Jason Thompson is in Athens, Greece.
From September 30 to October 4, the Basketball Champions League (BCL), one of Europe’s elite competitions, will host the closing event for the 2019-20 season. The BCL and the NBA are the only leagues that have yet to crown a champion because of the turmoil the COVID-19 pandemic caused all around the (basketball) world. The novelty that the BCL was forced to introduce this year is related to the format. A Final 8, with back-to-back single elimination games over the course of five days, will decide the champion.
Thompson’s team, Casademont Zaragoza from Spain, is one of the three Spanish clubs to participate in the event. In fact, they will play against Tenerife in the quarter-final, to be held October 1 at an empty seated OAKA Indoor Hall in the Greek capital. The road to the trophy is paved with fearsome opponents for Zaragoza, something that goes also for the next (2020-21) campaign. BCL and Spanish League are very demanding competitions, but the team coached by Diego Ocampo is in a good position, having kept its core of players.
This is where Jason Thompson enters the picture. The 34-year-old NBA veteran has gathered tons of experience, including an enriching one-year stint with Euroleague powerhouse Fenerbahce of Turkey in 2017-18. When he was first signed by Zaragoza last February, it turned out to be too late. The pandemic broke out and action stopped. Thompson returned to the States, but Zaragoza was eager to bring him back to bolster its frontcourt.
Following an outstanding collegiate career with the Rider Broncs, the former guard from New Jersey eventually grew into an interesting NBA player. The 12th pick in the 2008 Draft had a strong start in the league, but the franchise that selected him was immersed in a problematic situation. It was a tough period for the Sacramento Kings, as coaches came and went, players followed the same path and the playoffs had turned into an infeasible goal. Nevertheless, Thompson managed to stay afloat, registering solid numbers in points and rebounds, thus securing the extention of his rookie contract.
In the summer of 2015, the Kings traded him to Golden State and the 6’11” player got to see the other side of the coin. The Warriors were the defending champs and Thompson could use as one of the last pieces to the puzzle- at best. The 2015-16 season proved to be unfortunate for him, as he was once again traded to the Toronto Raptors. Despite competing in his career-first playoffs and the team reaching the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time, his future was not in the NBA anymore.
Thompson played a total of 2.5 years in China and another season with Fener in Turkey and the Euroleague, before deciding to settle down in Spain. For good? We’ll see. In any case, Zaragoza provides him with another shot at a continental title, previously lost out by a 5-point margin to Real Madrid in 2018.
In the first part of his conversation with TalkBasket.net, Jason Thompson reflects on his ups and downs in the NBA, the role he had on all of his teams, the players and coaches that helped him, as well as the BCL Final 8 challenge that lies ahead.
Q: What made you return to Zaragoza for a second stint?
A: I felt really comfortable with the teammates that I had. The coach and the system are the same. I thought of it as unfinished business because I wasn’t able to help them in the Spanish playoffs.
Q: How do you expect the season to be?
A: We should have a lot of humble expectations with the team. It’s always good to be able to play for a championship early on in the season, like the Final 8 in Athens. We’re going to raise the bar progressively because we want to be successful.
Q: Have you studied your BCL opponents?
A: We played against Tenerife in the Spanish League and we lost. The BCL and the ACB are two different things. It was our first game of the season, on the road. Athens will be a neutral site, so many things are going to be different.
Q: Have you gotten used to playing in empty arenas?
A: While with Fenerbahce, we had a few games empty-seated. I don’t think it’s ever going to get taken used to, but you just have to adjust and find your own motivation without the crowd effect. Some guys thrive off from the crowd and the energy.
Q: What do you expect from this Final 8?
A: All of us are expecting to win in advance. We’re not too cocky, but just confident getting into it. If you have the right game plan, you should be able to win. A lot of teams have upgraded, others have lost players. It’s do-or-die games, not a best-of-three series. The mindset is different because home court advantage is important in a series, but in such games you don’t want to have the “go home” feeling. You want to die for loose balls and do whatever it takes to not get eliminated.
Q: As an overseas player, do you feel safe in terms of having to travel constantly amidst the pandemic?
A: The virus is in every country. It started in China, then went to Europe and now it’s been all over. You just want to follow the rules and do the right thing. The ACB and the Champions League are doing a great job of making sure that we’re safe and get tested once or twice a week. It’s not just the basketball aspect, but mainly a question of health. I saw that the BCL reduced the teams in each group for next year. Personally, my only European experience has been with Fenerbahce in the Euroleague (2017-18). We didn’t have groups then and I’m not familiar with the system. Even if you don’t know the format, you must win games and let everything else take care of itself.
Q: There’s a strong veteran presence in the Final 8. It includes Marcelinho Huertas, Jonas Maciulis, Keith Langford, David Holston, to name just a few. How does a player stay relevant or in demand as time flies?
A: It’s tough. It’s a blessing for them and for me to play basketball at a high level. This is my thirteenth year, since I started in 2008 and I’m still going. As long as we take care of our bodies and make sure that we’re good, it’s a great feeling to play against other guys that had been performing at a high level for so many years.
Q: You started out as a guard in college. How did you develop your post skills and eventually grow into a power forward/center?
A: I was undersized in college, but my game was still developing. Then, I grew three inches and put on fifty pounds a month to become a pro. Each year I wanted to get stronger, improve on my game. So, it became hard for guys to guard me. That’s very important, especially now when non-traditional basketball is in fashion: five men shooting threes and handling the ball, point guards posting up on mismatches etc. Skill is needed all throughout the world.
