As his heart raced, his mouth was drier than a June day in the Jamaican heat.
Shevon Thompson said a prayer, sighed and marched toward the check-in line for his Miami-bound American Airlines flight.
And even as he checked his bags, the 19-year-old couldn’t believe that he had made it to this point. For the first time, Thompson was leaving his native Jamaica to pursue his basketball career.
The day began at Kingston’s Norman Manley International Airport and, after three connecting flights, terminated at Midland College in Texas.
But the journey began far away from Kingston’s international airport. Far away, at Vere Technical High school in Clarendon, Shevon Thompson picked up a basketball and, without knowing at the time, changed the course of his life.
If things go according to plan, making the fateful decision to pick up the basketball may help him wind up in the NBA.
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“There’s no doubt that he has the size of an NBA player,” one scout who was present at one of Thompson’s recent workouts told Basketball Insiders. “But what could make him special is his rebounding instinct and his knack for tracking the ball. He’s a phenomenal rebounder. Considering he’s only been playing for a few years, he’s impressive.”
As a prospect, Thompson’s work ethic and determination speak volumes, but a recurring theme among the four NBA teams that have invited Thompson in for workouts has been the fact that his game has seemed to develop so quickly—even with a dearth of organized playing experience.
“At 16 years old, when I first picked the ball up, going up against other guys, it was terrible,” Thompson said with a laugh.
“I wasn’t really good at basketball and I never imagined I’d have an opportunity to play in the NBA. But after playing my first year, I heard about a lot of basketball camps in Jamaica at the time and I went to almost every basketball camp.”
Before he knew it, after being recognized as a youngster with tremendous upside, Ajani Williams, the immediate past president of the Jamaican Basketball Federation, invited Thompson to train at Jamaica’s Elite Academy. Williams—a former NBA player who has dedicated a substantial portion of his life to growing the game of basketball in Jamaica—corralled the island-nation’s most talented basketball players and gave them access to coaching, tutelage and, most importantly, opportunity.
Of that, Thompson has taken full advantage.
Perhaps due to his playing soccer for most of his adolescence, from the beginning, Thompson seemed to possess a knack for reading the basketball and became quickly revered for his rebounding instincts. As a goalkeeper, the fate of his entire team rested on his ability to track the soccer ball and appropriately judge how to best position himself to recover it.
That skill translated.
It took Thompson all of six years to go from a basketball novice to one of the finest rebounders in the nation. After spending two years at George Mason University, Thompson leaves the program with an impressive average of 11.2 rebounds per game. In each of the his two seasons at the Division 1 level, Thompson led the Atlantic 10 Conference in total rebounds, rebounds per game and both offensive and defensive rebounding percentage.
Augmented by his underrated scoring ability—he scored 11.7 points per game on 58 percent shooting from the field—to the informed few, he has the looks of a promising NBA prospect.
“I realize that I’m an outstanding rebounder, but once I realized that, I’ve dedicated myself to developing the other parts of my game—both offense and defense,” Thompson said. “I spent a lot of time watching basketball and a lot of time in the gym. I started with the first thing I had a knack for and began to build.”
He’s been building ever since.
Prior to enrolling at George Mason, Thompson spent time at Midland College and then Pennsylvania’s Harcum College. Eventually, he was discovered by former George Mason head coach Paul Hewitt.
“If people knew who he was and what he was all about, he would’ve had 50-60 Division I offers,” Hewitt once told The Daily Orange—Syracuse University’s independent student newspaper. Hewitt saw potential in the unknown Thompson and knew that with the proper attention and coaching, he could be an asset on the basketball court.
Today, although many know of Thompson and his impressive growth and contributions on the court, in many ways, he is still trying to get people to know who he is.
For him, the process began anew a little over two months ago.
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Established in 1953, the Portsmouth Invitational Tournament has served as a platform for some of the nation’s less heralded college basketball players. Each April, the Portsmouth Invitational Tournament Foundation invites more than 60 seniors to participate in the four-day, 12-game tournament. As the years have progressed, the event has become more and more heavily attended by a bevy of NBA teams.
After participating in the tournament, Thompson relocated to South Florida, where he has been training at the storied IMG Academy in Bradenton.
“Portsmouth was a bit of an introduction for me,” Thompson said. “It showed me what the competition was going to be like and also helped me see what I needed to work on.”
Acknowledging that he is still a work in progress, scouts believe that Thompson—who really has played just four years of organized basketball—is nowhere near his ceiling.
“I think Bismack Biyombo is a fair comparison,” one front office source who attended the Portsmouth tournament told Basketball Insiders. “When Biyombo came into the league, he was regarded mostly as a [potential] defensive specialist, but people put work into him and helped him develop and now, he’s an impact player at this level.”
Aside from the investment at the NBA level, Biyombo had the benefit of being discovered at the age of 16 and began training in earnest in Spain. He began his professional career in Spain at the age of 19 and gained the attention of the NBA with a dominant performance at the 2011 Nike Hoops Summit in Portland.
Since then, after being selected with the seventh overall pick of the 2011 NBA Draft, Biyombo has slowly carved out a place for himself in the NBA and was a major catalyst in the thriving of the Toronto Raptors this past season.
The story of Biyombo and the witnessing of his growth over the years is a tale of how opportunity, work ethic and investment can help a young, promising player blossom. Having been discovered late, Thompson is hoping to find similar success at the NBA level, and his impressive knack for rebounding the ball, explosive athleticism and impeccable timing are all tools that may yield success. That, as well as his impressive motor.
“No matter who I’m going up against, they’re in for a tough time because I compete in every situation,” Thompson said. “I go 100 percent all the time. Whenever I’m on the court, I do my best to have an impact.
“I’ve only been playing for a few years, but I’m true to the game. I love the game a lot. Tracking the ball off the rim, creating space, not waiting for the ball to come to you, those are some of the principles. In life and in basketball, if there’s something you want, you have to go out there and get it.”
Six years after first picking up the basketball and four years after since leaving his home country in pursuit of his goals, that’s exactly what Thompson is doing.
From Clarendon, Jamaica to Midland, Texas and to the brink of completing a journey that once looked improbable, in the end, Shevon Thompson is exactly the type of player that has the potential to make a general manager in the National Basketball Association look very smart.
With the weight of Jamaica on his shoulders and the support of one of the Caribbean’s basketball hot spots—with proven rebounding prowess and major upside—Thompson has shown that he has the tools to excel.
With a few impressive workouts under his belt and one of his skills rising to the level of elite, leaving Jamaica may have been the best decision for the 19-year-old kid from Clarendon.
Indeed, as he boarded his flight to Miami with his final destination still two more connecting flights away, Thompson embarked on a journey whose final destination was, at the time, unknown.
Four years later, somehow, believe it or not, he’s still searching for his opportunity.
Somehow, after opening the eyes of NBA scouts, four years after beginning his ascent, Thompson is still soaring.
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