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A Numbers Game: Thompson Sees Basketball with Mathematical Eye

Hollis Thompson views the basketball court with a mathematical eye, seeing shapes and angles to find a winning equation.

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The shapes and angles take life when Hollis Thompson views the court. Instead of a ball and a hoop he sees basketball with an analytical eye, one that allows him to view the game from a mathematical perspective.

“I’ve always been kind of a numbers guy,” he told Basketball Insiders. “I’m good with numbers, sometimes fascinated by them. I just like numbers, I kind of turn everything into a numbers game.”

Growing up, Thompson was a straight-A student with a 4.2 GPA at Loyola High School of Los Angeles. Math and science classes captured his attention.

“All that type of weird algorithms stuff, I was into that,” he said. “I was honestly a pretty big nerd… I just liked to learn.”

Thompson, who scored a 2250 on his SATs, finished high school a semester early to begin his college education and seek out new academic challenges. He had been recruited by Ivy League schools, but selected Georgetown University for its high level of competition and strong educational offerings. Thompson majored in business with a focus in economics while chasing his goal of playing in the NBA.

On the basketball court, he set a school record in three-point field goal shooting and averaged 8.7 points and 4.1 rebounds. He made much less noise away from the game, spending most of his time in his dorm room reading, playing video games or watching Netflix.

“I just always had an interest in business and the way commerce and the global economy works, so I thought I’d pursue it in college,” he explained. “It was definitely difficult. The academic course load at Georgetown especially is pretty strenuous but you find time. I love to play basketball but I also like to learn, so I had to do it.”

Thompson left Georgetown after his junior year for the 2012 NBA Draft. He was not selected and signed with the Oklahoma City Thunder, who waived him during training camp. Thompson played for the Tulsa 66ers in the NBA Development League for the 2012-13 season and joined the Philadelphia 76ers in September of 2013.

This season the 6’8 shooting guard is averaging 8.2 points, 3.0 rebounds and 1.1 assists. He considers basketball “a numbers game as far as strengths and weaknesses.” The goal is a winning equation.

“Somebody swings you the ball, your defender is closing out on you, and he’s closing out at an angle,” Thompson, 23, explained. “You see the basket here, then you see your defender, and then there’s always going to be an angle to the basket based on the way he’s playing. If he’s too far from you, then you just shoot it. … So much of the game is about attacking angles.”

Learning is a non-stop process. Thompson studies game film and seeks out his teammates and coaches to gain additional knowledge. His basketball and intellectual IQ is highly regarded by the team.

“He thinks all the time,” said head coach Brett Brown. “Sometimes it helps him, sometimes it gets the better of him. But he is a cerebral player, no doubt, about a lot of things really. He’s got more going on than just basketball. He’s always inquisitive about things that we like to challenge our locker room with, things going on in the world. I like sharing that part of just being a team, where you can talk about different things than basketball, and he’s always amongst the leaders in having an opinion. … He’s a great team guy. High intellect, high character, and those are always qualities you want.”

Thompson doesn’t brag about his aptitude. He lowered his voice at times when talking about his academic achievements, as not to boast, and looked around the locker room to see if others were listening before discussing his passion for calculus. Thompson is so modest Jason Richardson described him as quiet and was surprised when told of his academic background.

“He always asks me specific details and wants to make sure he gets every question right and wants to make sure he gets every possession right,” said Richardson. “Sometimes I’d wonder, ‘Does he not get it?’ But I didn’t know it was actually him being thorough and trying to learn. It doesn’t really (remind me of any other teammates I’ve had). That’s something new that I haven’t been around.”

Whatever Thompson takes in, he generously shares with others. Rookie JaKarr Sampson has been impressed by the way he passes along his wisdom to those in the locker room.

“He’s a great role model,” said Sampson. “Watching film sessions, he’s a very detailed person. He worries about all the little things, like setting your man up to cut, all the little things you wouldn’t even think about that are important. He’s just a unique person all around.”

Thompson is game for any kind of game. When the 76ers slipped riddles into their scouting reports, he crushed them with ease. He has recently taken to the board game The Settlers of Catan and is a huge fan of a classic.

“Oh my goodness, I am the king of Monopoly,” he said. “I’m always the yacht. It’s exciting. You get to go out there, buy properties, trade with people. I think the biggest thing about Monopoly is you’ve got to know who you’re playing with because you’ve got to know who’s going to be willing to make trades. It’s exciting to kind of grow a little empire on that table.”

Thompson is also into coding. He built an HTML website about basketball and music in the 10th grade. As an adult, he has shifted his focus.

“I read a lot about coding, what goes into making a video game,” he said. “It’s how to take these ideas and put these codes into a computer and turn them into real life. It’s amazing.”

Down the road, Thompson would be interested in creating video games. He also plans on returning to Georgetown to complete his degree, this time in a dedicated classroom setting without the distractions of basketball. For now his sights are set on basketball as he completes his second year in the NBA.

Yet there is far more to Thompson than the game he plays. He wants other student athletes to know there can be more to them, too.

“If you want to be a college athlete you have to get good grades,” he said. “I think there’s nothing that says you can’t be a great athlete and a great intellect at the same time.”

It’s all a matter of perspective, one which Hollis sees different than most.

Jessica Camerato is a bilingual reporter who has been covering the NBA since 2006. She has also covered MLB, NHL and MLS. A graduate of Quinnipiac University, Jessica is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association and the Association for Women in Sports Media.

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