When we talk about Tristan Thompson, we’re tracing the outline of an idea not yet formed. His gestating game is still obscured by the glow of inspiration; we can make out a lanky frame soaring toward—where, exactly? Ruin. Transcendence. A career as a middling defensive stopper. Using words to describe him is like giving the most illogical voices inside one’s head a megaphone. Are they singing or shouting? He gives you a nonsense riddle. Here are some combine measurements and a Youtube clip of me jumping very high. What will my PER be when I’m 26? And it’s a sort of freedom, knowing no one expects you to have an answer. Else, it’s a source of anxiety.
Sport can broadly be classified as entertainment, and it’s entertainment that frequently relies upon anxiety. The unpredictability of the outcome of a given contest is fundmental to our enjoyment of sports. A tight final period is considerably less interesting when we know which team is going to win, and the anxiety produced by the uncertainty of an outcome compels us to slump forward on our couches and feel a languorous thrill. But when we watch a single game there’s an endpoint in sight. Our curiosity is satisfied after the final buzzer sounds, and most of our questions can be answered by a quick glance at the box score.
Questions about a player’s development are answered in winding hypotaxis that ends nowhere particular. We tend to announce an athlete’s realization of his potential by saying he has “arrived,” but arrival suggests a specific location. An athlete progresses toward abstraction. Excellence. Greatness. Success. Terms with subjective definitions. We often define one of these slippery terms (“greatness,” for example) by which players possess it (“Kobe is great”) because we can’t stake out its exact parameters. There’s no point in time at which a player becomes great; it’s just something with which his name is associated enough times that we accept it as truth.
The objective truth created by competitions (wins vs. losses) and the subjectivity with which we evaluate competitors (how “good” a player is or will become) is part of what makes sport fun. We can argue about Steph Curry’s development as a point guard in a way we can’t about the Warriors’ win-loss record. But something has to inform our argument. When we’re talking about players, we’re rarely espousing shallow affection. We’re usually utilizing a theory of value based on box score statistics, advanced metrics, intangibles, and/or a preference for a certain style of play. To navigate the murky subjectivity of talking about players, we develop personalized rubrics, so we’re not stuck in facile arguments about the abstract “good/not good-ness” of a certain player.
Because incoming rookies are less easily comprehended by statistics and because predicting potential is like plotting a moon landing without a calculator, we utilize a unique evaluative method for young talent. One aspect of that evaluative method is the player comparison. Most NBA Draft analysts compare prospects to current NBA players. In addition to describing Brandon Knight as a solid athlete who can score in bunches, the draft expert pegs him as having the potential to be a Chauncey Billups-like scorer. It’s useful shorthand, but it also shapes expectations. Young players aren’t evaluated according to a measuring stick so much as a chalk outline. They arrive in the NBA not as having potential, but having the potential to become NBA Player X. Tristan Thompson is exactly the player that confounds this form of evaluation. His Draft Express page predicts his best case scenario as “Tyrus Thomas (with better intangibles).” I know what that means, but also: what the hell does that mean? Kyrie Irving is trying to become the next Deron Williams; TT is filling the shoes of Notions from 2006 About What Tyrus Thomas Could Have Become. Thomas himself was, in a perfect world, supposed to be “Stromile Swift with Ben Wallace’s attitude.” And Parallel Universe Stromile Swift is basically Hakeem Olajuwon.
Thompson illuminates that attempting to placate our uneasiness about an unknown future with speculation can get sort of silly. There is no theory of value that “solves” how “good” Steph Curry is, and trying to figure out who an athletically gifted, exceptionally raw talent like Thompson will develop into is like trying to discern the eye color of a zygote. But human beings are fundamentally curious; it’s why we invented science and why every pre-schooler’s third sentence is a question. Most of us get uncomfortable in the face of not knowing stuff.
No matter the nausea it induces, we don’t know Tristan Thompson. We will measure his progress using whatever methods we prefer, but 30 NBA games is not long enough to start charting his development. He is, at present, a hyper-athletic forward who plays hard and has no offensive game outside of three feet. His potential is too amorphous to map. He suggests an endless chain of hypotheticals. If he learns how to defend. If he gets a jumper. If he develops a back-to-the-basket game. If he becomes Kyrie Irving’s favorite pick and roll partner. If he puts on 15 pounds. Hypotheticals obviously determine the route any athletes’s career follows, but Thompson has hypotheticals bristling from him like a conifer. And there are no predetermined routes for him to trace, really. Just a searing whiteness in the middle of the page. As fans, we will wait, and we will watch. The searing whiteness will fade or perhaps grow bright blue veins. The riddle Thompson asks will grow longer and less vague. Until it becomes something specific enough that we can disagree about it.