Young Player Profile: Tristan Thompson

December 27th, 2012 by Kevin Hetrick

Over the last two years, I wrote numerous draft profiles for Cavs:the Blog.  Typically, in 1000 words or so, I would overview a player’s statistical accomplishments, but also provide a detailed look at a couple of their games.  As I dwelled on the status of the ever-fascinating Tristan Thompson, I decided to provide similar content, but instead with articles focusing on the Cavaliers youngsters.  Over the next month, I will pen an extensive overview on Tristan, Kyrie, Dion and Tyler (this one surpasses 2000 words.  I really wanted to provide the full TT experience).

Tristan Thompson entered the league with a dossier of being an athletic, defense first player, with great work ethic, excellent offensive rebounding instincts, and an otherwise non-developed repetoire.  Oh, and poor free throw shooting.  So far, he checks each of those boxes.  Part of the genesis of this series was to provide a fair take on Tristan’s greatest skills: man-to-man and team defense, as they are otherwise unlikely to result in glowing narrative.  As TT approaches his 22nd birthday, how does his progress look?

Tristan still shoots free throws left handed.

On offense: Thompson battles issues with scoring the ball.  According to ESPN, of 75 qualified power forwards, his true shooting percentage ranks 47th, despite using only the 56th highest frequency of possessions.  The TS% serves as a significant improvement over last year, however that is aided by a 4% reduction in his usage rate.  His 56% career free-throw shooting has not helped, but he converted 62% this month.  Struggles with quickly collecting passes and attacking, or innovating when his shot isn’t there,  lead to obscene amounts of his shots getting blocked (10th most in the NBA through 12/17).

He shines as an offensive rebounder though, proving his elite collegiate skill transitions to the NBA.  Of 327 qualified NBA players this year, his rebounding rate ranks 24th.  As a willing pick setter, and a player constantly battling to extend possessions through his board-work, he offers some offensive benefits.  

On defense: Undoubtedly where Thompson butters his bread, he shows skill as a team defender, and although he blocks less shots, his defensive rebounding has increased dramatically this season.   Combined with good man-to-man and rotation defense, I prefer the rebounding to the shot blocking, anyways.  Thanks to this recent Andy-less stretch, his defensive rebounding rate currently exceeds two-thirds of NBA power forwards.  On-court / off-court numbers shine a favorable light; according to RAPM splits, he is nearly a league-average player, as his defensive contributions offset the offensive subtractions.  Not a bad place to be for a player still in the upward arc of his career.

To bolster this discussion, how about some game recaps?

December 21, 2012 – Cleveland vs Indiana – Closely watching the nuances of Tristan’s game is not the most pleasurable way to watch basketball, but it is insightful.  Primarily defending David West, he occasionally switched onto Roy Hibbert.  In the first quarter, he flashed his burgeoning array of defensive skills.  Holding his ground in the post, he forced ugly West & Hibbert misses; after containing George Hill off a pick, he quickly rotated back to contest his man at the basket; constant effort resulted in a defensive rebound in transition and an offensive rebound.  On offense, he missed one ugly right-handed hook shot, and ended the quarter with 0 points and 3 rebounds.

The second quarter continued to offer hedge-and-recover highlights (?), as Tristan twice impacted the same possession in the back-court and at the rim; I envision Andy as Yoda in this development.  Remember when you were taught to drive a car, and the instructor told you to look forward for two seconds, then check your rearview mirrors, then the speedometer, then the side-views, before doing it all again?  That is how Tristan looks on defense, very attentive, with his head & eyes continually moving.  It allowed him to bail out Zeller once thanks to solid help (TT was called for a ‘good’ foul on the play).  He thwarted a fast-break with a block, and Thompson’s stamp was all over holding Indiana to 44 first-half points.  This quarter also featured 3-of-3 shooting from Tristan, including a two-dribble righty hook, and a right-handed baseline drive & dunk that made me yell, “OHHH!”.  Didn’t Tristan used to be left handed?  I recall Nate Smith last year, as commenter HoopsDogg, repeatedly saying that Cleveland needed to tear Tristan’s offensive game down and turn him into a righty.  Did they do this?  He goes right a lot more often than left this year.  Maybe I made this whole thing up.

For the team and Tristan, things unraveled in the third quarter.  Tristan tossed one shot off the side of the backboard, and on a righty-drive, Hibbert swatted TT’s heave.  He tried to throw an alley-oop to Kyrie; this seems backwards and did not end well.  On a Pacer fast-break, Tristan seemed non-recognitive of the ball, which resulted in an and-one, and on another possession, I thought he missed a rotation, allowing an unobstructed Hibbert dunk.

Early in the fourth off a pass, Tristan missed a short, lefty finish, but wrestled the offensive board and completed an and-one.  Later from a Kyrie pick-and-roll, he received a pass and was fouled, but missed both freebies.  His defensive play resumed solid results; tough post play on West, and a stripped ball on a Tyler Hansbrough drive highlighted the quarter.

Overall for the team, this game was disappointing, but Tristan represented himself reasonably well.  Three of five free throws missed the mark, but his twelve rebounds and tough defense helped lock-down David West to 46% true shooting and 2 offensive rebounds, both below his seasonal averages.  Tristan’s three turnovers, supplemented by league-average 54% true shooting, did not serve as bastions of efficiency; overall, a fairly representative Tristan game.

