COLUMBUS, Ohio – Last season, there were times that wide-eyed and skinny-legged freshman Sam Thompson felt alone at Ohio State.
Not because he was homesick. Mostly because no one was guarding him.
Thompson brought with him from Chicago an array of highlight-reel dunks and memorable blocked shots. He didn’t bring much of a jump shot, and by the time the Buckeyes were playing really big games in January, February and March, Thompson had become a key role player whose role was very limited.
“Teams didn’t really guard me, and they didn’t have to guard me,” Thompson said. “It allowed them to double-team our (scorers) or drop more guys into the lane to stop Aaron Craft.
“I think I was a very good role guy, but I wasn’t scoring much. In terms of my playing time and (impact) and everything increasing this year, a lot of it was going to come down to my ability to knock down shots. It’s something I have to keep getting better at.”
Throughout the spring and summer, Thompson went to work on fixing that jump shot. What was not only erratic but also, um, unique last season — “I kind of swung it from the left side of my body,” he said — is now a much tighter, much more mechanically-sound shot.
More of them are falling. Now a starter averaging 24 minutes per game, Thompson’s confidence is rising, too.
Through seven games, Thompson’s scoring average stands at 7.1 per game. He’s shooting 47 percent from the field and has already made three 3-pointers, including one in back-to-back games.
He made one all of last season, actually missing the rim on those shots more than once.
“Obviously the biggest growth I’ve had is the mental aspect and the preparation necessary to succeed at the college level,” Thompson said. “But this year my jump shot is the greatest improvement I’ve had from last year and my senior year of high school.
“Being able to make a couple shots has opened up some driving lanes, some passing lanes. It’s much harder to get past somebody when they’re playing five feet off of you.”
He’s still a dunker, a leaper and a top athlete on a roster full of them. He has to take more shots this year, and as the games get bigger Ohio State is going to need to Thompson to make more of them. He averaged 2.1 points per game in a little over 10 minutes last year.
The Buckeyes don’t need the 6’7 Thompson to fire a bunch of shots or become too trigger-happy. They just need him to be able to threaten defenses in more ways than being able to jump over them.”
“Sam has a much better feel and understanding for the college game and the way we do things,” Ohio State coach Thad Matta said. “He’s the ultimate team guy. Sometimes I wish he was a bit more selfish in his thought process offensively.
“He spent a lot of time working on his handle and shot. He has much more comfort and confidence in that regard. Obviously, he can jump and dunk, and (this season) he’s shooting the ball well. There’s always the threat when he’s in the gym that something spectacular can happen.”
With the departures of Jared Sullinger and William Buford from last year’s Final Four team, the Buckeyes lost an average of 32 points per game. It was more than that, though, as Sullinger was a true post scorer, Buford both a threat from the arc and a slasher, and with those two gone Deshaun Thomas became the clear top scoring option with no real proven scorers behind him.
That’s part of the reason why, when the NCAA allowed coaching staffs to spend 2.5 hours per week last summer with their players, Thompson addressed his jump shot. He came back in the fall much more at ease
“There’s a natural progression from their freshman season,” Matta said. “I like to see supernatural progression.”
As the Buckeyes go through another stretch of games they should win easily, Thompson is trying to make every game and every shot count.
“To go from high school with one or two guys guarding me all the time to being left open, that was kind of a shock,” he said. “It messes with your confidence a little bit. Being back to normal is a big thing this year. It’s just about finishing (the shots). I’m shooting it really well in practice. The shots will start to fall.”