It seems like just last week when we were rolling out the red carpeted box score for first-overall selection Kyrie Irving. Missing three games thanks to a wayward Dwyane Wade kneecap, Irving returned with the vengence and consistency we have come to appreciate over the first two months of his rookie campaign.
The juxtaposition between he and fellow freshman Tristan Thompson — aside from the obvious polar opposite approach to on-court difference-making — had multiple folds. Irving’s injury didn’t exactly occur within the flow of the game; his head collided with Wade’s knee after a foul on the point guard’s way to the basket. Once medically cleared, he was able to pick right up where he left off. Thompson had to take things at a slightly slower pace. His game, rooted in the two springboards which you or I would call “legs,” relies on one of the body parts he injured through the course of a contest. “Bouncey,” as he says.
Making matters a bit worse, Thompson rushed back, playing a handful of minutes in three more games before reaggavating his injury, forcing him to miss even more time. While you can’t exactly teach athleticism, you can force it to be harnessed out of caution and that’s an area where Thompson has been since his return. Tentative on offense, an area where he already has to work harder than most in order to contribute, the 6-foot-9-inch forward focused his impact on his core strengths: boards and blocks.
But on Sunday night, in a the one-point win over the Sacramento Kings (one which Byron Scott deemed “lucky”), the ball finally fell in Thompson’s favor as he recorded 15 points (on 6-of-10 shooting) to go with his 12 rebounds (seven offensive), one steal and three blocked shots. The first double-double of his young career, Thompson was able to display his potential in a “remember me?” moment, one typically lost in the shadow of his running mate who continues to set Cleveland ablaze with his ever-improving point guard prowess.
There was not much to take from Friday night’s dismantling at the hands of the Miami Heat, but it was Thompson who came off of the bench and provided the energy that the Cavaliers would have hoped to had received from the entire 12-man unit. Finishing with 12 points, six boards and two blocked shots in 25 minutes of play, Thompson stayed active and aggressive; only he always-slashing Irving and Ramon Sessions took more free throw attempts than the fourth-overall selection. Often his nemesis, Thompson drained four of his five attempts from the charity stripe.
He would go on to get to the line six more times against the Kings, a game which came down to to free throws — one from teammate Alonzo Gee and two from Irving. One can even debate why it was not the shot-blocking, above-the-rim Thompson who would be given the assignment of guarding Sacramento’s center DeMarcus Cousins who would go on to put his team up by one point with six seconds remaining via an up-and-under lay-in which was met with nearly zero friction from Antawn Jamison. Irving would fortunately go on to render any decision-based discussion meaningless.
Thompson, thanks to the win, was understandably more jovial following this game. He would use phrases like “in my groove” to describe the growing confidence in his formerly sprained ankle. While you have a player who obviously gets excited when he pulls down an offensive rebound (as seen in his absurdly low 2.1 percent assist rate), you also have one who understands his limitations and doesn’t use game minutes to experiment. He knows that in order to stay on the floor, he has to focus his efforts on boards and blocks, extending plays and causing turnovers, being active through an entire possession despite the incredibly small chance that the ball ends up in his hands within the course of an actual half-court set.
It’s a bit more difficult to embrace the game of a guy who doesn’t drop 18 points per night or wow fans and ESPN producers with behind-the-back passes to All-Star teammates like wunderkind Ricky Rubio. All Thompson has been able to muster are rookie-leading averages in rebounds (5.5) while being second in blocked shots (1.3). A non-starter who can occasionally fall victim to foul trouble, Thompson’s box scores can certainly have lumpy outputs depending on the size and style of the opponent. At it’s core, Thompson’s game is rooted entirely in happenstance. Making the most of his opportunities, however, is what becomes the art.