It’s easy to see: Detroit Pistons rookie Ausar Thompson will make team better

Detroit Free Press

LAS VEGAS — Already, he makes winning plays.

More to the point, Ausar Thompson makes the right play. Maybe you want more than that from the No. 5 pick in the NBA draft, and that’s your right.

But teams don’t win — and win big — without the kind of player Thompson has the chance to become. Which is to say, he’ll matter even more on a winning team. He’ll reveal himself more, too.

And if he develops a shot from deep?

That’ll be gravy, and he’ll become a two-way menace. Even if Thompson doesn’t find a jumper, he is showing enough potential everywhere else to be a specific kind of difference-maker.

‘HE’S A SPECIAL TALENT’: Ausar Thompson makes strong impression with Pistons

Yeah, it’s Summer League, and it’s the back half of Summer League, when most of the squad’s top players have put in the requisite time. But the Toronto Raptors were playing their first-round pick, too, and Gradey Dick, taken 13th, is 6 feet 8 and skilled and on the first play of the game on Wednesday in Vegas, as the former Kansas star attempted a jump shot, Thompson was there to meet him.

And swat it away.

A couple plays later, he swiped the ball and a few after that, swiped it again, ran out on the break, tossed it ahead, got the alley-oop back from Marcus Sasser and reverse slammed over the front of the rim.

Anticipation and speed made the sequence happen. Thompson has both.

Like when he spotted a loose ball, wrapped it around his back to escape the defense and as soon as his head was up the ball was out of his hands, cross court, up the court, to a teammate in stride. He was everywhere to start the game, quite literally, guarding Dick, or whomever set the screen on a switch.

When a Raptor attacked the rim and it was his responsibility to protect it, he jumped straight up, two hands, and contested the shot, avoiding the body foul, often causing a miss.

When he played help side defensively, he kept his head on a swivel and when the ball was swung and he had to close out to the shooter, he sprinted, a controlled burst, weight on his tippie toes, small steps, perfectly balanced, hands high.

And then didn’t bite on the fake, giving the shooter no option but to pass back out because he wasn’t about to drive, and why should he?

Thompson has a feel, yes, but that’s a disservice to the obvious work he’s put in on the defensive side, the closeout drills, the contest drills, the hours and hours of shuffling feet and staying wide, the unglamourous work.

Then there is the rebounding — he had a team-high nine rebounds, many of them grabbed in traffic, the kind of rebounds the Pistons too often didn’t get a year ago.

And there is the passing, the playmaking, all of which is critical to winning, which the Pistons did, 94-90, on Wednesday, a comeback, led by Thompson and Sasser’s defense.

Again, it’s Summer League. But some things translate, like vision, and defensive closeouts, and knowing how to crash the boards.

Look, Thompson has much to learn, as any NBA rookie does. He will have his struggles, like all rookies do. He had moments against Toronto, losing the ball of bounds dribbling to the paint, say, or whipping a pass to a teammate that wasn’t quite where he thought he would be.

This wasn’t surprising, either. Wednesday’s game was his first without Jaden Ivey and Jalen Duren and James Wiseman, and he had the ball in his hands more and sometimes tried to do too much. This was rare, though. If anything, he deferred a few times when he shouldn’t have.

For most of the first half, he was reluctant to shoot. His 3-pointer with a second left on the clock to close the half seemed to loosen up his shooting, or at least his choice to shoot.

His deep 3 came because he didn’t have to think about it. That’s key. Heck, that’s always the key with shooters, especially shooters who aren’t high-level shooters, and Thompson isn’t.

He’s got the chance to be a high-level playmaker, though, on both ends, as he was to start the game when the Pistons jumped to a 12-2 lead. Thompson scored just two of the 12 on the reverse alley-oop dunk, but was connected to the other 10 points, and to the Raptors’ lack of them.

His energy and fluidity and quickness are elite. Combine those gifts with effort and maturity and it’s hard to imagine he won’t have moments this winter. A late stop, perhaps, or a push on the break that swings momentum.

Yes, he’ll have nights where he won’t make a shot or won’t even want to take one, and with all the youth around him, it’ll look like a mess. Still, he’s gonna help, as players like him so often do, players that make the game easier for everyone else, players that connect, all game long, play after play after play.

How much he shows as a rookie is hard to say and will depend, in part, on the growth the Pistons are desperately counting on from Cade Cunningham and Ivey and Duren.

What’s not hard to say — or hard to see — is what the Pistons see in Thompson. When he’s on the floor, his team is better.

Sometimes it’s not any more complicated than that.

Contact Shawn Windsor: 313-222-6487 or swindsor@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @shawnwindsor.

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