When Tristan Thompson began to play basketball, at age 12, he shot with his left hand. It's what felt, at the time, instinctual. He wrote left-handed. But he was adept with his right hand, too, throwing baseballs and footballs right-handed, as well as brushing his teeth with his right.
Thompson, on the court, was never a great shooter but his left hand was good enough, along with his big body, presence under the boards, and unyielding defence, to carry him to the NBA. He arrived in 2011 as a power forward, picked fourth overall in the draft by the Cleveland Cavaliers, the highest a Canadian had ever been selected to that date.
Last summer came a radical turn after two solid seasons as a pro. Thompson had decided to change his shooting hand – from left to right – and under the tutelage of shooting coach Dave Love from Calgary, hired by the Cavs, Thompson rebuilt his shot.
The experiment is working, the results staccato at first through the past NBA season and, toward the end, ever-more promising. The Cavs missed the playoffs, yet again in their post-LeBron James era, and Thompson – the first of a surge of young Canadians who have the potential to become NBA stars – is back home in the Toronto area.
During his month off, he's reflected on what is an NBA first as far as anyone knows, this switch of shooting hands – and knows there have been glimpses that the potential payoff of the gamble could propel him to the top ranks of the league's power forwards.
"There's really no blueprint," said the affable 23-year-old Thompson in an interview last week. "I'm the blueprint."
Thompson is a radical example of what is the usual story: players arrive in the NBA largely unformed, which is more often the case as the best play a single year of college hoops, as Thompson did, before going pro. In this milieu, shooters are made, not born, for all the natural athletic talent the young stars have. It has been ever thus. Michael Jordan, before he was a good three-point shooter, was a terrible three-point shooter.
"Players grow as their exposure to great coaching grows," Love said. "They're really learning the game at the highest level."
Thompson's situation is more extreme: he's relearning a key element of the game. The report card after the first season is pretty good. He was already a solid player as a leftie, averaging almost a double-double in his second year, 12 points a game and nine rebounds. Those numbers stayed steady the past year in the first of his life as a basketball righty.
He has maintained his field-goal percentage, begun to extend his range and made a major jump in free-throw shooting.
Thompson was never a good free-throw shooter. In his last year shooting left, he hit 61 per cent. In his first season shooting right, the figure jumped to 69 per cent – not far off the league average of about 75 per cent. More promising, he improved through the year, hitting 82 per cent at the line his last dozen games. Opponents can no longer foul Thompson knowing he'll likely miss one shot, which had been a gaping hole in his game as a power forward, taking the most free throws on the Cavaliers roster.
The next step is a bigger one, in the field and from farther from the hoop, which involves a shooting touch in the swarm of the game, and all the demands of moves and footwork. Thompson sees his goal in the likes of Portland's LaMarcus Aldrige, a 28-year-old power forward in his eighth season, the past three as an all-star and currently starring against Houston in the playoffs.
Aldridge has developed a reliable shot from much farther from the basket over the past several years – and being a threat from a greater distance also opens up room nearer the rim.
Right now, Thompson is taking three-quarters of his shots from within eight feet of the basket, and hitting about half. He doesn't shoot much from beyond eight feet, and rarely from past 16. Aldridge, meanwhile, takes fewer than a third of his shots from in close and almost one-quarter from beyond 16 feet on the left side of the hoop – and from there is exacting, hitting close to half his shots.
"Those are the kill-zones for us bigs," Thompson said.
Aldridge wasn't born with a longer-distance touch. It's a result of a major evolution in his game, since his mid-20s. The year before he became an all-star, more than half his shots were within eight feet of the hoop.
The work to get there has been in Thompson from the start, says Tony McIntyre, who coached the Canadian through his teenage years.
"He was a kid who was 1,000-per-cent committed to getting better every time he was in the gym," McIntyre said.
The mechanics of the new shot came relatively quickly to Thompson, who had always had a touch with his left and right at the hoop. It's the footwork in the field that has been tougher.
"It was the difficult part," Thompson said. "I'm still working at it, so it's natural, no hesitation."
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