Tristan Thompson was only 8 years old when Dennis Rodman played his final NBA game. As a young basketball fan in Canada, he was influenced by Rodman long after he retired. It has been 15 years since Rodman left the league, and Thompson is looking to follow in his footsteps as an aggressive rebounder.
“I try to be the best I can be at what I can do, and that’s playing hard and rebounding,” Thompson told Basketball Insiders. “I watch a lot of Dennis Rodman film, see how he impacted the game, see how he impacted his team when he was playing. Especially for this team, I feel like I can do that and bring it to the table. That’s what I try to do every night.”
Thompson has embraced his role coming off the bench for the Cleveland Cavaliers this season. During the regular season, he ranked second on the team in rebounding with 8.0 boards and first in offensive rebounds. He is averaging 6.6 points and 7.0 rebounds per game through five games this postseason, including eight rebounds in the Cavaliers’ Game 1 Eastern Conference Semifinals loss to the Chicago Bulls on Monday. Thompson ranks third in the NBA in offensive rebounds, averaging 3.6 per game despite playing just 27.8 minutes a night.
Thompson looks up to Rodman, a five-time NBA champion who had a career numbers of 7.3 points and 13.1 rebounds.
“I liked his his energy and his passion,” Thompson said of Rodman. “He didn’t let any possessions off, made it tough, and that’s what changes a game. If you look at him and some of the rebounds that he got or plays that he made, it helped win championships and he’s in the Hall of Fame.”
At first glance, there is a dichotomy between the mild-mannered Thompson and his eccentric basketball idol. Don’t make any assumptions on the court, though.
“Never judge a book by its cover,” Thompson said with a laugh. “I’m all over the place. If you watch film or how I approach rebounding, if I’ve got to hit a guy or knock him off balance, I’ll do whatever it takes to get that board. I’m greedy.”
Over the years, Thompson has looked to veterans as mentors and measuring sticks. Early on he learned from Anderson Varejao, studying his game and incorporating some of his “tricks” into his own. On the opposing side, rebounding against Kevin Garnett and Chris Bosh, two bigs he looked up to, were meaningful moments in his career.
Thompson was taught early on that in order to be a successful big man in the NBA, he had to make other contributions besides scoring. Starting in his AAU days, he adopted the mentality that “my priority is to rebound and everything else is a bonus.” The Cavaliers have plenty of offensive power, led by LeBron James and Kyrie Irving; Thompson makes his mark in a different way.
He grabbed 11 rebounds in Game 3 of the Cavaliers’ first round series against the Boston Celtics without taking a single shot. His performance prompted responses from both sides. Teammate Kevin Love called his game “unbelievable.” Evan Turner said, “Tristan Thompson’s really talented at what he does.” Avery Bradley added, “He just out-worked us.”
While there are more big men incorporating outside shots to spread the floor, Thompson is focused on improving one particular aspect of his game at a time. Thompson has attempted a total of six three-pointers over his four-year career (none this season), and is doing his work at the basket.
“You try to come back every year with something better and add something to your game,” Thompson said. “For me, I’m going to continue getting better and working on my game. Who I am now is not who I’m going to be a year from now or moving forward. I still want to get better and add things to my game. But for this year, for this team, which is my priority and my main focus, is how I can be an asset and help.”
Thompson’s main mission is to be a spark plug on the boards. By attacking the rim, he hopes it will help the Cavaliers’ attack on their opponents.
“It’s just instinct,” he said of rebounding. “Go out there and be selfish.”
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