Q: How hard was it for you to prove to NBA scouts that coming off the Middle-Atlantic Athletic Conference (MACC) didn’t mean that you were going to wash out in the league?
A: I always had that chip over my shoulder, being an underdog in High School and becoming a big fish in a small pond in college. I had that work-hard mentality, regardless of me being the 12th pick. That’s why I was focused on getting a second contract even in my first year as a rookie. I wanted to help my team and improve. When you put all those things together, you don’t look at all the noise and the background.
Q: While at Sacramento, you had seven coaches and double as many losses than wins over seven seasons. Did you get the impression that the team was trying to tank? What made the Kings so dysfunctional at the time?
A: I don’t know what to say about the tank part. Seven coaches in as many years is definitely not the formula for winning. We also had a difficult situation with change of ownership and we didn’t know if the team was going to stay in Sacramento. There was a lot of things to worry about, even off the court. As a young kid in a young team that’s very tough to be around. As I look back at it now, I want to be able to win and succeed in an organization. Some of them, give second chances to their coaches, like the Sixers did with “Trust the process”. Overall, it was a blessing to be there.
Q: Nevertheless, you described your last season with Sacramento as a circus. What was going on?
A: (laughs) Hopefully, I didn’t say that! But yeah, it’s just a lot of things that as a pro I shouldn’t go through, on and off the court. There was a lot going on, from top to bottom.
Q: How do you explain the fact that your best performances came in the first two NBA seasons?
A: Maybe statistically they were the best. Who knows what would have happened if you had a legit coach, the same system, assistants and teammates for over two seasons? That’s why you see so many guys go out of the league at a young age: they are not around the right system or organization. Sometimes, it’s about luck as well. When I went to Sacramento, you had power forwards and centers playing with their back to the basket. Now, you have five men that are 6’5’’ or 6’4’’. When I was in the league, centers had to be at least 6’10’’. It’s a different generation of basketball.
Q: Would you say that your role changed since DeMarcus Cousins took over the frontcourt?
A: It was a lot. He was an All-Star and gold medalist. After Cousins got drafted, I still averaged double figures for most of the seasons. I mean, for sure when a guy wants the ball a lot and you’re in a similar spot, it’s going to change since we weren’t winning as well. So, it was frustrating, but that comes with the game.
Q: You said that upon entering the league, post moves and mid-range shots were in fashion. How was it having to adjust to different requirements after a few years?
A: Some guys had that in their game, but the percentages in the shot taking and making were different back in the day. I don’t think guys took as many shots because it was more about post moves and mid-range. That’s where I tried to focus on at that time. Now, they shoot at high level, rebound the ball and that’s good for ratings and views.
Q: How did it feel having been the guy with the most regular season games without seeing the playoffs? Greg Monroe eventually surpassed you in that category, since you managed to break the “curse” in your final NBA year with Toronto.
A: It was frustrating, for sure. At times, you always question yourself. But you’re blessed to be in the NBA, a situation where you always wanted to be as a kid. It’s tough going into a season and not knowing if you’re going to make the playoffs. One year becomes two and then five. It took my eighth year to make the playoffs. For the most part, I was very happy to have finally broken the curse.
Q: Did your stint with Sacramento create some bad (losing) habits?
A: I wouldn’t say that because I had been around winning in High School and college. After a while, I would get upset every night. But you can’t have your body language be about that and let a game decide how you’re going to be in the next one. When you teach the young kids “It’s not OK to lose; don’t be happy or complacent about losing”, you should also say that it’s not the end of the world. You have to get ready for the next game in two days and be able to play better.
Q: Who’s the most difficult matchup you had in the NBA?
A: For me, being a starter for most of my career and playing the power forward -especially in the Western Conference- is like “pick your poison”. You had Dirk Nowitzki, Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, Blake Griffin, LaMarcus Aldridge. At the end of the day, you had to be able to go at them because they would defend and so they couldn’t go at you as hard offensively.
Q: What about the best teammate you had?
A: I’ve had so many… Francisco Garcia, former Louisville and Dominican Republic player, helped me out in Sacramento when he was a veteran and I was a rookie. He showed me what it takes to be a pro on and off the court; to not just focus on my rookie deal, but to worry about years later and get a second contract. I wouldn’t have been the player and the man I am today without his advice.
In Europe, I would say James Nunnaly, a really good dude who was with me at Fener. We ended up having mutual friends. I still talk to him during the day. He also invited me to his wedding when we knew each other for six months. He has a great family and has been a great player through all these years.
Q: Who was the best coach you had in the NBA, if you had to pick just one?
A: I would say between Mike Malone and Paul Westphal. You can see the success that Malone is having with the Nuggets right now. Paul Westphal had been successful over the years, being a Hall-of-Fame coach and player. I know he’s been facing some health problems and I wish him a speedy recovery.
Q: At the time you arrived in Oakland, the Golden State Warriors were the defending champions, but your playing time was minimal. Would you prefer to have been traded elsewhere?
A: I was traded to Philadelphia initially and then to Golden State. I was a focal point in Sacramento, but also unsure about the direction of the organization, a team with a lot of young guys not making the playoffs. Then, I went to a team that had just come off of winning the championship. Pretty much they were the same team. It was very new to me and I should have taken a better approach because it was the first time at any level that I didn’t get to play much. It was frustrating at the time, but also a learning experience.