In the second part of his interview with TalkBasket.net, Jason Thompson explores his overseas adventure with Euroleague powerhouse Fenerbahce in 2017-18, replacing former No 1 pick Anthony Bennett and Fener great Ekpe Udoh, being guided by coaching legend Zeljko Obradovic and witnessing Luka Doncic’s talents.
After recounting his eight-year NBA stint, the No 12 pick in the 2008 Draft touched on several issues pertaining to the only experience he had in Europe, before joining Casademont Zaragoza last February.
The 34-year-old forward-center admits that he was unaware of the fact that Fener was going to dispute multiple competitions in the same season. He recalls watching Luka Doncic excel with Slovenia and Real Madrid, the teams with which the Dallas Mavericks star won both the EuroBasket and the Euroleague over a span of nine months. Futhermore, Thompson offers his perspective on whether Obradovic would succeed in the NBA and the reasons for Anthony Bennett not making it in the NBA.
Q: What do you make of your time in China, where you found many ex-NBAers again?
A: It’s a different strand of basketball; very similar to the NBA when it comes to high-scoring, run and gun basketball. Rules force every team to have up to two foreigners who can only play together in the second and third quarter. That was kind of new to me.
Q: I guess it was your brother Ryan who talked you into trying Europe.
A: Yeah, my brother has played in Europe for the past ten years. Regardless of someone telling you how European basketball is, you can’t really understand it until you experience it yourself. Ten months, two different leagues, some things were new and I had to adjust to them.
Q: Many US players coming from the NBA have a hard time adjusting to the concept of playing in two or more leagues at the same time. How did it work for you?
A: That year (2018) with Fenerbahce, we lost the Euroleague championship to Real Madrid. Regardless if we won or lost, I thought that the season would be over. When we finished the Euroleague, we had to into the Turkish League playoffs. I wasn’t used to having a championship game and still prepare for a playoff. That was weird for me. I thought that because the Euroleague Final Four is the highest level in Europe, after that it’s all over. Honestly, I can say now that I didn’t know Euroleague and Turkey are two separate competitions before I signed. I could have done my search and looked it up, but It’s not bad that I didn’t know either. Now, I can tell the difference for sure (laughs)!
Q: How was your transition to a different culture? I mean players close to each other like family, must-win games on any given night, not to mention a strong coaching figure?
A: It was definitely a learning experience, especially because it was my first. Being in a Turkish powerhouse like Fener turned out to be a blessing for me. Us and CSKA Moscow would go neck and neck as the No 1 and No 2 seed. We had a great record for the regular season and when we would lose a game, it was like crazy. That’s another difference between Europe and US. Yes, you don’t want and you’re not happy to lose, but you shouldn’t panic or be that upset about it. Especially when you’re a top team, you’re going to get the best of everyone each and every night.
Q: Coming to Fenerbahce, did you feel any pressure to replace Ekpe Udoh who had gone to Utah?
A: There’s always the scenario where the big replaces the big. Some guys adjust better to Europe or the NBA and vice versa. I never compare myself to another player and I don’t want someone to compare me to them. They had a heck of a season (in 2016-17), with other players on the team and then the Final Four in Istanbul. Circumstances were a little bit different and so were the teams. You can only judge a player from his body of work throughout the years.
Q: On the other hand, isn’t it somewhat ironic or funny that in 2016 the Raptors released Anthony Bennett to make room for you on the roster and about 1,5 year later you again succeeded him at Fener?
A: I never look at it like that. He had a heck of a year in college becoming the No1 pick. For me, it’s about making business decisions and it so happened that he was on a team before I got there.
Q: What do you think went wrong with him?
A: I’m not a scouter. Sometimes there’s different fits or an organization doesn’t have faith in a player. We’ve seen that over the years with No 1 or TOP 10 picks. The guy is talented. He’s done a lot of great things, but sometimes the pressure that you have for being the No 1 pick and all eyes are on you can lead to that.
Q: Some weeks ago, Ekpe Udoh became unpopular with Fener fans when he posted that Zeljko Obradovic, despite being the most powerful coach in Europe, wouldn’t like the NBA and wouldn’t be successful there because “a coach with his temper would get ran out”. What’s your take on that?
