Jason Thompson isn't the kind of talent you often find at the mid-major level. Heck, there aren't that many players in the power conferences like him. He's a 6-11 specimen who can shoot mid-range jumpers just as well as he can lay it in, and can muscle his way to any rebound, anywhere. Entering this season, Thompson was the only returning player in the nation who averaged 20 points and 10 rebounds per game in 2006-07.And he's done it again. During his senior season at Rider, he's averaged 20.2 points (on 55 percent shooting), 11.8 rebounds (second-best in the nation behind Michael Beasley), and 2.8 blocks. Along the way, he's collected 20 double-doubles, and has reached 20 and 20 in points and rebounds on two occasions. On top of all that, he's a team leader who carries himself on the floor with supreme confidence and poise. Earlier today, Thompson was named the player of the year in the Metro Atlantic Conference by a panel of league coaches, in advance of this weekend's MAAC tourney in Albany.Not quite surprisingly, Thompson's physique, statistics and composure have attracted lots of pro interest. At the recent BracketBuster game at Cal State Northridge, there were no fewer than 14 NBA scouts in attendance. He's currently projected as a low first-round draft pick, and could end up joining Calvin Murphy and Rik Smits as players who've gone from the MAAC to the mainstream. We caught up with Thompson last Friday after his second-to-last home game, in which he scored a career-high 33 points and grabbed 12 rebounds in an 88-76 win over St. Peter's. Listen in as we talk about his Rider career, stats, scouts, the temptation of larger schools, that snappy new Rider logo and uniforms, and his surprising lack of a good nickname.TMM: I'm sure I'm not the first person to tell you this, but I think you're really good at playing basketball. And I really like the way you make two-point dunk shots. JT:
[laughs] Thanks so much, man.TMM: Are you anything of a stats guy, when someone tells you, 'hey, you just got 20-and-20,' or another double-double, does that register or do you already know? Do you keep count of what you're doing out there?JT:
Awww, no, I don't keep count. I just try to do the things to give my team a chance to win. When I'm getting rebound after rebound, I'm not counting the up, anything like that. I just try to stay consistent with my game. I try to play to my strengths, I try to post up as often as I can. If I see they're playing off me a bit, I try to shoot a jump shot, try to step out and shoot a 3. I don't know how many points I have, I won't know until the end of the game.
If it's a loss, I won't even look at what I did. I'm so hard on myself, I'm thinking of something I didn't do. Even if the numbers are good.TMM: There have been so many scouts following you around. Are you cognizant of that attention, do you try to block that out of your mind?JT:
I've been prepared for it. I went to some of the camps last summer, the LeBron and Amare Stoudamire camps, and there were a lot of scouts there. I played well, lived up to some of the hype. It took the pressure off. I give a lot of the credit to my coaches who helped me out a lot with just staying calm. They say to me a lot that the NBA will be there, after the season. I'm just pretty much focused on my team and trying to win, on doing everything I can to make it happen.
And if I have that mentality, that's going to help my stock, if we go on and win a championship and get to the NCAA Tournament. Scouts aren't just looking at numbers, they're looking at other things as well, like leadership.TMM: You say you're hard on yourself. What are the things that you're focusing on improving, to better your game in advance of this tournament coming up and then the next level?JT:
Just staying consistent with stuff. I try not to get frustrated, a lot of guys are trying to come at me and trying to get me in foul trouble. People are trying to get in my head, a guy who might not be the other team's best scorer but who's a bruiser-type guy who tries to frustrate me and get really physical. That's happened to me a couple of times during the year. That kinda happened to me last game.
I had the week off to prepare, watch film and just try to adjust, and I think I did that in this game. I've just got to stay consistent, because I don't have any chances after this. We're not a high-major school, the only way we can get into the NCAA Tournament is to win our conference championship. So I have to take every game at a time, and lead my team.TMM: You've hardly been a secret for a few years now. Has there ever been any pressure from outside sources to sit out a year and go to one of those high-major schools? I'm sure there are a lot of people out there who would have loved to see what you can do at a Big East school.JT:
That kinda came up before I signed my letter of intent. I did sign early to Rider before my senior year. I did pretty well and led my team to the Group IV state championship and started to get more looks. I just feel comfortable here. It's close to home, just about a half-hour away. I just didn't want to be one of those guys who saw my name on a big school roster. I wanted to find a school where I could play right away.
I'm not going to lie to you, I had no idea that I'd be doing stuff like this [points to final scoresheet] when I first got on campus. That just shows that all the hard work I've done over the past few years has really paid off. I give a lot of credit to my coaches for pushing me, they made me work hard.TMM: What is it about Rider... what's kept your loyalty to this school and this program so high?JT:
I was on a team with a lot of wins in high school. Coming in as a freshman, I was an energy guy, we had 19 wins that year. We won the regular season, got to the conference championship, and were a couple of minutes away from making it to the NCAA Tournament. So I knew that this was a really special team.
