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Jason Thompson Grows Into A Star

March 5, 2008 Columns No Comments



Thompson Has More Than Size Going For Him

by Phil Kasiecki

Simply put, Jason Thompson gets it. That might be his best asset, which is hard to believe if you were to look at the young man.

The Rider big man stands 6’11” and has a mature body weighing 250 pounds. He’s athletic, skilled and has been getting better all the time. He’s grown three inches since he arrived on campus. From a purely physical standpoint, a lot of basketball people – coaches, scouts, writers, spectators – would be very interested right away.

So it might be hard to believe that his best asset would be a non-physical attribute at first glance. That’s where his story gets to be a good one.

Although he’s one of the best big men in college basketball, the native of Mount Laurel, N.J. grew up as a guard with big feet for his height. He entered high school at an even 6′, was a reserve guard on the varsity team as a 6’3″ sophomore, then went up to 6’6″ between the end of his sophomore and the start of his junior season. With that growth, he moved to the frontcourt, which meant new skills were needed, and they came – but not in a flash.

He reached 6’8″ by his senior year and clearly had a lot of upside, but also looked like a player who was transitioning. While his skill level was apparent, it didn’t necessarily leap out at you like it did with players who were recruited at a much higher level than he was. He played some of both forward spots, looking like a power forward with the potential to be a combo forward.

Now, he has the look of someone who can play some of all three frontcourt positions. He still has the guard skills, and while he’s not a 6’11” guard, his ball skills are above average for a player his size. It’s not uncommon for him to knock down a three-pointer, though he shoots under 27 percent from long range for his career, and he averages over two assists per game for his career.

Thompson committed early to Rider, and unlike many kids his age wasn’t obsessed with going to the school at the highest level that recruited him. While he got a lot of mid-major looks before committing, his late blooming earned him some high-major looks late in the process if he wanted to redshirt or do a prep year. But he took note of players who went to a level a little too high and wound up being a small fish in a big pond. He didn’t want to be one of those players.

“I wanted to go to a school where I could get playing time right away and I fit real well with the team,” said Thompson. “I wasn’t one of those guys who wanted a big-name school. Most of the guys in our area who have done that have transferred to a mid-major after two years. I just wanted to go to a school where I could play for four years and play real solid for them.”

In high school, he played on a travel team that was under the radar and has several players who have had very similar college careers. One was Niagara senior Charron Fisher, the nation’s leading scorer. Another was Kyle Hines, who is finishing an exceptional career at UNC-Greensboro with over 2,000 points and 1,000 rebounds and had his jersey retired there during this season. (Thompson, by the way, enters the MAAC Tournament 47 points away from 2,000 points and has already topped 1,100 rebounds.) Kent State junior Al Fisher, who Thompson got a chance to see over the holidays and is still close with, is among the MAC leaders in scoring and assists on a team that could get an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament if they don’t win the MAC Tournament next week.

“It’s just great to see all the hard work we’ve done,” Thompson reflected, remembering how they all embraced the opportunity playing for that team provided.

His rise in college has come with the help of off-season activity. After his freshman year, he traveled with a team of players from the MAAC to China. He says with a laugh that the food “wasn’t as good as advertised,” but the trip clearly benefited him a great deal. When he first had the chance, his hopes were simple, as has been the case before. And in the same way, the end result was a little more than his hopes.

“I just wanted to go to the team, fit in and play well,” Thompson recalled. “I ended up being the leading scorer.”

This past off-season, he was a busy man. He spent a few days in July at the LeBron James Skills Academy as a mentor to the younger players. Additionally, he played in a few pick-up games with a number of elite players and acquitted himself very well. Later, he attended the Pete Newell Big Man Camp, and is still in touch with the director from time to time getting more feedback when he’s able to see Thompson play on television.

