Thompson harbors NCAA tourney, NBA draft hopes at Rider
WEST LONG BRANCH, N.J. -- As the Rider Broncs took the court at Monmouth's antiquated Boylan Gym on Dec. 15, many players were rubbing their hands. Not in excitement, but to keep them insulated from the frigid, nor'easter air leaking into the rickety facility.
Over the next two hours, the arctic chill wasn't the only thing numbing the generously listed crowd of 1,580. The Broncs were sucking the competitive life out of a nonconference tilt against the homestanding Hawks, methodically building up a 30-point lead on their way to an easy 76-55 win. The atmosphere wasn't exactly reminiscent of Cameron Indoor. Neither were the postgame press conferences, held in a corner of the school's strength and conditioning room in front of two reporters, an empty cookie tray and rows of idle exercise bikes.
This small-time setting was about the last place you would expect to find an NBA prospect, but there he was in Rider's handsome cranberry red uniform, a visitor from the decidedly mid-major MAAC, long and lean like the 1 that adorns his jersey's back. Meet Jason Thompson, the best 6-foot-11, 250-pound forward you've never heard of.
Last season, Thompson averaged 20.1 points and 10.1 rebounds a game, placing him with Kevin Durant and Nick Fazekas as the only 20-and-10 players in Division I. This season, after a summer spent working out at camps run by LeBron James and Amare Stoudemire, he's averaging 19.8 points and 11.3 rebounds a game.
That's not just against smaller schools, either. In three games in the Old Spice Classic in Orlando in November, Thompson averaged 23.0 points, 10.7 rebounds and 3.0 blocks a game against NC State, Penn State and Kansas State and outplayed Wildcats freshman phenom Michael Beasley in the head-to-head matchup. There's a reason NBA scouts are frequent visitors at the school's modest Lawrenceville, N.J., campus.
"I watch college games most every night and I know what I see every day, and I don't see guys his size doing what he's doing," Rider coach Tommy Dempsey said. "You'd probably have to think long and hard about a 6-11 guy who's picking-and-popping and shooting jumpers and taking it off the dribble and handling it against the press. Where are those guys?"
They're usually not at Rider, that's for sure.
Sitting in his bare-bones office inside Rider's own quaint Alumni Gym, Dempsey recalled Thompson's rather uneventful recruiting process. Dempsey, then an assistant under former head coach Don Harnum, was the lead recruiter who wooed Thompson. He said he thought Thompson, who had sprouted from a 6-3 shooting guard into a thin 6-7 forward in high school, would be a nice recruit for the program, but it wasn't as if the Broncs had to ward off bigger schools for his services.
Before his senior season in high school, Thompson chose Rider over schools like Monmouth and Central Connecticut for its proximity to his Mount Laurel, N.J., home and the chance to contribute right away. He then led Lenape High School to a state championship.
"I was kind of a slim, slender guy, so I guess a lot of colleges were unsure of what position I could play," Thompson said. "After I played well in workouts against some guys who were rated above me, [bigger schools] were looking at me, but I told them I was already committed."
I'm not the type of player to yell at my teammates or anything like that. I let the game come to me. ... I don't want my teammates to get mad or jealous. I want my teammates to have fun out there, too.
Rider is lucky he did, because Thompson has since blossomed into a force. His low-post game is where he most still resembles a mid-major player; he's still developing a back-to-the-basket game. Where he separates himself from other prospects at this level, and most at the high-major level, is with the skills he cultivated during his days as a guard.
At practice the day before the Monmouth game, Thompson sank jumper after jumper in a three-man drill with the same high, crisp release and the same soft, pleasing arc. Then he was a central ballhandler in Rider's press-break drill.
Against the overmatched Hawks, Thompson teased the audience with glimpses of his varied skills. For long stretches, he was content to blend in, but suddenly he uncorked a scissor-legged dunk in transition. There was a deft catch in the lane and a tough finish. A perfect skip pass from the left block to the right wing for an open 3. A sweet baseline fadeaway J.
