After a far from promising start to his maiden Euroleague campaign, Jason Thompson has stepped up as a contributor in the last two rounds for Fenerbahce. Emmet Ryan on how the man in the middle has turned a corner by realising he needs to be himself
Bobby Dixon has been through it. James Nunnally too. You come from being the high usage guy who is used to not only wanting the load but needing it to function to suddenly being part of a team with way more options.
That’s the boat Jason Thompson found himself in with Fenerbahce and the start wasn’t exactly pleasant. Save for a massive display on the boards against CSKA Moscow in Round 8’s barn-burner, he looked like a mistake through the first half of the Euroleague campaign.
With Dixon and Nunnally, the switch wasn’t quite as harsh but that’s got as much to do with the sheer depth Fener have outside the 5 as anything else. Dixon took time through the regular season and Top 16 (remember those days…all of two years ago) in his maiden Fenerbahce season before stepping up big in the playoffs as he became fully used to having a player of the calibre of Bogdan Bogdanovic alongside him. The switch from being the do-everything guy for Pinar Karsiyaka to being a key piece with options alongside him for Fener took some adjustment.
Nunnally looked like he was forcing himself way too much through the bulk of last season before, like Dixon, eventually finding his groove through the second half of the campaign and growing into his role with Fenerbahce. Nunnally, who suffered a horrible injury in Friday’s win over Baskonia, is leading Euroleague from three this season and looks (injury notwithstanding) like he gets why he’s on this roster.
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Thompson was coming from a slightly different place to a slightly different place. Having spent most of his NBA career logging heavy minutes but never being the guy, he jumped to China where he most certainly was meant to be the guy. That’s a huge adjustment, even for a veteran, and just as he was getting used to that he landed in Turkey where the guy who he was ostensibly being signed to replace had just signed with the Utah Jazz after winning the Final Four MVP.
The job, on the face of it, was to be Ekpe Udoh and that’s entirely where Thompson went wrong with the first half of the campaign. You don’t like for like swap players in the current market. With the NBA having its pick of guys right now with the two-way deal situation, smart teams like Fenerbahce are looking to replace production not players.
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Look at what happened with the back court. Out went Bogdan and in came Brad Wanamaker, Marko Guduric, and Sinan Guler. Not one of these players is Bogdan, combined they can give the production and fill in for other aspects as well. Wanamaker and Guduric bring more length in the back court, they won’t ever be confused for bigs but it helps with the collective goal around production.
That aspect, which has largely been Fener’s way since hiring Željko Obradović, is what guys who have become used to being the guy need to get around.
The numbers for Thompson in the past two games have been a marked improvement on his displays outside that CSKA outing. Against Real Madrid he managed 10 points and 4 rebounds, on an efficient shooting night, and followed that up with 12 points and 10 boards in that win over Baskonia.
It’s the mentality of Thompson over those two games that really changed and that led to the better numbers. He wasn’t trying to be Superman or Udoh (I know for some Fener fans there’s no difference between the two), he was trying to be the best option he could be for Fener in the way they needed him.
Jan Vesely has become the lead option at the 5 for Fenerbahce and that’s a role the big Czech has embraced mightily this season, looking frankly jubilant in his play this year. Thompson can pair with him in a two-big system on the floor as well. The fit is taking time but it’s getting there.
In that Baskonia game we saw the best of Thompson early, with aggressive offence bringing him the bulk of his points. His shooting fell off significantly, finishing 5 of 13 on the night, but he’s not the finished article yet in terms of finding his place with this team.
The eventual return of Nikola Kalinic to the line-up should help significantly as the Serb will give Fenerbahce more options in their rotations around their big, enabling Thompson to work with more and also need the ball less.
Stepping into the shoes of Udoh, even if in practicality he wasn’t really, was always going to heap pressure on Thomspon. Now that he’s starting to find his role, his impact for Fener should prove far more beneficial as the season reaches the business end of proceedings.
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