There’s a Jewish deli about a mile and a half from my apartment that I can still walk to because the sidewalks are snowless, and the maple tree outside my kitchen window doesn’t quite yet resemble a cluster of black spider legs. It’s too early to worry about Tristan Thompson, but then I divide my activities into two discrete categories: Things I Do While Worrying About Tristan Thompson and Things I Do Before Going Back To Worrying About Tristan Thompson. I was hoping to allocate more time toward the latter category this year, but a mere four games into the season here I am collecting shed cat fur on the bottom of my bare feet as I wander circuitously through my apartment trying to make sense of the lanky Canadian with a broad smile and a flat jumper.
I’m not concerned that Tristan Thompson doesn’t look like a second-season phenom. If developing into a great player is indeed “putting it all together,” TT is is possession of too many disparate talents to assemble them all in one offseason. I didn’t expect him to show up this season with a Rasheed Wallace-like 15-footer and a coach’s understanding of defensive positioning. What concerns me is that it appears he hasn’t added anything but an additional fifteen pounds on his frame. He still rebounds well, defends just okay, and is intermittently painful to watch on the offensive end. There’s not a facet of his game that I can discern as markedly improved.
Further concern: he supposedly worked extremely hard in the offseason. Whenever coaches were asked in training camp who was the most committed to getting better over the summer, and who would impress in 2012-13, they invariably named Thompson. After four games (one good, three pretty dreadful), I can’t tell what he worked on. He’s still a step slow on defensive rotations, still tries to block shots he has no chance of affecting, still reads five pages of Faulkner aloud between receiving a pass and attempting a shot.
We can contrast him (sort of unfairly) with Blake Griffin, who thoroughly outplayed him Monday night. Griffin doesn’t always do this, but when he caught the ball last night, he was instinctive. On the perimeter, he either set himself and took a jumper or swung the ball to the wing. In the paint, he put a move on his defender or kicked the ball back out to the perimeter. He didn’t, as he is sometimes wont to do, dribble through his legs 16 feet from the basket or jab step repeatedly like a broken choreography robot. Griffin was decisive, which makes him difficult to guard he’s so much quicker and stronger than a lot of the players that try to check him. If he moves swiftly, chances are high that his defender lacks the athleticism to stay in front of him, and they’re forced either to foul or allow a high-percentage shot.
All we have to fall back on with Tristan Thompson is how athletic he is, but you wouldn’t know it from watching him on the offensive end. He almost never catches his defender off-guard—despite, most of the time, being a superior athlete—because when he receives the ball, he often brings it to his hip in order to gather himself before going up for a shot attempt. This is an open invitation for guards to collapse from the perimeter and attempt to knock the ball free, and it allows the big man guarding him time to position his body or attempt a block. How often do you see TT hunched over in the post, trying to get a shot up with a big man standing over him, and a wing trying to slap the ball out of his hands? Thompson might be “quick” in the sense that he’s more agile than most power forwards, and he can probably jump over impressive-looking stacks of crates, but his slow mechanics negate his athleticism, unlike Griffin, who on his best day exploits the athleticism gap between himself and his opponent.
On the defensive end, TT’s problem lies chiefly in poor positioning. There has been some backlash against the league’s best shot blocker, Serge Ibaka, recently. He’s frequently out of position on defense because he: a.) goes out of his way to pad his blocking stats by needlessly chasing down shooters and b.) doesn’t yet fully understand the whole five-players-on-a-string principle that guides the NBA’s best defenses. Sounds something like Thompson, right? But the things that redeems Ibaka are that he’s even more of a physical freak than TT, and that he seems to be a preternaturally gifted shot-blocker. When we see Thompson’s 35-inch vertical, we daydream about a guy who can average three blocks per game, but blocking shots has never been his forté nor do I think any coach has ever told him his primary role on defense should be helping into the lane and attempting to alter the shots of penetrating guards. He has neither a shot-blocker’s instincts nor a shot-blocker’s training. It’s something he needs to learn how to do.
You can read the tea leaves as to whether this is a good or a bad sign for Thompson’s defensive prospects. On the one hand, he might improve as a shot-blocker because he’s still new to that role, and on the other, he doesn’t seem to have the same knack for blocking and altering shots that the Serge Ibakas and DeAndre Jordans of the world possess. His sense of where he is on the floor and where he needs to be at any given time in a defensive set will likely improve, if only because I think Byron Scott will have him deported if he doesn’t. Plus, for whatever reason, learning the workings of effective NBA defense usually takes players a long time. Even great defenders usually spend their first few years in the league learning from frequent mistakes.
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I went to the release party for the Onion’s Book of Known Knowledge a few weeks ago and left at intermission. One of my favorite comics, Dan Telfer, was performing at the end of the night, but I had been battling a sense of displacement all day. I hadn’t meant to come alone, but I spent the hour and a half before the show flipping through a copy of The Reader with my head down at a table in a secluded corner of the overcrowded bar. I wandered around Lincoln Park for about forty-five minutes before the warm rain soaked me. I hopped a train north. There has been a lot of construction on the red line over the past few months because the many of the stations have 30-year-old wood platforms and reek of piss. The new ones aren’t much better. They’re very bright and their floors recall a vehicle showroom from the ’70s. I had probably ruined my own night. You can only see so far when you’re inspecting the floor and the city is painting over its mold.
I don’t think Tristan Thompson will excel or even be particularly good. There are more objective reasons for concern delineated above, but my fears for him are like bacteria procreating in a petri dish. They need no fuel or host. From the moment the Cavs passed on Jonas Valančiūnas to draft a player I was unprepared for them to draft, TT’s been a vessel for my anxiety. He’s a foundling, and I resent him in a way that’s wholly unfair. I’m strung too tight: the Cavs have to do everything perfectly in order to build a contender, and that includes not picking someone who might kind of suck with the fourth pick in the draft. It’s not Tristan’s fault. He’s onstage, and I’m in the rain muttering to myself. It’s hard to dream when you’re inspecting the floor and your team is painting over its mold.