After the game, Monmouth head coach Dave Calloway -- an 11-year veteran whose team already has faced Seton Hall, Notre Dame, Wichita State and Charlotte this season -- stated definitively that Thompson was the best player the Hawks had seen. A few minutes later, Dempsey, perhaps too used to big nights from his star, commented that Thompson's easy 19 points, nine rebounds and four blocks were somewhat pedestrian.
"I think coach has been getting a little spoiled, wanting him to have huge games because he knows what he can do," said junior wing Harris Mansell, the team's third-leading scorer at 13.9 points a game. "I mean, what did he have, 20-something and 15 rebounds against NC State from the ACC? [Coach] sees that and then [Jason] comes to Monmouth and has like 19 and 10, and he thinks that's a bad game."
Thompson's biggest contribution to the Broncs might be an unassuming style that Dempsey notes doesn't create a "me and them atmosphere," even though it's sometimes that way on the court, at the school and in the media. Balancing team egos is hard for any coach, but Thompson's team orientation really helps. Of course, he's the only Bronc with a promotional Web site, JasonThompson1.com. But while he's flattered by all of the attention, he tries to downplay it. He's a sensitive star who worries about what his teammates and coaches think.
"I'm not the type of player to yell at my teammates or anything like that," he said. "I let the game come to me. I don't want my teammates to get mad or jealous. I want my teammates to have fun out there, too."
Don't confuse him for passive, though. Both Dempsey and Thompson's teammates describe him as an intense competitor on the court who definitely demands the ball when it counts. He took 25 shots in 39 minutes in a nine-point loss to NC State and dominated the paint against the Wolfpack.
"Most of the time, in big crucial situations, they're always looking inside," Thompson said. "If I'm outside, they'll look for me there, too, which is definitely good. [They know] if it's game time, then try to look for your big man."
The Broncs have been looking for Thompson for much of the past three seasons, although his sophomore campaign -- his first as the team's star -- was difficult. Gutted by the graduation of seven seniors from a team that shared the MAAC regular-season crown, the Broncs finished 8-20.
After the season, Dempsey, who had served as interim head coach while Harnum took over as interim AD, had to sweat out both getting the job full time and (unfounded) third-party rumors that Thompson and his 16.6 points and 8.4 rebounds were looking to transfer. Complicating matters, the program also was recruiting Jason's younger brother, Ryan, a solid mid-major wing prospect, at the time. Ultimately, Jason stayed, Dempsey got the job and Ryan delighted his brother, with whom he's close, by picking Rider over CAA programs Drexel and George Mason.
"Jay played his freshman year, so he could tell me what it was like," Ryan Thompson said of joining his brother. "I came and watched the games. I saw what system they ran. I saw myself in the system. Distance played a part in it, but mostly, I wanted to play my first year. I didn't want to waste two or three years sitting behind somebody."
Last season, the two Thompsons combined to average over 32 minutes per game apiece, and with the other young Broncs maturing, Rider improved to 16-15 overall, 9-9 in the MAAC. That raised expectations for this year, one in which the Broncs were picked a very close fourth in what should be a hotly contested MAAC race. Ryan, a budding star himself, is now averaging 14.4 points, 8.1 rebounds and 4.3 assists. He combines with Mansell to form a fine complementary duo behind the Broncs' leading man.
"He had his freshman ups and downs, but now you can tell he got stronger," Jason Thompson said of his brother. "He has a lot more confidence."
The eldest Thompson was quick to point out that he and his brother won the state title his senior season in high school, so maybe the same magic will work this season for the Broncs. Thompson's focus is squarely on lifting Rider into the NCAA Tournament, a place the Broncs haven't been since 1994. He said he rarely has regrets about playing at a mid-major school, though he does wish he could have an easier path to the NCAA tourney. In the one-bid MAAC, a season's worth of work is boiled down to three days of conference tournament play in March. Rider fell a game short in his freshman season, and the Broncs haven't been close since.
That, more than anything else, is where being at a mid-major impacts Thompson the most. His physical gifts no longer matter. Neither do his future pro prospects.
Andy Glockner is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's college basketball coverage and is the host of the ESPNU College Basketball Insider podcast. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .
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