I knew Stephen Thompson Jr. was going to be my favorite player last year the second I saw his hair. Think back to every single historical run in every single March Madness that has ever happened in history. What does every single historical run in every single March Madness in history have in common? Hair. Specifically, unique, provocative, and perfect hair. Willie Cauley-Stein’s bleached hair for that one game against Boise State when Kentucky was really bad for a season. Mo Ali-Cox’s dreadlocks put the entire VCU squad on their little dreadlock-backs last year. Gonzaga’s Kelly Olynyk, who’s hair won best in show in 2014, was the only reason Gonzaga even made the tournament in 2013.
Stephen Thompson Jr. has perfect hair. And he did two very important things this offseason:
- He didn't cut his hair.
- He played in The Drew League.
For those not in the know, The Drew League is one of (if not the) best pro-am basketball league in the country/world (I’m not sure what China or Europe has but after the Olympics this summer I think its safe to just assume). Based in South LA, The Drew has historic roots dating back to the 70s, but recently has garnered attention as the premier off-season playing destination of top NBA and college talent. Players like Seth Curry, Nick Young, and DeMar DeRozan played last year. Kevin Durant somewhat put it on the map a few years ago. And this year, in the video below, if you squint and happen to remember important faces from 2011, you’ll find Meta World Peace (formerly Ron Artest) on the same court as Stephen Thompson Jr.
So why does this matter so much?
Remember last year when you finally stopped staring at Stevie’s perfect hair long enough to realize that he only weighed 117 pounds? Well, Stephen spent the summer playing with professional athletes. The exposure to the physicality of a pro-am league like The Drew will go a long way to toughening up the sophomore guard. And not only did he play in the League, he played well. From the video above, he looks like he belongs. His ability to shoot and slash shines even on the same court as NBA players, which is a great sign for the season to come.
4-point play by Stephen Thompson Jr.! Jaguars up 41-32#thedrew— Drew League (@DrewLeague) June 26, 2016
The son of painfully-regular-haired assistant coach, Stephen Thompson, Thompson Jr. will have to channel the spirit of the Drew League if the Beavers hope to win conference games this year.
A quick note on STJ’s clutchness
My second favorite thing about Stevie (after his hair) is his clutchness. He saved the Beavs last year several times: very controversially here, and less controversially here. In fact, his very controversial last-second shot was even contested by UW, but his game winner was allowed to stand because a traveling violation can’t be reviewed and the clock-not-starting conspiracy wasn't taken seriously by the Pac-12. His shot was so clutch that it even out-clutched the rulebook (allegedly) and time (also allegedly).
Looking back to look forward
During the 2015-2016 season, STJ hit 48 3-pointers, which is more than any other freshman in Oregon State history has ever hit. 4 of those triples were in his college basketball debut. He had 35 steals. And he scored in double figures 21 times. But you know whats crazy about all those stats? He only started in 5 games.
While he did play in all 32 games, he only averaged 21 minutes a game. Expect huge minutes out of Stevie this year. Given the hole that Gary Payton II’s departure has left behind on the stat sheet, the Beavers will be relying heavily on both STJ and fellow sophomore Tres Tinkle’s scoring abilities. Last year, following GP2, he and Tres were the leading scorers on the roster. In 2017, look to see Stephen’s highly sought after younger brother, Ethan, also adding points and grabbing some playing time.
Also worth noting is Stephen Thompson Jr.’s defensive ability. Though GP2 stole the spotlight in just about every single way a spotlight can be stolen (rightfully so), Thompson Jr. was the next best defender on the team. In fact, his 1.2 steals per game were 12th best in the Pac-12. He even had 3 blocks in the loss to VCU last year in the tournament.
STJ has phenomenal range and can be relied upon should games stay close to hit free throws/last-second-season-saving shots. His perimeter defense and ability to come up with steals will play a pivotal role during the GP2 transition.
As yet to be seen is Thompson Jr.’s handle on playing serious minutes. He will be expected to play 30+ minutes per game this year, and his durability may come into question somewhere around February. His capacity to become an elite defender hinges mostly on his commitment to the weight room. Size and strength are going to make or break his on-the-ball guarding.