hard not to root for a kid like that to make it big.
I’m not going to say that I’m sure Thompson will be an All-Star or anything of that sort. What I am saying is that right now, I’m seeing a little too much of Antawn Jamison with his volume shooting and porous defense and not enough Tristan Thompson. There will be ups and downs with Thompson’s offensive game this season, but I like Tristan’s chances of being a key piece of a good team moving forward. That’s much more than I could say six months ago.
(Photo: Tony Dejak/AP)