The Sacramento Kings added two major front-court pieces during last year’s elongated off-season.  Chuck Hayes was brought in to be a defensive anchor while J.J. Hickson was looked at as a young super athlete, ready to take his game to an elite level.

Both players were seen as possible long-term pairings for the up-and-coming DeMarcus Cousins.  This was the plan and it seemed like a quality one at that.

Fortunately for the Kings, fourth-year big man Jason Thompson missed that memo.  While Hayes struggled with a heart condition, dislocated shoulder and poor conditioning, Hickson was given a chance to shine.  Poor jump shooting and even poorer defense by Hickson opened the door for Thompson, who used his size 22 shoes knock the door off its hinges.

Positives

Size, strength, heart, motor, and locker room presence.  Those are a few of the attributes Thompson brought to the table.  While he has always touted these skills, there was something missing from the package that would make him a long-term fit.

Enter the summer of 2011.  Somewhere along the way, a light bulb came on in his head.  If ever there was a player Bill Walton could yell, “Throw it down big man!” to, it was JT.  There seemed to be a lid on the basket inside of three feet as Thompson, for lack of a better term, pussy-footed around the rim.  But from the moment he arrived in Davis for the Goon Squad Classic last fall, something was different.  Thompson was different and the results were impressive.

I have often described some of the flaws in Thompson’s game as “small conference issues”.   As a 6-foot-11 player at Rider, he was able to get away with bad habits, because he was so much bigger than most of his competition.  Habits like bringing the ball too low in the post, dribbling too much, a soft interior game, poor defensive form inside – these are things that Thompson came to the league with needing major improvement

While the numbers don’t exactly show massive growth, our old friend, the shot chart, shows some pretty incredible things.

Above is the shot chart from Thompson’s rookie season and it should be noted that year two and three are almost identical.  His shooting percentage of 49.7 percent was fine for a rookie center/forward.  Thompson shot 61.2 percent in the circle, but outside the circle while still in the key, he shot just 31.3 percent.  Folks that remember the early incarnation of Thompson will also remember his 15-18 foot jumper from both the baseline and top of the key that reminded many of former Kings forward Brian Grant.

With coaching and player changes came role changes for Thompson.  He bounced in and out of the starting line-up and back and forth between center and power forward.  It appears that in year four, stability, in the form of Keith Smart and the power forward position, found Jason Thompson and improvement followed.

Gone to the wayside is the erratic shot chart that reminds us of high school acne.  Gone is the 31.3 percent shooting in the key (outside the circle), replaced by a 45.8 percent effecient offensive weapon.  The stripped down version (let’s call it JT 4.0) is a finely-tuned, 53.5 percent shooting, low-post threat, that can score with either hand and finish at the rim with force.

While Thompson still shoots the occasional 15-18 foot jumper, it is no longer a staple of his game as he has moved closer to the rim to compliment Cousins’ skills.  Year four was an offensive revelation, something that Thompson is surely to build on.

How did this happen?  For starters, he redefined his body.  Thompson has always been known as the guy who comes to camp in the best shape, but this season was different.  A personal chef, a training routine that shed bulk and added lean muscle and a clear concentration on footwork helped add agility and athleticism around the basket, which translated into production.

Oh yeah and Thompson found his elusive left hand.  The ability to finish with either hand opened up a new world in the block.  Coach Clifford Ray preaches that you don’t need to have an arsenal of moves in the post, just two or three that you are really good at (see Jefferson, Al).  Clearly this advice sunk in with Thompson as he became a reliable option in the offense.

As a rebounder, Thompson is slightly above average, but surprisingly consistent throughout his career, despite playing with a myriad of frontcourt mates.  While the numbers don’t jump out at you and considering Thompson played alongside a rebounding-magnet in Cousins as well as quality rebounders like Hayes and Hickson, the fact that Thompson’s numbers didn’t suffer this season is a major bonus.

On the defensive end, Thompson took considerable strides forward, but remains a work in progress at least in the Kings’ current system.  According to 82.games.com, with Thompson on the floor, the Kings gave up 110.5 points per 100 possessions. Without him, they gave up 110.6 points per 100 possessions, making him defensive neutral for a very poor defensive team.

A major positive is that while Thompson played primarily power forward, his player-efficiency rating against at center was 14.7 versus 15.2 as a forward.  Also, Thompson has done a remarkable job of reducing his fouls per game by shaving 1.2 personals per 36 minutes off his previous season and 1.7 per 36 minutes off of his NBA-leading 4.9 as a rookie.

Negatives

While Thompson has improved in many aspects, he is still a work in progress.  At 25 years old, it is possible he can hit another jump in production, but by this age, most NBA players are who they are.  What Thompson is is a well balanced big that does many things well, but doesn’t stand out at any one facet of his game.

Also, Thompson has hit plateau in many areas of development where there was hope that he might improve, especially on the defensive end.

Considering the age and experience of his teammates, Thompson should have a larger impact on the floor as a defender.  As a fourth or fifth option in the offensive set, Thompson should be a player the Kings count on for his rebounding and defense.  He could improve in both of these areas regardless of the team around him.

Thompson has also stagnated as a shot blocker, averaging just 1.0 per 36 on the season and over his career.  If he isn’t going to block shots at a higher clip, he needs to improve as a position defender and a team defender in the pick-and-roll.  When Thompson and Cousins are paired together, someone has to attempt to play goalie.  While Cousins has a reach advantage, Thompson is considerably more mobile and athletic.

While Thompson has reshaped his body, he still struggles with the more mobile combo forwards.  He needs to learn to step out and stay with a perimeter shooting big, even if that means getting burned to the basket on occasion.  Coach Smart switched up his starting line-up to match up against players like Channing Frye.  Thompson needs to prove that he is capable of showing on this type of big, or he is going to lose minutes.

As a rookie, Thompson shot 69 percent from the free throw line and improved to 71.5 percent in his sophomore year.  Since then, things have gone down hill.  For the last two seasons, Thompson has hit just 60 percent of his freebies and it took a hot streak in the second half to get him this high.  This is one of those areas that Thompson needs to focus on this off-season.  As his interior game improves, drawing and then knocking down free throw attempts is crucial, especially for a low usage player looking to improve his numbers.

Conclusion

Thompson proved a lot of people wrong in year four, including team president Geoff Petrie who tried desperately to replace him last off-season.  JT is a restricted free agent this summer and there should be plenty of teams interested in his services.  The Kings have already stated that they are going to extend a qualifying offer, so there is a good chance he will be back next year.

The question still remains whether he is a starter or a third big.  While I like him as a starter, the Kings might be look to improve their interior defense with a big that compliments Cousins better.  I don’t necessarily think this is a bad thing for Thompson.

The Kings struggled to score when Smart sat both Thompson and Cousins together.  If Petrie can find a rebounding, shot blocking big to be the fifth option in the starting line-up, Thompson could anchor the Kings bench as the teams primary post option when Cousins leaves the game.

Statistical support provided by Basketball-Reference, 82games.com and NBA.com.