When you see Jason Thompson casually walking around campus, don’t be fooled by his calm demeanor and his perpetual ear-to-ear smile, because when you see him on the hardwood, he’s as fierce a competitor as you’ll ever come across.
With a warrior’s heart and an unparalleled work ethic, Rider’s big man has transformed from a 6’9,” 200-pound freshman with the potential to succeed at the mid-major collegiate level to a 6’11,” 250-pound senior who is on the brink of being selected in this year’s NBA draft.
When Thompson arrived at Rider in the fall of 2004, you would have been hard-pressed to find anyone who could have predicted the way his game would progress from a guard-forward prototype to the dangerously versatile big man who has dominated the MAAC.
“We thought he was going to be a really good player and we were really happy when we got him, but I don’t think anyone could have predicted this,” said Athletic Director Don Harnum. “I think the way that his career went was good for Jason in the sense that he played a lot as a freshman on a good team but didn’t have the pressure of having to produce every night for the team to be good. He was a piece of that puzzle.”
As a freshman, Thompson was part of a Bronc team that earned a share of the MAAC regular season title and a No. 2 seed in the conference tournament. While Thompson will be the first to admit losing to Niagara in the MAAC finals was hard, he’s never lost sight of the positive experiences that came out of his rookie season, namely playing alongside Rider’s second all-time leading scorer, Jerry Johnson.
“Jerry is one of the hardest working guys I’ve ever seen,” Thompson said. “I learned a lot from him as a freshman. He was the leader that year and he helped me learn what it is to be a leader, how to be a scorer and how to be humble when the media comes in for an interview.”
Johnson’s influences, along with the guidance from the Broncs’ coaching staff, enabled Thompson to learn and grow as a player during his sophomore campaign when the team went 8-20.
“That was probably one of the toughest experiences I’ve had, but it was also a great learning experience as well,” Thompson said. “Through middle school and high school and even freshman year of college, the teams I was on were pretty successful. Sophomore year only having eight wins was tough in the sense that no one likes to lose, but it was also tough being a sophomore and being one of the team leaders.”
During Thompson’s junior campaign his name began regularly making its way onto the reports of NBA scouts and into the national spotlight. Thompson finished the year averaging 20 points and 10 rebounds a game, making him one of only three college players in the nation to accomplish such a feat. The other two were the University of Nevada’s Nick Fazekas, who now plays for the Los Angeles Clippers, and Texas’ Kevin Durant, who was Seattle’s No. 2 overall pick in last year’s NBA draft.
“His skill set is incredible for a big man, having the ability to pass, dribble and shoot,” said Head Coach Tom Dempsey. “When he came here he was talented, but he was just fair in those areas. As his career has progressed, he’s become a great passer and ball handler for his size and he’s continued to grow as a shooter as well. I think that’s what makes him so attractive to NBA scouts: the fact that he’s 6’11” and can dribble, pass and shoot.”
In order for Thompson to keep NBA scouts attracted and to prevent their interest from fading away, he needed to come through with an impressive senior year to validate the numbers he put up as a junior. As he’s done throughout his four years at Rider, he was ready and able to rise up to meet yet another challenge head on in the ’07-’08 season.
The Broncs faced off against some fierce competitors right off the bat when they traveled down to the Old Spice Classic to go up against the likes of N.C. State, Kansas State and Penn State. It was during this tournament that Thompson began to win over the admittedly skeptical Harnum, Rider’s former men’s head coach, who coached Thompson early in his Rider career.
“The fact that he had a double-double in every game and we were competitive in every game, and, obviously, the fact that we beat Penn State was a little bit of a sign to me,” Harnum said. “I’m always skeptical, I still have that coach’s mentality and I always challenge the guys to go out there and get us the win. You have all this preseason attention, but now we have NC State, Kansas State and Penn State and we’ve got our hands full if Jason doesn’t play well in those games.”
“I’m not one to jump on the bandwagon real quick and declare him this and that, but sitting there, watching those games was when I thought, you know what, he really has gotten a lot better in one year and made a huge jump — and not too many guys do — between his junior and senior year,” he added.
The season that followed November’s Old Spice Classic was one for the record books as Thompson racked up a plethora of individual awards, including being named MAAC Player of the Year and MAAC Defensive Player of the Year, while leading Rider to a school record 23 wins.
The one honor that narrowly managed to elude him, along with Rider as a community, was the team earning a trip to the NCAA Tournament. The only way a MAAC school can make the tournament is to win the conference championship, something the Broncs had two chances to accomplish during Thompson’s four-year career, in ’04 and ’08, but fell short both times.
“It’s ironic how both situations were very similar,” Thompson said. “Going to the championship game, tying for the regular season championship and then having the No. 1 seed have home court advantage. It was tough not getting to the NCAA Tournament during college, but that’s just how it went and it’s definitely going to motivate me even more trying to get to the next level.”
Thompson’s entry to the next level will be determined June 20 at Madison Square Garden at this year’s NBA draft, where it’s been speculated he may be selected sometime in the first round. Until then, he’ll be traveling the country as he attends pre-draft workout camps in one final push to solidify his spot as a legitimate NBA prospect.