Big Man on Campus

October 9, 2012
Tristan Thompson

It’d be hard for someone Tristan Thompson’s size – with his skill and personality – not to be a team’s natural center of attention as a rookie. A kid like that would’ve to had to been drafted on the same team as the Rookie of the Year.

Oh. Right.

Thompson doesn’t mind being linked to Kyrie Irving. But as a seasoned sophomore, the Cavaliers young big man is definitely on his own journey. He took some big steps in his first year. And he’s locked and loaded for more.

Last season, the pick of Thompson at No. 4 stunned pundits. But the high-flying forward from Texas proved detractors wrong all season long and had worked his way into the starting lineup just after the midway point. A natural power forward, Thompson manned the center spot in the final 25 games, concluding his season-long baptism-by-fire.

In 2011-12, the native Torontonian averaged 8.2 points and 6.5 boards in 23.7 minutes per contest. As a starter, he improved to 10.4 points and 7.5 rebounds (3.8 offensive) per contest. Thompson finished 12th in scoring among all rookies; third overall in blocks. But on the boards, he was the freshman class’s top dog. His 3.1 offensive rebounds and 6.5 total rebounds each ranked first among all qualifying rookies.

He came into the league with some free throw shooting concerns, but the Cavs coaching staff worked with him – having him eliminate an extra dribble at the stripe – and the results were tangible. Before his 21st birthday on March 13, Thompson shot an even 50 percent from the line. He shot 65 percent for the remainder of the season.

The affable Thompson established himself as one of the squad’s hardest workers and was diligent at Cleveland Clinic Courts shortly after the season wrapped up. After entering the NBA as a 20-year-old, Thompson had no Summer League, an abbreviated Training Camp and a condensed season that saw him play well, albeit out of position.

Thompson accepted all challenges and surpassed expectations as a rookie with Cleveland. Irving may be the club’s young superstar, but the guy picked three spots after him may have the biggest upside of the 2011 Class.

The ambidextrous Thompson bowls, throws a football, plays tennis, kicks a soccer ball and hammers a nail right-handed. He eats and changes channels with a remote control left-handed. He can DUNK and shoot a basketball, arm-wrestle, swing a baseball bat and sign an autograph with either hand.

Thompson added put some time in the gym and some weight on his frame in the offseason. Now’s he’s geared up for an improved sophomore season …

The injury to Anderson Varejao last season opened the door for you to start at center, but fans never really got to see you two together. How do you feel about finally sharing the floor with him?
Tristan Thompson: It’s going to be fun. It’s definitely going to be a battle for the boards. But Andy’s great. One thing about Andy is that he’s a phenomenal passer for a big man. Having him on the court with myself, I think we open up the court, especially with him being able to dribble hand-off and be able to handle the ball.

It’s going to be a good thing. so I’m excited. I get to play the 4 a little bit!

Was that stretch, closing out the season as the starting center, the biggest developmental difference of your first year in Cleveland?
Thompson: Yeah, definitely. But I think, before that, with Chris Grant drafting me at No. 4, and having Antawn Jamison with a year left, I think that was great for my career. Because being such a high draft pick sometimes there’s pressure and expectation.

Obviously, for Kyrie, it’s a different story. But for me, I think I benefitted a lot to able to learn from a great pro. Antawn showed me how to be a professional and just how to play the game. Just sitting on the bench and watching how he plays and watching how patient he is. (I’d think): ‘I think I’m going to use that towards my game.’ And when I had the opportunity to start, I think I did pretty well for myself.

So I think it’s all baby steps and I’m glad I didn’t jump to step five. I did each step at a time.

Tristan ThompsonIt seems strange to ask a 21-year-old player if you can be one of the team’s veteran leaders, but … Can you do that?
Thompson: Of course. What Antawn and A.P. (Anthony Parker) taught me, I’m going to definitely pass it to the younger guys when they need it. Especially with our team being so young.

When a team is so young, you might think that maybe YOUR way is the best way. But sometimes there might be a guy just a year older than you who’s been through at least a year of basketball and learned from great pros. You have to take what he tells you and soak it in.

Dion Waiters enters this year as a fellow first-rounder with Tyler Zeller. It’s a different situation and yours with Kyrie, but does it help to come into the league as a first-round duo?
Thompson: Yeah, it definitely helps a lot. For me and Kyrie, it helped even more because we had a relationship prior to being drafted on the same team. So it was more of a comfort thing – almost for like a brother being on the same team as me.

And for Dion and Tyler – a lot of that stuff that goes on with the Cavs now – when you talk about Dion you’re going to talk about Tyler, when you talk about Tyler, you’re going to talk about Dion. They’re here together and they’re going to have to get through some stuff. But at the end of the day they’re going to have to get each other’s back.

Like your classmate, you and Coach Scott have a great relationship – you like to dog each other – but there’s obviously a ton of respect. How important is that relationship?
Thompson: I think I give my mom credit for being such a people person. I think it’s important to have a relationship outside basketball with your coaches. Basketball, you practice for four hours, and the majority of time you spend with your coaches. So you want to able to at least talk to them.

Coach Scott is approachable. He’s not a coach that’s uppity or thinks that he’s better than everybody else. He wants to come in here and work guys. And we’re lucky enough to have a coach like him.

I’ve heard stories about some coaches do their 9-to-5 – they’re in and they’re out. But he’s always one phone-call away and we’re glad to have him.

Tristan ThompsonHow do you feel after really killing it at Cleveland Clinic Courts over the offseason?
Thompson: I’m excited. You know, I definitely put the hours in during the summer time. So that’s one thing during the season: I can’t look back and say I didn’t work hard enough.

I felt that I did the right thing. I was here, three weeks after the season, working out. I wanted to come into this season definitely being a bigger contributor on the defensive end and better offensively. I’ve been working on my free throws and getting more comfortable on my jump shot.

Your rookie season, because of the Lockout, you were rushed into Training Camp with no real offseason. How big was it to have a summer with your teammates?
Thompson: It was huge. You think (the off-season) goes quick. But it was a lot of days where we were going to spinning class, we were going to yoga. We were working out on the court. Me, Donald (Sloan) and Kyrie (Irving) – we went Garfield Heights to play pick up.

We did so much this summer and I think that’s what built the chemistry. Guys came in and worked hard. Samardo. Luke. Donald. So I think this summer was crucial for us. And I think it’s going to pay off in the games.

How good can this team be?
Thompson: I think the sky’s the limit for us. Being so young, we’re playing with house money. We’re just going out there hoopin’. So I think being so young and wanting to prove people wrong – I think that fuels a lot of guys in that locker room’s fire – we’re competing every night. And if we’re competing every night, and it goes down to the wire, some things might just fall our way.