Cavs, basketball gods in Thompson's court

Cavaliers forward Tristan Thompson shoots against the Pistons during a preseason game at The Palace...

Cavaliers forward Tristan Thompson shoots against the Pistons during a preseason game at The Palace of Auburn Hills in Auburn Hills, Mich., Dec. 16, 2011. (DAN LIPPITT/NBAE via Getty Images/AFP)

RYAN WOLSTAT, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 9:20 PM ET

INDEPENDENCE, OHIO - In less than a week, Tristan Thompson’s dream will become a reality.

His journey from Brampton, to New Jersey, to Nevada, to Austin, Tex., to the NBA will be completed on Boxing Day in Cleveland when his Cavaliers take on the Raptors, in an ironic twist of fate.

Nobody — likely not even Thompson himself — saw his meteoric rise coming when he left Ontario for gritty Newark back in 2008.

With his impressive work ethic, Thompson put in the time until he was good enough to become the highest-drafted born-and-bred Canadian ever — the No. 4 overall selection in June’s NBA draft.

Days later, the NBA lockout began and delayed Thompson’s big moment.

But Thompson continued to stay in shape while taking classes at the University of Texas and now, the wait is finally over.

How does it feel?

“It’s like a kid opening a birthday gift. It’s finally here,” Thompson told the Toronto Sun after he and his teammates finished another day at the office at the Cavaliers’ practice facility outside of Cleveland on Monday.

He’s still a little surprised who he will be opening against.

“The basketball gods were looking out for me,” he said with a laugh.

“This will be exciting, it will be a fun one to play.

He will bring his mother, father and brothers to Cleveland for the occasion.

The big man scored eight points, hauled down four rebounds and added a pair of blocks in his first pre-season contest against Detroit on the weekend, but also picked up five fouls, four in the first half.

All part of the learning experience.

“I used that game to kind of feel out the referees and the whole style of basketball at this level.

“In the NBA, you can’t have your hands on the players and in college, you get away with a lot I guess. But in the NBA it’s really no contact.

“I’m just getting adjusted and learning different ways of guarding.”

Nobody in the organization seems overly concerned. In fact, the early reviews on the rookie were quite strong across the board — even if head coach Byron Scott tempered some of the enthusiasm a little bit.

“Tristan has a lot to learn, but I’m very happy with his progress so far,” Scott said.

“He’s a little bit further along at this point than I would have expected. It would obviously have been great for him and (No. 1 overall selection Kyrie Irving) to have had a summer league and all that stuff, but it is what it is.”

Scott, veterans Antawn Jamison and ex-Raptor Anthony Parker all noted Thompson’s feel for the game and ability to pick up instructions quickly.

“He’s a sponge,” Jamison said.

“He is a young man who has a very good basketball IQ and he has a will. He wants to be good and is willing to work at it,” added Scott.

“Anytime you have a player like that, that’s great for me as a coach. He’s one of those guys that once you tell him something to do, he’s pretty much got it.”

But smarts and dedication to putting in the hours necessary to succeed are only part of the equation. Those traits alone don’t get you selected in the top five.

It is Thompson’s freakish athleticism and wingspan that really sold the Cavs.

Observers were still talking about a couple of highlight-reel plays he made in his pre-season debut and his once-again teammate, Cavs forward/centre Samardo Samuels, continues to be impressed with Thompson, despite knowing him since their days together at St. Benedict’s Prep in New Jersey.

“Oh man, he’s a great leaper, for a guy his size, man, he gets up,” said Samuels.

“He’s a quick jumper and for a guy his size that’s rare.”

Samuels isn’t surprised at Thompson’s progress and perhaps in a testament to the character of both men — Samuels likely will be battling Thompson for minutes this season — all he had were positive things to say about his friend.

“He came in and has been professional the whole time. He’s been doing everything the coaches want him to do and he’s been holding his own,” Samuels said.

“He’s a good dude and the same dude I knew from way back. He hasn’t changed.

“I know he put in a lot of work.”

After selecting Irving No. 1, Cleveland general manager Chris Grant had a tough choice on his hands.

Take Thompson, who the franchise had fallen in love with, or wait a year or more for Jonas Valanciunas, who ended up going a pick later to the Raptors.

Grant doesn’t seem like someone with any regrets.

“He’s got an opportunity in front of him to be a very good player,” Grant said.

“He’s got the right disposition, the right mentality. He’s vocal, he’s willing to learn.”

Grant, like Scott, is well aware that Thompson is not close to being a finished product — his offensive game and shooting touch need considerable refinement — and is not about to rush the rookie.

Jamison remains the starter at power forward, with Thompson likely to see minutes off of the bench.

“He’s still very young,” cautioned Grant.

“We’re expecting him to get better every day (but) we’re not putting any limits on him or conditions, anything like that.”

Thompson is fine with that. He knows Rome wasn’t built in a day.

In the meantime, he will keep working hard and keep setting an example for the legions of young Canadian basketball players currently trying to emulate his journey.

Given his status in the country and with the way he carries himself, it is easy to forget just how young he still is.

That’s why being thought of as a Canadian hoops pioneer still seems a little odd to him.

“It’s fun and exciting and it’s also a blessing to be considered a founding father of this new wave of Canadian basketball,” Thompson said.

“It’s humbling … (but) I’m only 20, I’m not that old yet.”

Which makes his ascent to this point all the more impressive.

CANADIAN ROOTS

Tristan Thompson enjoys being surrounded by familiar faces.

He had either fellow GTA natives Myck Kabongo or Cory Joseph with him at all three of his U.S. high school and college stops and now plays with former high school teammate Samardo Samuels in Cleveland.

Thompson considers his friend Samuels and former New Jersey high school rival turned Cavalier Kyrie Irving major parts of his “support system” in Cleveland.

He also has Anthony Parker in the locker room, a player Thompson watched perform on a daily basis when Parker was a standout for the Raptors.

Parker said they have already discussed Toronto and Canada.

According to Samuels, Thompson isn’t the target of any extra good-natured ribbing because of where he is from.

When asked if any Cavs try to joke around about Thompson because of his nationality, Samuels, who himself arrived in the U.S. from another country (Jamaica) at a young age, was emphatic in his response.

“No. Canadian or not, he dunks everything. He’s doing what he’s supposed to do AND he blocks shots.

“Ain’t nothing to joke about. He’s not a joke.”

ryan.wolstat@sunmedia.ca


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