While both helped immensely, it was the former event whose influence seems to have taken on a life of its own. Despite being one of three players nationally to average at least 20 points and 10 rebounds last season (Kevin Durant and Nick Fazekas were the other two – not bad company to be in), he was still a relative unknown at the end of last season. So that, along with early-season games in Orlando at the Old Spice Classic against the likes of North Carolina State and Kansas State (featuring super freshman Michael Beasley), had a little more meaning for him.

“I was unsure of myself,” said Thompson. “I was averaging 20 and 10, like Durant and Fazekas, and they were trying to say that I was just a guy putting up numbers against mid-major teams. I had to step up to the plate against some big-time schools.”

In the three games in Orlando, Thompson averaged 23 points and 10.7 rebounds per game, posting two double-doubles. That earned him a spot on the all-tournament team and a little satisfaction to start the year.

“On the national stage, I think overall I lived up to some type of hype, and just tried to get some of the respect I deserve,” he reflected.

Articulate and down to earth, Thompson seems to understand his situation and have a very clear head about it all. He knows NBA scouts, including former stars like Hall of Famer Joe Dumars, have been watching him. He understands the perception that he’s a bit unproven despite his career accomplishments because he’s played in the MAAC. Yet he doesn’t downplay the perception or how he uses it as one more motivator to keep getting better.

A constant for him over the years has been younger brother Ryan, a sophomore starter on the Broncs. As is often the case, the little brother is the antagonist and helps push the big brother. Not only is he a good player on his own, but the natural competitiveness two brothers have has led to a few victories for Ryan when they have competed. Jason has always had to be at his best despite having a few inches on his brother, who currently stands 6’6″.

“He keeps Jason in line and doesn’t let Jason get a big head,” head coach Tommy Dempsey said of the younger brother. “He always has to shoot him down.”

Thompson is from a close family that was often spotted in the gym when he was playing on a travel team in high school. He remembers his early days playing basketball with his cousins and being coached by his uncle, and he played all the time on teams with his brother growing up. As much as Ryan and he have always had the sibling rivalry going, their closeness only helps the team and each other.

One non-basketball reason his time at the school has been a memorable experience was the late Dr. David Rebovich, who died suddenly in October. Thompson remembers meeting him on his recruiting visit and having a class with him later. Rebovich was well-respected in politics in New Jersey and on the campus, especially among the players since just about all of them had a class with him. He’s also one more inspiration for the team as they prepare for the MAAC Tournament this weekend.

“For him to go out like that was real hard on me and the Rider community,” Thompson recalls. “There was a lot of negative stuff going on at the campus, and one of the goals was for us to do well and make Rider into a positive place for the news across the country.”

The senior season has had plenty of positives for Thompson and the Broncs, who enter the tournament as the second seed. He has once again averaged over 20 points and 10 rebounds per game, and along the way posted three games with at least 20 points and 20 rebounds. When the MAAC announces its Player of the Year on Thursday, the award should have his name on it.

But that’s not the end result he wants, nice though it may be. He and Ryan won a state title four years ago at Lenape High School, and now they hope to win a MAAC title at the next level after getting a share of the regular season title. Thompson remembers being so close to it as a freshman, when the Broncs were regular season champions and lost in the championship game. He hopes to take the next step this time.

Dempsey was on the staff as an assistant when Thompson was recruited, and has gone through a period of being the interim head coach before getting the job permanently less than two years ago. His time with the “interim” label wasn’t easy for him or the program, but he knew even before then that they could build around Thompson and find the right complements to get the team where it is now. He’s seen Thompson grow not just physically, but gradually as a player through all the experiences he has had.

“When we got Jason Thompson, we got the total package, not only as a player, but as a person and a student,” said the second-year head coach. “Every aspect of the program that we ask the kids to excel in, he’s excelled in. He sets a great example for the other guys and he’s been a real ambassador for this university.”

The NBA likely beckons next, and although opinions vary, there is some thought that he could land in the first round of the draft. After that, the communications major in the television and radio track hopes to be involved in the broadcast of these games later on. Considering how well he understands the game and what surrounds him with it, it would seem an appropriate follow-up to his playing career.

     

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