The jubilant crowd, in unison, is on their feet. Dressed in green, yellow and white garb, standing and cheering, nary a soul is silent.
As his teammates form a line on the court and cheer him on, the 6’11 center sits, clapping and smiling. He awaits the announcement of his name as the team’s starter. There, the 22-year-old seems as excited as an 11-year-old boy who’s waiting to open his presents on Christmas morning. He smiles, looks around and takes the scene in.
In those moments before tip-off, the Jamaican-born Shevon Thompson probably reflects on the long, winding road that his basketball journey has taken him on. Now a senior at George Mason University, in the moments after, he sometimes wonders how he even got here.
Over the early goings of the 2015-16 season, Thompson has already gone from being a relative unknown amongst NBA scouts to one whose stock is on the rise, evidenced by his recent 20-spot leap in the DraftExpress NCAA Senior Rankings.
Far, far away from Vere Technical high school in his hometown of Clarendon, Jamaica, we can rest assured—Thompson isn’t done traveling just yet.
For one of the better kept basketball secrets over the past few years, the National Basketball Association may await.
* * * * *
For a great many youngsters growing up in Jamaica, basketball has become more than just a past time—it has become a way of life.
From Samardo Samuels and Jerome Jordan—both of whom competed at the NBA level—to international professionals such as Akeem Scott, Weyinmi Rose and Adrian Uter, over the past 10 years, Jamaica has slowly but surely become renowned as a local hotbed for basketball talent. Thompson is just the latest example.
Despite having only begun playing basketball in high school, Thompson has impressed scouts with his impeccable nose for the ball and his rebounding instincts. His 11.3 rebounds per game during the 2014-15 season led the Atlantic-10 and was good enough for fifth in the nation amongst Division I players. In the early goings of the 2015-16 season, Thompson has already shown an improved ability to score the basketball, evidenced by his recent 19-point, 16-rebound and 20-point, 17-rebound double-doubles against the Ole Miss Rebels and the Oklahoma State Cowboys, respectively.
Flight at the next level, though, will require sustained productivity and a sharpening of his already versatile skill set. Possessing a nimbleness that gives him away as a former soccer player and a work ethic born from defying odds and growing up under tough circumstances, Thompson believes he is up for the challenge.
“Whenever I go out on the floor, I’m gonna give everything I got,” he told Basketball Insiders in a recent interview. “I don’t treat practice or game time any different. In practice, I go hard and in games, I go hard. No matter what, I’m always gonna rebound the hell out of the basketball.”
Not to extol his virtues too much, the hungry Thompson immediately shifted the conversation to the areas in which he feels he still needs to improve.
“What I need to work on is patience when I have the ball in the paint and my awareness of the court,” he said. “I’m still working on my footwork and shot selection.”
The early returns have been evident, as Thompson has already shown increased confidence in his improving shooting ability.
Although developing his offensive repertoire is important, Thompson has already proven to have NBA-ready rebounding skills and has earned the attention of a few scouts who know that finding an athletic, nimble rebounder with good timing and size isn’t the easiest thing at the NBA level.
During his senior year, scouts will try to determine where Thompson’s ceiling lies. Unlike many of his American counterparts, Thompson only began playing basketball at the age of 16. That he has already made such impressive strides is a testament to his work ethic, as well as those around him.
Having been originally recruited to Vere Technical high school in Clarendon, Jamaica to play soccer, Thompson immediately fell in love with the game after his physical education instructor, Shoshana Waterton, noticed his impressive height and put a basketball in his hands. As a former player, she saw Thompson’s ranginess and stature and thought, at the very least, he should give basketball a try. Six years later, he has become one of the top rebounders in the nation and has a serious chance to play in the NBA.
“I was playing [soccer] for a number of years, and I started getting really, really tall,” he recalled. “[Waterton] knew how to play basketball and invited me to the court one day. Since then, I haven’t stopped playing.”
But more importantly, he hasn’t stopped improving.
Thompson readily admits that when he first picked up a basketball, he never believed that he would have the opportunity to play at a Division I program, much less in the National Basketball Association. Now, as he is slowly revealing himself as one of the better kept secrets amongst this class of seniors, his growth and progression is a testament to not only himself, but to the system that raised him. That system has not only raised the level of basketball in Jamaica, it has bred a sense of nationalism, privilege and professionalism amongst some of the country’s younger players, which includes Vashil Fernandez of the Valparaiso Crusaders.
As Jamaica has slowly but surely begun churning out talented members of the international basketball community over the past decade, the immediate past president of the island’s FIBA Federation, Ajani Williams, has lurked in the shadows.
On Williams’ watch, for the first time in Jamaica’s basketball playing history, their men’s basketball team qualified for the 2013 FIBA Americas tournament after winning the bronze medal in the FIBA-sponsored 2012 Centrobasket tournament in Puerto Rico. Although the team failed to medal at the Americas, merely qualifying signified a monumental step forward for a basketball program that isn’t nearly as well-funded as those of Puerto Rico or the Dominican Republic.
Long ago, Williams recognized that Jamaica was home to more than just talented track and field athletes. His belief was that the lack of an infrastructure and organized farm system thwarted the efforts of young players like Thompson from reaching their potential. Aside from organizing and founding Jamaica’s National Basketball League, Williams founded the Jamaica Basketball Elite Academy—a training camp which saw the top players in the country come together to compete, receive instruction and train with one another.
It was at this academy, in 2012, and during the height of Jamaica’s competitiveness on the international basketball scene that Thompson first believed that the game of basketball could carry him places. Thompson understands that many, including Waterton and Williams, have invested in him having the opportunity to succeed at this level. This is not something he takes lightly.
“Ajani had this elite camp going on and I did pretty well there,” Thompson told Basketball Insiders. “Some colleges came there and saw me play, and that’s when I knew I had a chance. I didn’t feel confident going in, but coming out of the camp, that’s when I knew I think I might have a chance to play [at the next level].”
Now, there are quite a few others that believe Thompson can, as well.
* * * * *
Before practice, as his teammates trickle in, Thompson can routinely be found on the court. As he cites DeAndre Jordan and Dwight Howard as NBA big men that he has watched closely, he puts himself through his own gamut of drills before convening with head coach Dave Paulsen and his other teammates.
“Before and after practice, whenever I get into the gym, I go in there and get the heavy ball and start throwing it off the backboard,” Thompson said with a chuckle. “Rebounding, to me, is like a challenge. Even when there’s a bigger or stronger guy, when the ball is there, whoever wants it more is gonna get it. You have to have a relationship with the ball and understand the ball.”
And most importantly, according to Thompson, is that you’ve gotta be “tough,” though he doesn’t necessarily see that as a problem for himself.
To this point, Thompson has defied tremendous odds and is playing not only for himself, but for his family, his hometown, Vere Technical high school and—like his predecessors in Samardo Samuels and Jerome Jordan—for the notoriety of Jamaica as a source of basketball talent.
As Thompson continues along during his senior year at George Mason University, having already separated himself as one of the top rebounders in the country, he will continue to work tirelessly to fulfill his potential.
And as he sits down and ponders what lies ahead this season for the Patriots—and for his own personal future—he knows that although the journey is well past its beginning, there is still much further to go.
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