We lost a lot of seniors, and we had an unfortunate situation where our coach, Coach Dempsey, had the interim tag. He wasn't sure if this was going to be his team, and we were a young team. I definitely had my question marks about the situation then, I didn't know what was going to happen. We didn't have that good of a year my sophomore year, we had only eight wins.
But I bought into the system, Coach Dempsey got the head coaching job and we got up to 16 my junior year. I thought we underachieved last year. We had a really talented team then, but now we have a lot of veteran guys and there are no excuses this year. We have a talented squad, we just have to perform on the court.TMM: I remember seeing you play as a sophomore. You were such a focus then, there wasn't the supporting cast that you have this year. Is it more calming to have those guys around? Your brother [sophomore Ryan] can get points, Harris Mansell is a good scorer. How does that feel, mentally, knowing those guys are out there to pick up slack?JT:
You're right, I did have it hard that year. It takes a lot of the pressure off me, they give me a lot of confidence. My brother had his freshman ups and downs, but he's gotten stronger and more confident. He's our second leading scorer this year and is playing real solid for us. Harris is on fire right now from 3. He led us in that BracketBuster game when I didn't have it going at all. He helped me out and bailed me out on that one. We have great freshmen who give us a lot of energy off the bench. I'm just glad I don't have to put up big numbers for us to win, I really can count on those other guys.TMM: Are you still in the moment, or are you allowing to look yourself to look back on the ups and downs of your college career?JT:
I try not to look back too much. I think about it a little bit, about how I've progressed and how our team has matured. I can remember as a freshman, getting great crowds, but now we have games that are sold out a week before, we have NBA guys showing up like Joe Dumars, Vinny Del Negro, Jason Williams, the list goes on.TMM: Kiki Vandeweghe was here tonight, the old Nuggets star and Nets GM. I would have introduced myself, but he was on his cell phone.JT:
It's crazy around here this year, all the excitement. I'm just proud that I've been a big part of that. It's great, great for this community.TMM: Tell me about the Broncs' Zoo, the way they've supported you. They're loud, they're just a few inches from the court. They're always yelling, cheering, calling out your name. Tonight they were yelling at us on press row, "Make sure you write that down!" whenever you made a great play.JT:
[laughs] One of the things that brought me in was that I was told this was rated as one of the toughest places to play on the East Coast other than Cameron Indoor Stadium. We don't have the Cameron Crazies, but we've got something similar. When we're playing well and the crowd gets into it, the Zoo's going to be rockin'. It's a real tough place for other teams to play in. They know they have a lot coming to them when they step into the Broncs' Zoo!TMM: What about the MAAC this year? What's it been like being part of this race, it's been so tight with you guys, Loyola, Siena and Niagara fighting it out. JT:
Coming in, I knew that the MAAC is a tough conference. It's one of those conference that any team has a chance of winning. You have Niagara being the champions two of the last three years, then they got beat by the last place team, Canisius. So any team can beat anybody. You can't take a night off, even if you think the other team is weak. That's the most exciting thing about this conference, it might not be talked about that much but the games are almost always close. You rarely see a blowout.
We had that 10-game win streak and all the national exposure, but we slipped a little bit and made it interesting, but that's what happens in the MAAC.TMM: Just wanted to ask you about these new uniforms you have this year. The last few years, they've been kinda plain and blah. Nothing against whichever company manufactured those, but they looked uncomfortable, and some of the numbers were falling off. But now you guys look great, you're playing great. What do you think of the new look?JT:
It's niiice. It kind of reminds you of the Cleveland Cavaliers a little bit. It's a nice style. I kinda complained a little last year about the uniforms being too small and too raggedy. They took my advice... well, some of my advice. We got a change.TMM: OK, what advice didn't they take?JT:
Naww, just little things about the fit. Can't be perfect. But they got the logo and uniforms right. It took until my last year, though! Better late than never.TMM: Last of all, your nickname. People call you J.T., but that's your initials, it's not a nickname. Plus, what about Justin Timberlake? I think he has those letters copyrighted. Do you have a nickname, like the Big Something?JT:
The people that I know, they call me J.T.. There's a few nicknames out there, but you have to ask around.TMM: Are you sure you want me to do that?JT:
"Mr. Double-Double," that's the one that's out there a little bit. But I don't let too many people know about that one. I try to stay humble.TMM: Yeah, you're right, stick with J.T..
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