There’s something different about Jason Thompson this season.
The tension is palpable when you are near the Sacramento Kings power forward. Where confidence once was, there is uncertainty. Where a light-hearted soul once resided, there is angst.
Entering his fourth NBA season, Thompson knows the score. He understands that after this year, nothing is guaranteed. He understands he’s playing for his NBA future.
You have to feel for him on some levels. Thompson is good people. I’ve met his parents and they too, are good people. The Thompsons are the type of folks you want as your neighbors or working next to you for 40 hours a week. They took pride in raising their children, which is evident on every level.
Little has been written about Thompson of late, but what is out there isn’t healthy. On Monday, NBA.com’s David Aldridge threw out this tidbit concerning Thompson’s future with the Kings.
The Kings, according to a source, will not be offering Thompson — no longer starting in Sacramento and posting career lows in points and rebounds — an extension.
How does the 12th overall pick in the NBA draft not get offered an extension? Usually by being a complete bust. But that’s not the case with Thompson. As a rookie, he played flawed, but quality basketball, averaging 11 points and 7.4 rebounds while playing in all 82 games for the Kings.
In his first year, you could see where growth was needed. At the college level, Thompson was able to dominate smaller players at Rider University, using his size and athleticism to overcome the imperfections in his technique. That just isn’t the case in the NBA where opposing coaches make a living off of exploiting weaknesses.
Since then, Thompson has worked hard to improve his footwork – an absolute disaster as a rookie. He improved his conditioning each year, sculpting his body into the dynamic athlete he is today. He has done his part, but the numbers have not shown it.
Bradford Doolittle of Basketball Prospectus spoke of this trend in his article The Regression of the Young Kings.
In every case, the player either underperformed his projection or showed signs of improvement, only to slip back. In some cases, as with Jason Thompson, the regression was stark, and none of the players actually were producing at a winning level.
So why is Jason Thompson “regressing”?
First off, he hasn’t regressed; he just isn’t getting the same minutes he was before. Below you can see Thompson’s numbers per 36 minutes for all four of his seasons in the NBA.
Someone will point to Thompson’s reduction in points per game, but that stat is easily explained away by an abnormal amount of missed free throws early this season. Basically, he is the same player he was coming into the league, just more efficient.
“You can only control, what you can control.”
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard Thompson say this line. It is JT code for, “I did my part, but I don’t control what minutes the coach hands out.” Realistically, there couldn’t be a truer statement for the Kings big man this season.
Thompson has improved his field goal efficiency this year , shooting a stellar 56 percent – seven points higher than his career average. After leading the NBA in fouls as a rookie three seasons ago, Thompson is averaging just 3.5 personals per 36 minutes. He has also shaved nearly a turnover a game off his career average, showing better decision-making on both ends of the floor.
Thompson received his first start of the season on Wednesday night against the Indiana Pacers. What the Kings big man showed was remarkable improvement. Gone was the predetermined offensive move that constantly got Thompson into foul trouble in past seasons. Gone were the grab fouls and the forced action on both ends of the court. Gone were the overly aggressive plays and the long-winded conversations with officials.
They say that big men take longer to develop and that appears to be the case with Jason Thompson. He played 26 minutes in his first start, scoring nine points and grabbing 10 rebounds. More impressively, JT played within himself and even showed a few unexpected wrinkles to his game, like back-to-back finishes at the rim with his left hand.
“Hey, each year you’re in the league, you’re supposed to get better at something,” Thompson said following the Kings victory on Wednesday. “A couple of things I worked on was to get stronger and keep my strength and also some post moves.”
New head coach Keith Smart had a smile on his face when asked about Thompson and his recent play. Smart knows that Thompson is a hard worker and came to camp in the best shape of his life.
“What I like about him now is he’s being decisive,” Smart said of Thompson. “If he doesn’t have a move, he gets rid of the basketball and gets into the next play. The way he’s progressing for me right now, is really, really special because it helps our guys that I can count on one guy every single night to play a certain way, every night.
“He’s giving that every single night and every day in practice,” Smart added. “And sometimes you have to reward guys like that.”
Coach Smart is right – Jason Thompson should be rewarded. If not by the Kings, some other team will reap the benefits of a 6’-11, 250-pound, high character, hustle player who is finally coming into his own.
While Thompson may believe he’s playing for his NBA life, he is mistaken. He will have plenty of suitors should the Kings decide he’s not in their future plans.
For now, he needs to bide his time and control what he can control.