December 26, 2012 – Cleveland vs Washington – This tilt started poorly for the team and Tristan.  Early, he guarded Nene, with Zeller on Emeka Okafor; when TT hit the pine at 5:54 to go, the Wizard duo had combined for 14 points and 5 rebounds on perfect shooting as Washington stormed to an 18 to 10 lead.  Nene faced-up and drove past Tristan for an and-one, and Okafor netted a hook-shot over him.  Thompson also rotated late once, allowing an easy Washington layup.  He withstood a few other attempted back-downs, forcing the Wizard bigs to abandon their intentions.  At the other end, he made a right-handed push shot from the right-block, and tried a righty-drive from 25 feet out.  He missed badly, and should avoid isolation drives from outside the three-point line.  One play I particularly admired was a choice that Tristan made to pass out of the post as a perimeter player cheated his direction; his look to the corner resulted in a hockey-assist as Gee swung the ball to Kyrie for a three.  One benefit of Tristan’s limited post game relies on his making good decisions on when to pass.  If he can gain deep position and draw help, then capably pass, it offers a semblance of inside-out play that Cleveland otherwise sorely lacks.  His passing has improved this season (although last year it was relatively non-existent).

Thompson played the entire second quarter and things turned brighter.  Defensively, he continuously stayed engaged, both on and off the ball, as Washington looked to exploit what they estimated as an edge in the post.  In this second stanza, he forced Nene into an ugly shot that glanced off the side of the backboard, and navigated Okafor into a tough 10-foot miss.   His pick-and-roll defense disprupted the Wizard flow, routinely keeping the ball handler moving sideways; on one possession, he actually drove the ball-handler to step on the baseline for a turnover, and on another play, he switched and blocked the shot at the rim.  Actively seeking out his man and sealing off rebound position nabbed him six defensive boards for the quarter, and also forced the refs to call an over-the-back call on Nene.  This was a weakness for him out of college, but an area where significant strides have been accomplished, and this quarter greatly evidenced that.  On offense, his lone shot was a badly-missed righty push shot off one-dribble.  He gained two free throws, both makes, through backing down Jan Vesely from the three point line, into a push / hook shot from ten feet.  It was a bit of a bail-out call, and starting post moves from 22 feet seems non-ideal.  On the bright side, he grabbed two offensive boards, and his efforts also resulted in Okafor being unable to corral a rebound and losing it out-of-bounds.  Again on a play when a guard cheated towards him in the post, he fired out to Waiters for an open three (it was airballed).

In the next quarter, Thompson’s post defense again stymied the Wiz bigs.  Holding his ground against Nene allowed Kyrie  to sneak up and steal the ball; Tristan ran the court and got rewarded with free throws.  His offense was not pretty, but in this quarter, it was effective.  He made a right-handed shot off a pass from Gee; drained a shocking eighteen footer from the baseline; drove from the top of the key, missed, but followed it with a tip-in; and off a pick-and-roll, received the pass twenty feet from the basket, put the ball on the floor, and was stripped for a turnover.  Of those four plays, three resulted in buckets, but for the time being, I think only one of them belongs in a good NBA offense.  Hopefully we can all agree that Tristan trying to generate offense from outside of 18-feet is not a good idea.

This seems an apt time to explain Tristan’s team-worst plus/minus for that evening; in the first and third quarters, he and Dion played identical minutes (Dion was second-worst for plus/minus).  One observation is that Dion performed very passively; two shots at the rim and one assist.  The other observation will shock and amaze; Luke Walton is a better passer than Tristan.  On this night, the instant that Dion and Tristan subbed out for Boobie and Walton, the offense looked immensely smoother.

The fourth quarter initially featured typical Tristan plays; disruptive pick-and-roll defense, a tip resulting in another Cav grabbing an offensive rebound, a face-up drive that drew a block on Nene (but probably could have gone either way), and a travel when a strong flush seemed possible.  And then, the last 3:30 of subtleties (and one highlight):

  • On Dion’s huge three to give Cleveland an 82 to 79 lead, Tristan set the back-pick to free him.  (As a tangent, closely watching one player really draws focus to how little happens in the Cav offense away from the ball.  Tom and Nate discuss this in recaps, but there is not much movement, screening, etc to generate a counter to the pick-and-roll shaping up on the strong-side.
  • On Washington’s next possession, with Tristan defending him, Nene made a move, then another, the whole time being forced further from the basket.  He jacked up an ugly ten footer and missed.
  • The next Cavs possession gives credit to Gee for an offensive rebound, but Tristan caromed the ball to Alonzo.
  • Then the BIG PLAY!!  Kyrie drives, passes, Tristan catches, goes up strong…is it blocked?  NO!  AND ONE!  Cavs lead 85 to 82 with twenty-four seconds left.

Another solid game for the young big man, as his 15 & 12 provided a fourth-straight double-double.  His defensive rebounding effort and fundamentals impressed, and aside from the first six minutes, he helped manage the Washington bigs into 25 points on 26 shots to go with 7 turnovers.  His offense proved effective this night, but alot of the plays are still probably best left to the practice court.

Summary: Other than my frustrated day-after-draft reaction, I think my opinion of Tristan has been pretty consistent.  Like many observers, I slotted him around eleventh leading up to the draft, as a strong one-way player with raw offense.  Really, Tristan is not extremely far from where I hoped to see him progress.  Our friend at Fear the Sword, David Zavac, wrote an article about Tristan this summer.  The conclusion was that he hoped to see Tristan most improve on defense, and master that side of the ball.  I hope TT watches film of himself playing defense, and also Andy, Elton Brand, Kevin Love, and Kevin Garnett.  His targets need set on lock-down status and rebounding dominance.  On offense, focus on finishing easy ones, taking care of the ball, and making free throws.  Hopefully Cleveland adds a few more offensive forces over the years, and Tristan can settle into 13 – 15% usage, finishing offensive rebounds and easy buckets that his teammates generate.  If he manages to exceed that, that’s cool, too.