My story on Ryan Thompson, who's playing for his cousin's memory -- and for a strong finish to one of the greatest careers in Rider history:
Ryan Thompson often relies on a support system – one that starts with his parents and his older brother, whose retired number hangs on the Alumni Gym wall and whose stature is growing as a second-year pro.
Two weeks ago, though, Thompson lost a key member of that system.
His cousin, Tiffany – who died suddenly of heart failure -- was more than a close confidant. A former standout player at Washington Twp. High School, she was an off-the-floor assistant coach, a person capable of breaking down the holes in Thompson’s game and doling out advice on how to improve.
“A big part of my life,” Thompson said. “She would want me to give my all every day. She would always give me pointers on what to do.”
Thompson played with strained emotions following her death, but is committed to playing his best basketball down the stretch in her honor.
Rider, immersed in a deep and perplexing slump for much of the season, has won four of its last five, in no small part because of Thompson’s play.
In his last four games – including three Rider wins -- he’s averaging 25.3 points and shooting 45 percent from the floor. He’s been unflappable at the free throw line, where he’s 34-for-38 (89 percent) during the stretch.
“He’s playing with the confidence everyone expected him to play with,” Jason Thompson said Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden, where his dunk in the final minute of regulation helped send the Kings to a 118-114 overtime win over the Knicks. “You have some things go on during the season, but he’s playing how everyone knows he can pay. Stuff happens. You don’t shoot the ball well at times, but he’s playing how I know he can play, and he has his swagger back.”
Thompson, once listed in mock drafts as a second-round pick, has seen his draft stock drop significantly. The scouts, though, haven’t completely gone away. A strong finish – coupled with good performances at pre-draft workouts – could put him back in consideration.
“Some of the things he can do are undeniable,” said Rider coach Tommy Dempsey. “(Scouts) see how he runs the floor. They see his size and athleticism. What people sometimes forget is it’s a lot like college recruiting. I can go watch a high school player play and know if he can play at our level whether he has four points or whether he has 34. You always feel better if he has 34, but you might still leave the gym thinking ‘this guy has a lot of talent’ and you’ll keep coming back.
“With his numbers back on the rise, even those scouts who may have said ‘maybe he’s not quite good enough’ might start saying ‘I better get back here.’”
Hampered by sky-high expectations and loads of pressure, Thompson played without confidence, without assertion, and without the jump shot that had served him so well last year for a two-month stretch.
In a 74-58 loss at Canisius on Jan. 22, he scored only 10 points on 2-for-10 shooting. It was the sixth time this season that he made fewer than three field goals – a baffling statistic for a player who averaged 18 points per game last year and was an easy choice for preseason MAAC Player of the Year.
Yet when Rider appeared headed for a bottom-of-the-pack finish in the MAAC, Thompson engineered a comeback.
He scored 25 points Jan. 28, helping Rider overcome a nine-point halftime deficit to get past ninth-place Manhattan. A game later, he scored a career-high 31 points in the Broncs’ 88-80 win at Fairfield. After a 14-point performance in an 80-73 loss to Loyola, he scored another 31 Monday in a 70-62 win over Niagara that gave the Broncs a much-needed one-game lead over the Purple Eagles in the MAAC standings.
Asked what the biggest difference was in Rider’s play, sophomore forward Novar Gadson had no trouble answering.
“Ryan Thompson,” he said. “It’s as simple as that. He’s playing great basketball. He’s finding us open shots. He’s a great player.”
Thompson playing well “takes the attention off everyone else,” said junior guard Justin Robinson. “When teams concentrate on just stopping him, it frees everyone else up. That’s been evident in the way I’ve been shooting.”
Rider (14-12 overall, 7-7 MAAC) has a challenging end to its schedule. Three of the Broncs’ final four games are at home, but after tomorrow’s game, their remaining three will be against teams that beat them by double-digit margins the first time around.
Yet with Thompson in dominant form, Rider is a different team. There’s better offensive flow, more energy and more open shots for everyone else when Thompson is in control.
He's rarely been as good as he's been over the past four games.
“There’s always pressure,” Thompson said. “I never had to deal with that before. It’s on your back, and you have to be the leader of your team. There was pressure knowing everyone’s watching you. But then I started to not worry about it.”
How far Thompson can carry Rider remains to be seen. Dempsey, though, said his star is in a better place now – one more befitting of one of the best players in program history.
“I’m really happy to see him get going, and not just for our basketball team, but for him personally,” Dempsey said. “He’s had what has to be considered a top five career at Rider, and you wouldn’t want to see him end it on a sour note.
“Now he’s starting to put things together.”