34 Jason Thompson of the Sacramento Kings is introduced and high fives teammates as he walks on to the court before the game vs. the Detroit Pistons at Arco Arena in Sacramento, California. The Pistons beat the Kings 100-92 Photo via Newscom

I can’t help but feel sorry for JT.

Well, the knowledge that he plays basketball for a living and is set to make 5 million dollars in the next two years before probably signing a new, multi-million dollar contract does kind of help. But it still makes me kind of sad to see a young kid with so much potential, so much skill, who was counted on to do so much, suddenly forced into a supporting role behind – let’s face it – brighter prospects.

First it was the Landry acquisition. Then it was the Dalembert trade. And finally, the incredible steal that was the Cousins draft pick. And before you know what hit you – BAM! Instead of being your team’s second best player (arguable. I’d say that in Kevin Martin’s absence, JT was a clear number two for the first few months of last season, before Beno surpassed him as Jason regressed with the rest of the Kings roster sometime around January), you’re but the fourth option in your frontcourt alone.

Could this be a problem? Could this hinder Jason’s development? Well, I want to say no. But I worry. Because the best case scenario with JT looks so high.

The blazing start to last season showed as much. 15 and 10 a night in November? 16 and 9 in December? Call me crazy, but to these eyes, those first few months saw Jason show future all-star potential. A raw future all-star to be sure, but one with a soft mid-range touch, a knack for rebounding the ball, and a gazelle’s stride. A very long, talented gazelle.

Sometimes.

At other times, that soft mid-range touch is just brick after brick after brick. That knack for rebounding turns into a lost strut around the paint. And while the gazelleness remains, that long stride looks much worse when it comes with the sickening feeling that Jason is running towards nowhere.

I don’t mean to knock on Jason here. It’s not like Jason is Hassan Whiteside or Hasheem Thabeet, just a big body that has years and years to go (by the way, how bad a sign is it for the Grizzlies that I feel totally comfortable in comparing Whiteside to Thabeet? Eerie). At the very least, Jason is a more than serviceable NBA big man, one who averaged a 12 and 8 in his sophomore season. That’s impressive stuff, regardless of the squad it was done on and the way it was achieved. Even if Jason does nothing but stagnate from here on out, he’ll be a good rotation player for the Kings as long as they have him.

But looking at Thompson’s game, you get the thirst for more. Because you’ve been around this league. You’ve seen what long, fast, athletic forwards with the ability to step out can do. Heck, you’ve seen Kevin Garnett, right? And while you and I know that the sheer idea of mentioning KG’s name as a way to intentionally overblow proportions is blasphemous in so many ways that I won’t even start detailing them, we’ve also all let our minds wander, again and again and again.

And now, suddenly, all that potential is blocked by an assortment of more established and higher ceilinged options. No more averaging 31 minutes a night – with Cousins and Dalembert presumably splitting center, JT is now left to collect power forward scraps behind Landry. Sure, training camp minute assortments rarely come into fruition, with injuries, trades, day-to-day fatigue, Paul Westphalian inconsistencies, and just plain “this guy has been on fire for a week, let’s keep him out there” making minute assortments a living, ever changing being. With Jason’s combination of youth and ability, he is much more likely to outgrow this pessimistic outlook then to miss out on it. However, when trying to develop young talent, “enough” playing time is pretty far away from “ideal”.

Having said that.

Jason Thompson is 24. Still away from his prime at that age, yes, still with room to develop – but hardly a raw out-of-college type of player that requires constant coddling and tender care. And forgive me if you just finished hearing this in a B-grade sports movie, but if you want Jason to be a key cog in a future that sees the Kings contend for something meaningful – and I think you’ll agree with me that Jason is probably more likely to be a part of said future than Landry, and certainly more likely than Dalembert – don’t you want to see him earn those minutes? Isn’t it better for him to pry those minutes away from the strong arms of his fellow frontcourt members rather than be given them as a default option?

This isn’t just the age old dilemma of player development vs. team success – it’s player development vs. alternative player development. Obviously, a player can’t improve without actually playing basketball. But any one who has ever played will agree that playing with and against better players made him better as well. The Kings’ new frontcourt can both aid and detract in that regard. On the one hand, Jason needs to see enough playing time to avoid stagnation. On the other hand, going against the likes of Sam and Carl and DeMarcus in practice has to help much more than shooting over the top of Sean May again and again.

Looking at this sort of scenario, we can see a very clear distinction between the glass-half-empty and glass-half-full: one says “this sucks, JT won’t get any burn and won’t improve”, while the other says “no matter what happens, this team is much more fit to help JT take his game to the next level than last season’s squad”.

Which means that, as always, the onus here is on Jason himself. If he takes this situation in stride, choosing to utilize the presence of good teammates to his benefit instead of using it as an excuse, he will get better, regardless of playing time. If he sulks on the bench? He’s much more likely to stay there.

In the meanwhile, it’s important for us fans to remember that the stakes for JT aren’t as high as they seem. Sure, it would suck to live in 2014, see Jason average the same 12 and 8, and solemnly sigh into one’s drink, dreaming of the days when so much more seemed to be within reach. But at the very worst, Jason is capable of starting in the frontcourt, and is an even better as a third big man. With Cousins poised to take over as the Kings’ primary post option, and with the possibility of retaining Landry and/or Dalembert still present, Jason might not need to provide more than the latter, in which case he is an asset for the Kings regardless of other circumstance.

And even though all of us hope that a breakthrough is in order, the important season for Jason is really 11-12 – and specifically, the summer that preceeds it. That’s when he’ll be eligible for an extension, and that’s when the team will need to make decisions regarding their two free agent bigs. If Jason can continue to evolve, filling in the large room for improvement dictated by his potential, the Kings will win twice – with the young stud that Jason will become, and with the possibilities embedded in the Sammy/Carl expiring deals. The cap flexibility the Kings have, even in the presumably darker post-2011 CBA world, should certainly suffice as far as retaining Jason while keeping other options open, but he’s the one who has to make it worthwhile.

All of this makes Jason’s 10-11 season a very low risk, high reward affair – perfectly fitting in with the entire team. Which is how we hope Jason stays for years to come.