It’s the eleventh and final day of the Senior Men’s National Team camp at the Air Canada Centre practice court. Tristan Thompson’s 6’9”, 227-pound frame is saturated in sweat. Even the shoelaces on his Nike Zoom Soldier VII’s are covered with a thin layer of perspiration after the two and a half hour practice. “Tristan goes so hard every practice,” says head coach Jay Triano. “He’s taken a leadership role as far as performance, but he’s also taken it by the way that he practices every day. He doesn’t back away from any drills, he doesn’t back away from any challenges. That’s the type of person you want leading your team.”
Concluding each practice, Thompson spends another half hour working with Cleveland Cavaliers shooting coach Dave Love, rebuilding his stroke. For a change, or possibly due to an interview obligation, Thompson is finished on the court for the day. He works out with Love twice daily, with the earlier and longer session prior to team practice, transitioning from a left-handed shooter to a right-handed one.
While Thompson didn’t shoot with Love, best believe form and mechanics came up in the course of conversation during their walk back to the hotel. In Thompson’s two seasons in the NBA, his shooting percentages were .471 from the field and .586 from the free throw line, hardly stellar numbers for a top four NBA Draft pick. The Brampton native is well aware of this, which is why he is driven to improve.
“When they look back on the 2011 draft,” Thompson says, “No disrespect to my teammate Kyrie Irving, but I want to be looked at as the hardest working and number one pick of that draft.”
While Kawhi Leonard and Klay Thompson may also take umbrage with Thompson’s proclamation, what’s not up for debate is his unwavering commitment and determination to succeed. Outwardly, Thompson is soft-spoken and personable with an engaging smile and though he isn’t much for fanfare, he doesn’t shy away from it either. If you take a closer look you can understand why he makes his draft claim with unflinching sincerity.
It’s evident prior to tip off in Toronto at the 2013 Jack Donohue Classic versus Jamaica. Thompson is locked in, overwhelmingly focused during the national anthems prior to tip-off, taking the friendly match very seriously. He later rallied the Canadian team to victory with 16 points, 10 rebounds and game MVP honours. Against Venezuela at the FIBA Americas tournament his tenacity again shone through, where he snatched a game-high 20 rebounds and adding 12 points in a close 64-59 loss.
Thompson’s game clearly elevates when he wears the red, white and black. “Any time you put the flag on your chest it’s a big deal,” he says. “It’s more than representing a school, or a city, or a team – you’re not only representing your family but your country. As a kid you dream of getting a chance to wear Canada across the front of your jersey.” Thompson is no stranger to representing Canada, having played in the Nike Global Challenge and on both the Canadian Under-18 squad (earning a bronze), and the Junior Men’s National team.
There was a time when basketball players were more than content to let their hopes of playing for Canada go as a dream unfulfilled. Unfortunately the program floundered as it lacked competitiveness, structure and organization. Steve Nash and Rowan Barrett have since come on board to steer the Senior Men’s program in a new direction, and Thompson has no issues captaining that ship if called upon.
“I know we don’t have a lot of senior NBA leaders on this team,” he states. “But I try to be a vocal leader on this team and lead by example. There’s a lot of great young players in the program and we’re the future of Canada Basketball.”
With the upcoming crop of young talent like Andrew Wiggins, Anthony Bennett, Nik Stauskas, Kevin Pangos and Kelly Olynyk in addition to the current SMNT (Senior Mens National Team) roster, the future is promising.
While Bennett went number one in this year’s draft, it was only two years ago that Thompson was selected fourth overall, starting the Canadian NBA invasion. Now, at the ripe old age of 22, he will be viewed as a role model and leader for those to follow. Roy Rana, head coach at Ryerson University who also coached Thompson at the Nike Global Challenge is in full agreement.
“It’s not just because of where he got drafted, I think it’s a lot about who he is. He’s a character kid and very supportive of all the young guys behind him. He’s really engaging. People just gravitate to him and he’s got a big personality.”
On the court, Thompson’s strengths are obvious with his athleticism, strong rebounding and ability to run the floor. He started all 82 games for the Cavaliers last season and averaged 11.7 points and 9.7 rebounds, finishing 9th overall in the league with 773 rebounds. Although his offensive game is lacking with limited moves in the post and the aforementioned shooting percentages, he’s turning into a double-double player. Nonetheless, he’s working with Love on his shot and working very hard at it. No one is expecting him to turn into the next Karl Malone, but there are expectations for him to deliver.
“I think the Canadian team is a great opportunity for him to evolve as a leader,” says David Griffin, Cleveland Cavaliers Vice President of Basketball Operations.
“It’s probably been a little bit of time since Tristan was expected to be ‘the man’ on a team. It’s good for him to play with that responsibility night in and night out and consistently be counted upon. Because sometimes on our team, Kyrie (Irving) or Dion (Waiters) can get rolling offensively, and you really don’t have to work that hard on that end. I like the fact he has to carry the mail a little bit there.”
The late Hall of Fame coach Jack Donohue has an oft-quoted expression, “There are two ways to represent your country, in war and in sport.” Sometimes the two can be one and the same, as Canada faced Argentina at the FIBA Americas Championship, in a hard fought, must-win game, with the winner qualifying for the 2014 FIBA World Cup. Thompson had the unenviable task of covering the crafty veteran Luis Scola, who has won the last three consecutive MVP awards at this tournament, and the Canadian didn’t back down. Scola contributed 28 points and seven rebounds, yet more importantly carried the team on his back when they were down. The 6’9” Argentine scored 10 straight points in a decisive 20-6 run during the third quarter, shifting the momentum in his squad’s favour, which they never relinquished.
Canada lost 63-57 and Thompson, defeated, fatigued and drenched with sweat, was forced to watch the Argentinean celebration at centre court.
“I care about how I’m remembered,” Thompson says. “I want people to look back and say that Tristan Thompson was a leader and a hard worker. Someone that didn’t quit and was one of the best.”
The Canadian defeat didn’t come from lack of talent or effort, but from lack of experience, something that Thompson in his young career has all the time to amass. He’s made no secret that he’s willing to put the blood, sweat and tears into his game and if that’s what Canada Basketball has to look forward to from their young leader, one with an incredible drive and work ethic, then the future of the program is indeed bright.