TORONTO — Jason Thompson’s getting used to a lot of new things. New team; new city; new time zone that’s still throwing him off after spending the first eight years of his career playing on the West Coast. And a new locker in the Toronto Raptors dressing room, the one left vacant by the departed Anthony Bennett, and one Thompson still didn’t know the combination to Tuesday night as he stood in front of it, towel around his waist, fiddling with the buttons and trying to gain access.
That’s when Raptors forward Patrick Patterson, who played with Thompson in Sacramento two years ago, looked over from his stall and offered his frustrated new teammate some helpful advice: “You sure you’re turning the thing the right way?”
Sure enough, as Thompson spun the handle in the opposite direction the wooden compartment popped open, much to his delight as he mastered one of the many small challenges that come along with joining a new team midseason.
“It’s been a lot to digest this past little while, just all these new things in my life,” the recently acquired power forward said, shortly after the Raptors topped the Brooklyn Nets, 104-99, in a game few thought would end up that close. “Like, I landed in Toronto and it started snowing. That’s something I’m not used to.”
Another thing Thompson isn’t used to is starting basketball games this season, something he’d done just once in 28 conetests for the Golden State Warriors before they waived him two weeks ago. But at shoot around Tuesday morning, Raptors head coach Dwane Casey came up to his newest player and told him he’d be starting that night, as Luis Scola, who had started all 61 games the Raptors have played, was drawing a well deserved rest.
"Yeah I was a little surprised—it’s not like I was coming in here to be a starter," Thompson says. "I figured I was gonna get to ease my way into it. Especially because guys had ben rolling, really playing consistent. But I tried to do as best as I could given the short amount of time I’ve been here."
Thompson didn’t take long to find his groove, blocking a Bojan Bogdanovic layup on Brooklyn’s fourth possession and then earning a deft steal from the hands of Brook Lopez on the next one. The 29-year-old carried on from there, providing just the kind of active, vocal, aggressive defence Raptors head coach Dwane Casey has been begging his team for over the past month.
"I thought he gave us some pop," Casey said after the game. "He was one guy who was excited, for good reason, to be out there playing."
Thompson was extremely energetic in his own end all night, getting up in Thaddeus Young’s face from tip-off and even pulling Jonas Valanciunas off Lopez at times to try to contain the Nets centre, who continued his career-long trend of going off on the Raptors, this time for 35 points.
Before the game, Casey asked his players to be more physical on defence than they have of late, "not necessarily fouling, but making them feel you legally." Thompson clearly took the message to heart, constantly moving his feet as he guarded and often pressing his chest directly into Young as the Nets power forward tried to operate.
"I really tried to be aggressive," Thompson says, after holding Young to 14 points. "You never want your guy to score but sometimes great players are going tom make big shots. But you can make a difference with how much you bring energy wise, getting rebounds, blocking shots, being active."
The Raptors couldn’t do much with Thompson offensively as he’s still learning the team’s systems after arriving in Toronto last week. He spent most of his night hovering at the top of the arc, setting screens for his guards and moving the ball quickly when it came to him.
But his lack of involvement in the offence also caused Brooklyn to forget him at times, and when Norman Powell found Thompson unguarded outside the arc late in the first quarter he didn’t hesitate to fire, hitting his first three-pointer in nearly six years.
You read that right. Thompson’s last, and only, three-pointer came in April 2010 when he played for Sacramento. He nearly added another one later in the game, when Kyle Lowry found him all alone beyond the arc and Thompson converted, although the officials ruled that his foot was just barely on the line when he shot.
"I don’t know, you gotta talk to those refs, man," Thompson said after the game. "I don’t think my toe was over the line. I might have to check the film on it."
Thompson says he’s had the three-point shot in his arsenal for years but was never asked to employ it in previous offences. When he arrived in Toronto he showed the Raptors coaching staff that he could shoot it and they told him that if he was open beyond the line he had the green light to let fly.
"I work on it—I just haven’t gotten the opportunity to show it off in front of everybody," Thompsons said. "Over my eight years in the league I’ve had 11 coaches. And it never fit any of their systems."
Yes, Thompson’s grown accustomed to change during his time in the league. Arriving in Toronto, the fourth team he’s belonged to since July, is just another one.
Of course, playing more than 20 minutes is a welcome change (he was averaging a little over six coming into Tuesday night), and with Casey planning to rest the 35-year-old Scola periodically down the stretch, more starts could be coming his way. Thompson’s trying to do everything he can to get settled with his new team and be ready for them.
"It was good to just be back on the court, man. I appreciate these guys bringing me in with open arms, knowing that I’m not coming in here and trying to do too much. I’m just trying to fit in," Thompson says. "Ever since I landed, teammates have been there to try and help me out and ease my way into the situation. It’s been really good so far."