BALTIMORE — Joe Dumars made the trip to a tiny Lawrenceville, N.J., gym earlier this season. So too did Vinny Del Negro and former Duke star Jason Williams.
“For a stretch during the season, you never knew who would be in the building,” Rider forward Jason Thompson said.
But it was always clear why any member of the basketball cognoscenti would veer onto an Interstate 95 off-ramp between Philadelphia and New York and roll into the 1,650-seat Alumni Gymnasium: The presence of Thompson, a 6-foot-11, 250-pounder who could be a first-round pick in June’s NBA Draft.
The senior is not just a remotely skilled big man in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, where the Broncs (21-9, 13-5) shared the regular season title and will be the No. 2 seed in this weekend’s league tournament in Albany, N.Y.
He’s a different kind of player, a big man with guard skills who provides Rider with a distinct Euroball flavor and a chance to reach its first NCAA tournament in 14 years.
Not bad for a guy who began his high school career as a 6-foot-1 guard and came to Rider as a self-described energy guy at 6-foot-8.
“It’s been a nice surprise that he’s grown into a first-round NBA pick, we’re hoping,” Rider coach Tommy Dempsey said. “It’s not a surprise at all that he was going to be a very good college player.”
“Very good” is an understatement. But Thompson remains relatively anonymous to those who do not ferociously devour box scores of schools outside the power conferences on a regular basis.
He glided without fanfare through a downtown Baltimore hotel lobby last month, a scene no doubt repeated this season when Rider made its annual trips to places like Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and Fairfield Conn. But Thompson also carried himself with an easy assurance.
As well he should. He grew from a guard to a center while in high school, a spurt that made it difficult to assess where he would fit in college. Major-conference schools that showed passing interest wanted him to prep for a year. Thompson passed, committed to Rider and then led Lenape High to a New Jersey state title as a senior.
“I wasn’t one of those guys who just wanted to see a big-name school next to my name in the paper,” Thompson said. “I wanted to go to a team where I could fit and gel and play right away. It was a coincidence it was only a half-hour away from home.”
Before last summer, though, Thompson was a typical small-conference star. His stats looked great, but he would get too worked up against bigger schools and quickly encounter foul trouble.
But a trip to a LeBron James-run camp changed things. After working as a counselor during the day, Thompson played pickup games at night. He thrived, fitting in on a floor with NBA players and potential All-Americans.
“I got to see myself and where I could be,” Thompson said. “Last year, I was putting up big numbers, but I didn’t play as well against Big East teams and I was really unsure of myself. [After the summer] I could see where I could take this. I shocked a lot of people by playing well.”