For more than five seasons, Sacramento Kings fans have watched the progression of forward Jason Thompson. They have tuned in as a promising young rookie developed into a seasoned vet.
So many players and coaches have come and gone, but Thompson remains. The Kings have brought in a series of players to replace him, but somehow he always wins out. He is resilient and professional and an upstanding citizen of the Sacramento and NBA community.
But something is missing this season.
Thompson came into camp in great shape, like he does every season. But beginning with our encounters with him during the summer, there was a different feel to the usually upbeat Thompson. The instability of the Sacramento Kings’ franchise, beginning with coaches and players and extending to constant strife with the ownership group has taken its toll on Thompson and rightfully so.
The former Rider star is working on his fifth head coach in six NBA seasons. Each of these coaches have had a different want or need from Thompson and every time they are replaced, it is back to square one for the longest tenured Kings player.
Once again, Thompson outplayed his competition during training camp. This time it was against Patrick Patterson, but it very well could have been Thomas Robinson, J.J. Hickson or Carl Landry. But once again, a new head coach found more value in Thompson off the bench.
It took six games for Thompson to overtake Patterson in the starting lineup this season, but that is more on Patterson than anything else. Ten games in as a starter and Thompson almost looks like a rookie again. You can see the emotional roller coaster he is riding. Be it rushing his post moves or reacting to a miss, the weight of the world is bearing down on the 12th overall selection of the 2008 NBA Draft.
“Offensively, he has to settle down and not feel so much pressure to make every shot that he takes and I think sometimes he puts that on himself,” coach Michael Malone said earlier this week. “He just has to play free out there and with confidence.”
Part of the issue with Thompson is that he is once again being forced to play a different style of game. Malone has accomplished something that neither Paul Westphal nor Keith Smart were able to accomplish. He has gotten DeMarcus Cousins to live in the post area, and the results have been stunning. Cousins is beginning to dominate down low on a nightly basis and the more he plays in the block, the better he gets.
Since Thompson is starting alongside Cousins, he isn’t getting the same opportunities he has in the past to get comfortable in the post. After watching him develop both a left hand and a solid array of moves down low, Thompson has now abandoned that game for the 18-20-foot top-of-the-key jumper.
A season ago, Thompson lived in the post, shooting 442 of his 745 field goal attempts in the basket area. Those 442 shots represent 59.3 percent of his overall field-goal attempts, and he converted those at a respectable 55.4 percent rate. A further look shows that when Thompson wasn’t scoring in the post, he was shooting predominately from the baseline. He took 125 shots from the wings last season, compared to 88 shots from the top of the key area, meaning that 76 percent of his shots came from either in the post or from the baseline.
With Cousins eating the post chances, Thompson has had to make a major tweak to his game. Twenty-five of his 104 shots on the season have come at the top of the key extended area where he is shooting a stellar 52 percent. But those 25 shots represent an increase from 11.8 percent last season to 24 percent this season. With the increase from the top of the key, Thompson’s chances on the baseline have dropped from 16.8 percent of his shots last season to just 7.7 percent this year. His overall shots from the post and baseline have decreased to just 60.6 percent of his overall chances, more than a 15-percent reduction from last season.
Change is going to happen for NBA players, especially when a major talent plays alongside them and begins developing into an All-Star-level player. Thompson has settled in from the top of the key, but what has separated this season’s player from the last two is Thompson’s regression as a post player.
In the past, the Kings couldn’t function without either Cousins or Thompson in the game. Without a true post scorer, the Kings’ offense disintegrated into a muddied jump-shooting fest. With Thompson struggling to get comfortable in Malone’s system this season, he has played himself out of a lot of those opportunities and the result has hurt the team as a whole. Cousins is now the only reliable option in the post, at least until Thompson can slow down and show that he can be that player.
On the defensive end, Thompson is playing solid ball, but there is plenty of room for improvement.
“When he’s aggressive, he gets into foul trouble sometimes,” Malone said. “It kind of disrupts his flow in the game because he’s in and out. But when he’s out there, he battles, he competes as a post defender.”
The stats back up what Malone is seeing. According to 82games.com, the Kings allow 104.8 points per 100 possessions with Thompson on the floor and 111.3 per 100 possessions with him off the floor. Thompson’s value as a player has always been increased by the fact that he can play both the power forward and the center positions. In fact, one of the reasons Patterson started to begin the season was because of the versatility of Thompson.
But this season’s stats say that Thompson is a much better defender when guarding power forwards. Per 48 minutes, Thompson allows opposing power forwards a PER (Player Efficiency Rating) of 12.4, but that number doubles to 24.8 against centers. In raw per 48 minute numbers, that translates to 17 points and 10.9 rebounds on 51 eFG percentage against power forwards and 29.7 points, 17.4 rebounds with an eFG percentage of 56.5 percent against centers according to 82games.com.
It’s difficult to say this because Thompson is a 27-year-old player in his sixth NBA season, but patience is needed. Thompson is the Kings’ best option at power forward right now, but in many instances, he is relearning his entire game to fit alongside the new and improved DeMarcus Cousins.
Coach Malone seems to understand the transition that Thompson is making.
“Whether Jason starts or comes off the bench, he’s going to be a big part of what we do,” Malone said.
If Thompson can continue to knock down the top of the key jumper and show a glimpse of the post player he was last season, his role on this team can expand. But he has to get back to basics and realize that Malone is gong to get a very long look as the coach of the Sacramento Kings. The instability of the past is gone and it’s time for Thompson to show his new coach the player that earned a five-year, $30-million extension a little over a season ago.
Statistical support provided by NBA.com/stats and 82games.com