- The Washington Times - Friday, March 7, 2008

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.”

Dempsey was not among them. He long ago realized Thompson could do a little of everything. Shooting. Ball-handling. Sure, the back-to-the-basket game needed work, but that was understandable.

It arrived soon enough. And when Thompson came back to Dempsey’s office after his breakout summer, it was clear he knew what could happen.

“I could tell there was a difference,” Dempsey said. “He felt like he belonged with the best players in the country, with some of the first-round picks that were there, with some of the NBA guys. He went and played on that stage. Coming out of there, he got back, he wanted to say to me ‘They’re not any better than me,’ but he’s too humble.”

That’s all right. Others will do it for him.

“He deserves it,” said Ryan Thompson, Jason’s brother and a 6-foot-6 sophomore guard for the Broncs. “He’s working hard every day. He’s in the gym all the time getting shots up. It’s weird how my brother might be going to the NBA, but I’m happy for him.”

•••

Jason Thompson can quietly produce stat-stuffing nights (20.2 points, 11.8 rebounds, 2.9 assists and 2.8 blocks on average) in the MAAC, while other members of the 20-10 club (Kansas State’s Michael Beasley, North Carolina’s Tyler Hansbrough and Notre Dame’s Luke Harangody among them) are watched closely.

The flip side is no wiggle room in March, when losses are not permissible.

Thompson can put up 24 points and 10 rebounds, as he did last month at Loyola, and still be on the losing end. One setback this weekend would dash Rider’s chances of an NCAA tournament berth and deprive Thompson of showcasing his game on a large stage.

“When he comes back, he wants to have a couple banners hanging in that gym that he was a part of,” Dempsey said. “Right now, there’s one [regular-season title] in there from his freshman year. But with him being the marquee guy, he wants to walk in and see NCAA tournament 2008 and kind of have his fingerprints all over it.”

The season already is littered with accomplishments. The Broncs beat Penn State, won 10 straight early in league play and earned a Bracket Buster victory at Big West leader Cal State Northridge. In the middle of it all was the steady Thompson.

“What I’ve been most impressed with is Jason’s maturity,” Dempsey said. “Let’s face it, he’s still a kid and he’s grown up watching all these guys, and all these Hall of Famers are in to watch him play and want to talk to him. He’s stayed very focused on winning.”

It reveals itself at practice, where he becomes particularly feisty whenever Dempsey takes him out for a few minutes to rest. And it appears in games as Thompson methodically involves his teammates and still piles up double-doubles.

But three more victories — and a banner — would mean so much more.

“At pretty much every level I’ve been at, I’ve been a winner and a champion,” Thompson said. “For that to happen would be the greatest thing. I want to be a champion so bad. It’s close.”

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