A: Oh man! After having played in the NBA, I had to adjust to Europe. I don’t think I have to answer for the coach’s perspective because I’m not a coach. College coaches may not adjust to the NBA. I don’t know if I fully agree with that (Udoh’s statement). I just think that coach would just change his style because of the type of players he might have in the NBA. You look at the success David Blatt had, but I don’t know if he changed his style when he was with Maccabi or with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Q: Apart from calling Obradovic an encyclopedia because of his knowledge of the game, what else is so special about him?
A: For me, he’s like the Phil Jackson of Europe. The amount of championships and wins speaks for itself. At times, especially if you’re not around a coach for a certain amount of years, you may not be on the same page with a lot of things, but you have to be able to adjust and hear from one that has had so much success. He is so well-respected. His style works for some; other guys may not like it, but if they win they will pick the reward. In one year I learned a lot from him and his style. If I go into coaching, I am definitely going to take some things from his style and how he approaches the game.
Q: Is it true that Fenerbahce players were not allowed to use their phones during meals?
A: I don’t know if that’s the European rule or not. In Europe, you have teammates who are roommates, teams having dinners, lunches and breakfasts together. In the NBA you don’t have roommates and you can do whatever you want because that’s why you get paid to be a pro: someone who should be able to know what to do and what not to do, without letting anything affect them on or off the court. If that’s not the way in Europe, I’d like someone to correct me. I feel like it is.
Q: Which was the biggest adjustment you had to make upon taking the European stage for the first time?
A: Ι would say practices and how early training camps were. Going from Euroleague to Turkish League, you had maybe two games a week with a different basketball and rules. Every game means something, but you shouldn’t be upset or panicked if you lost one game after ten straight wins. Especially if you’re a top team, you’re going to get everyone’s best because they look up to you like you’re the best team in the world – which we were at the time.
Q: You got to see Luka Doncic’s potential first-hand. Were you convinced that he was going to rise that quickly?
A: I could tell that he had a lot of talent for the game at a young age. Being in a top team definitely helped him. I watched him win the EuroBasket with Slovenia in Istanbul (in 2017). I was there for the games and saw him and Dragic win gold. I thought: “This guy is ready”. When you’re on a team like Real Madrid – where there’s so much talent, everything is boxes and elbows and space is limited- you can think that he’s going to see the floor differently in the NBA, where you have more space. Not many people believed that he could become this great that quickly, but I could definitely see his potential for NBA greatness.
Q: How great can he get? Rony Seikaly said that he can be the best white player ever.
A: (laughs). Wow! A non-black person said that? Interesting. I’m sure Larry Bird is regarded as one of the best players of all time. But Doncic could be one of the all-time greats, even if I wouldn’t call him the best white player ever.
Q: He also said Luka is Larry Bird 2.0.
A: I could probably agree with that part. I don’t know about the first one. The organization has his back and the success that he’s had will keep going on. I feel like sky is the limit for him. Organizations know that the game is way more global now than it was 10-20 years ago. You see Luka, Jokic, Porzingis and the list goes on for top guys over the water that are top in the NBA too. Even in the Olympics, when you see the USA playing against other countries like Spain and Argentina, games are much closer than they were in the era of the first Dream Team. That shows the development of organizations.
Q: You have initiated a non-profit foundation that raises awareness about heart disease in athletes. Myocarditis actually hit your former teammate at the Warriors, Brandon Rush. Did you know that?
A: No, I didn’t. It’s the No1 heart disease in the world. My cousin passed away from hypertrophic cardiomyopathy and I just wanted to keep raising awareness and reduce cases for kids and young adults all over the world.
Q: In terms of life after basketball, are you set on becoming a commentator?
A: That’s something I want to do, but I could do coaching as well. I could start with college and get into the NBA. Teaching the youth is what I like most, but I want to try college instead of High School.
Q: What’s the word that best describes or sums up your career?
A: Ironman. Just for being able to play at a high level, even with bad luck in some teams and situations. I have been able to prevail, make money and play the game that I love the most since I’ve started when I was five years old.