Before Tristan Thompson became a supernatural rebounding machine sent to Earth with the sole purpose of corralling every missed shot this side of the Mississippi, he was just another name on the Cleveland Cavaliers roster.
Thompson was selected fourth overall in the 2011 NBA Draft, three picks after the Cavs took Kyrie Irving number 1 overall, but many considered that draft to be, in terms of prospects, one of the worst in recent memory. For three seasons, Thompson was a nice player on an atrocious Cavs team. Although he nearly averaged a double-double, putting up a 11.7 points and 9.2 points during the 2013-2014 season, he was incredibly frustrating to watch. Despite the many offensive rebounds he pulled down, his field goal percentage was consistently below 50 percent, almost unacceptable for a man who spends most of his time close to the basket.
But Thompson kept working. When LeBron James and Kevin Love joined the Cavs in 2014, he was able to focus on his role as a rebounder, and all the other facets of his game began to click. He shot 54 percent from the field this season, up a whopping 7 percent from the prior season. Then the Playoffs rolled around, and Thompson exploded.
While giving the Cavs a serviceable 9.6 points-per-game, Thompson became Dennis Rodman-like on the boards, pulling down over 10 a game, almost five of them on the offensive glass. It was stunning to watch Thompson bully bigger and stronger opponents on the boards. It was as if he had morphed into a completely different player.
“I think he may be the most underrated player in the NBA,” said Alan Stein, founder of Stronger Team and a basketball trainer who has worked with countless NBA players. “He’s the epitome of a guy that’s taken four years to mature, four years to grow and four years to consistently work on his game. He’s been putting in some serious work in the weight room before and after practice, and he’s been doing all of this over time and building it brick by brick. All of a suede, we all walk by and notice there’s this big solid brick wall there. We didn’t notice he’d been laying bricks every day for the last four to five years.”
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Indeed, there is evidence that Thompson came into the NBA quite raw in terms of his training. In the above video, featuring Thompson going through a workout at Athletic Leaders in Ontario, Canada, in 2013, it appears that he had never performed Kettlebell Swings in his life. He goes through a series of Box Jumps, Burpees, Sledgehammer Swings and Battle Rope Jumping Jacks to improve his explosiveness under the boards.
“He’s a young guy, but he’s a professional that loves to come to work every day,” LeBron James told ESPN earlier this season. “He plays his heart out every single night, and he has zero sense of entitlement in this league. All he cares about is coming into work. Whatever is given to him, he relishes the opportunity, and he’s a great teammate.”
Stein thinks the message of putting in quality work even when you aren’t getting big minutes and your team is struggling is a great one to relay to younger players who might be in the same situation. He said, “It’s a great lesson to teach young players and high school kids. Just keep chipping away at it and keep working on your craft and working on your IQ. Work on your athleticism and work on being a great teammate. Just keep working on those things, even behind close doors when no one is watching and no one is recognizing you, and eventually it will pay off.”
Thompson is a prime example of how staying dedicated to your craft can pay huge dividends in the long run.