In his inaugural Summer League outings, Ausar Thompson often slid into the periphery offensively to spotlight Jaden Ivey, Jalen Duren, and James Wiseman. When those three sat out Wednesday’s game against the Toronto Raptors, Thompson filled the void and delivered his most enticing performance to date. As Detroit rallied back from a 17-point hole for a 94-90 victory, the 20-year-old notched 17 points (7-of-14 shooting), nine boards, four steals, three assists (seven turnovers), and two blocks.
Through three games, he’s averaging 12.0 points, 8.7 rebounds, 4.0 dimes (3.3 turnovers), 2.7 steals, and 2.3 blocks. The Pistons selected him fifth overall to be a do-it-all wing and, in spurts, he’s done it all thus far. The scoring efficiency (50.2 percent true shooting and jumper (16.7 percent from deep) remain significant areas for growth. That much has long been evident. The key will be how Thompson assimilates as a connective cog alongside Ivey and Cade Cunningham, the engines of Detroit’s offense, when the regular season begins and this core continues taking shape together.
While that part of his game and fit crystalizes, Thompson should be able to trust in his defensive exploits for immediate contributions. Whether it’s hounding Raptors sharpshooter Gradey Dick, wrangling with ball-handlers at the point of attack, rotating in scramble situations, or closing out to deter shooters, the dude’s been an absolute menace defensively.
The highlights making waves on Twitter are a microcosm of his aptitude. What’s most critical is his possession-by-possession technical consistency; his five stocks per game are far from the lone instances in which he inks his signature. He plays the gaps on the weakside properly, flocks to shooters wielding high-handed, disciplined closeouts, seamlessly slips around picks, and audible coordinates coverages with teammates.
When I spoke with him and his brother, Amen, last month, he said he prefers to play at the point-of-attack defensively. But he’s been excellent off the ball in a litany of manners, blowing up different actions, executing proper duties as a helper, and staying glued through screens.
His preference for the point-of-attack hasn’t disappointed either, though. He can flip his hips to change directions and mirror assignments in a split second, glides over screens to prevent any wiggle room, and eats up space as a lateral mover. On both ends, the speed at which he maneuvers looks like he’s skipping frames. He has a knack for fastening himself to initiators, getting into their bodies and prying the ball out of bounds or into his own hands.
At 6’7 with a 7-foot wingspan and the mobility of a zippy, wily guard, he should become one of the NBA’s more fearsome on-ball stoppers quickly, especially if he plays less upright as he develops. His blend of physical tools and feel are ridiculous, and have been on display through three Summer League contests. Watching him, Isaiah Stewart, Cunningham, and Duren (and Isaiah Livers!) defend together over the next few seasons will be joyous.
I couldn’t figure out where this clip made sense in the prior two compilations, but it felt worth including. Thompson’s closing speed, motor, and dexterity are preposterous. From nearly a standstill, he sprints from the corner to the opposite key in ~3 seconds, disrupts Jett Howard’s pass, and helps reverse a fastbreak opportunity into a turnover.
Whew, boy, that’s rad stuff.
As succinctly as he scans and enacts responsibilities defensively, he’s also a masterful processor with his playmaking. The gamut of angles he can whip passes from is astounding. Flanked by Cunningham and Ivey creating advantages and quality play-finishers like Duren, Wiseman, Joe Harris, Bojan Bogdanovic, Livers ,and Marvin Bagley III, Thompson’s connectivity should be quite the asset, particularly in new head coach Monty Williams’ 0.5 offensive scheme emphasizing quick decision-making.
The Pistons finished 27th in transition frequency last season, per Cleaning The Glass. That should be rectified next year. While Thompson’s current scoring limitations will hinder some of his halfcourt facilitating, he’ll persist as a dynamite open floor firestarter. Ivey, Duren, and Bagley’s presence should further prompt an uptick in pace, too. Williams’ playbook excels at granting players touches on the move (think about how Devin Booker was often deployed his first couple years under Williams), so Thompson’s passing and sagacious processing will likely see plenty of chances to exploit shifting defenses, as he’s done in Summer League.
Before Ivey exited the lineup, Thompson didn’t receive many on-ball reps. That changed Wednesday. His screen manipulation and pacing enable him to generate a slew of paint touches out of pick-and-rolls. Some of his efforts were curtailed by poor ball control (hence the seven turnovers against Toronto). Yet he’s hinting at a future in which he incorporates a viable intermediate arsenal and is a relentless, prolific ball-screen slasher.
He knows how to utilize picks, is selective in applying his gnarly burst and teleports from point A to point B. I love how he can rocket right through panicking rim protectors, while simultaneously surveying the court to identify which read is most logical.
Play-linking flashes like these bode well for his future in Detroit, too. Thompson touts a keen sense of space, preps well to maximize himself off the catch, and embraces physicality at the rim. The contrasting leadups and similar results (points) of these off-ball instances are encouraging.
Little thing from Ausar Thompson. Ivey attacks in P&R and skips to Sasser. Extra pass and no shot, looks to drive the closeout but defense stays in front. Keeping an eye on the drives. pic.twitter.com/WrZRnvOsfV
— Steve Jones Jr. (@stevejones20) July 10, 2023
Since last seeing the playoffs in 2018-19, the Pistons’ rebuild has been a slow burn with four consecutive seasons of 23 wins or fewer. Along the way, they’ve accumulated a quintet of promising youngsters in Stewart, Cunningham, Ivey, Duren, and, now, Thompson, the last of whom is giving the franchise and its fans multifaceted glimpses of why he could be so good on the NBA stage.
Summer League is a time for optimism — subdued or unceasing, rational or irrational. Thompson’s play is surely igniting some of that among his own supporters and the broader Pistons’ fanbase. He provides a distinct skillset to the rest of the core that could soon help this franchise return to an era of winning.