Ausar Thompson starred again for Detroit Pistons. But Marcus Sasser is quietly impressive

Detroit Free Press

LAS VEGAS — Ausar Thompson outscored Victor Wembanyama by 18 points Friday night at the Thomas & Mack Center. He outrebounded him by 14 and if you allow a bit of the transitive property to carry over from the NBA Summer League to the NBA’s big-boy league, then the Detroit Pistons just drafted the rookie of the year.

That’s where this is headed, right? After another stellar all-court performance from Thompson? Also: did you see the putback dunk? Where he looked like he jumped off a trampoline? If you didn’t, no worries, the highlight is all over NBA Twitter.

I swore I wasn’t going to write about Thompson again. In fact, this isn’t a column about Thompson at all, it’s about Marcus Sasser, his rookie running mate. And I promise we’ll get to him in a moment.

But as much as I tried to focus on Sasser, and I did, Thompson kept diverting my eyes. I wasn’t alone, judging from the crowd’s collective “Whoa!” a few times over.

As for Wembanyama, his team lost to the Pistons, primarily because of Thompson and Sasser. Of course, his absence probably helped the cause.

The 7-foot-5-inch phenom packed the arena when he debuted with the San Antonio Spurs last week. Lines formed down the steps and spilled into the parking lot. Even Vegas’ apocalyptic temps — that day, it was well over 100; on Friday, 115 was the high — did nothing to keep folks away, but at least it’s a dry heat.

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Perhaps the stories of Wembanyama in the desert is why my editor thought it best to push back my annual Summer League trek to make sure we were still here when the Pistons played the Spurs. A good thought … in theory.

San Antonio shut down the big fella after two games, which, yeah, slightly helped Thompson outscore and outrebound him Friday night. And while the affair still drew a respectable crowd, the hype, understandably, fizzled.

Thompson didn’t mind. He just needs a gym and a hoop and a ball.

Oh, and an opponent. If that opponent runs their mouth? Well, that makes posterizing a little more fun. No wonder he stared down the Spurs after his one-handed, head-at-the-rim putback.

“Had to,” Thompson said. “He’d been talking.”

Sasser, on the other hand, talks very little. (See, I told you we’d get to Sasser).

“A silent assassin type,” Pistons Summer League coach Jarret Jack said of the rookie point guard.

Jack digs the “assassin” part of the phrase, not so much the “silent.”

“He’s a strong, tough kid,” said Jack. “Doesn’t say too much. We’re trying to help him with that, especially having to lead — or maneuver — four other guys on the court.”

Obviously, a point guard has to talk. At the University of Houston, Sasser had other ball handlers around him at times and, hey, it’s college, where the systems are often orchestrated more from the bench.

Right now, Sasser talks more on the defensive end, where he has shown an ability to get into folks in all four games here. That his effort on that end hasn’t suffered despite struggling to shoot from deep — he went 0-for-7 from beyond the arc Friday night and shot less than 20% on 3s in four games — is a good tell.

“That’s a want-to and a care factor that we talk about constantly,” Jack said. “But I think a lot of our guys came with that on their own. That end of the floor is a very selfless place. Not a lot of glory in it. Small things you might do never will get notice, and it’s always about helping somebody else.”

Sasser shot the ball well in college. It’s a big reason the Pistons drafted him. Those numbers generally translate —eventually.

In the meantime, there is work to do on the perimeter learning how to navigate NBA-level ball screens. Which is why Sasser stayed for almost an hour after practice Thursday drilling them again and again with Jack and a couple of other assistants.

Jack wants Sasser to know where his shots will likely come from in games when he has the ball in his hands up top. He is a good midrange shooter off the bounce, and after practice, that’s where he kept shooting from.

Wait for the screen. Dribble around. Rise up. Over and over.

Friday night, after a couple of misses from deep, he called for a screen and got to that same spot from practice. He made it.

“To see it manifest itself, you’re just happy for the kid,” Jack said. “Teaching him the reads, teaching him how to live in the pick-and-roll, which is obviously a high-occupancy set for most teams, whether it’s intentional or by chance, that’s (crucial).”

And rewarding. For the coach. For the player.

“Felt good going in that’s for sure,” he said.

Summer League can be an unrelenting place when you’re struggling. The courts are full of players desperate to make an impression and full of rookies getting their first pro experience. It’s a unique kind of pressure, and confidence can get away in a hurry.

Here in the desert, a bad shooting game can turn into several, as it has for Sasser, which means his late-game midrange jumper and floater attempts over the past couple of outings — shots that have helped the Pistons win twice —reveal a degree of mental toughness.

Playing defense as he has helps, too.

“I feel like if I keep it on the defensive end, it’ll come on the offensive end,” he said.

It’s one thing to say it, though, another thing to do it. Sasser has. It has endeared him to his fellow rookie.

“I love playing with Marcus,” Thompson said, invoking the name of his twin brother, the No. 4 overall pick last month (by the Houston Rockets). “In a way he kind of reminds me of Amen, like the trust we have for each other. We talk (on defense) all game long. He has energy (there) every second.”

As for Sasser’s shooting?

“Shots may not have been falling,” Thompson said, “but from a week in practice? I’ve seen him kill.”

That shot will determine where he lands in the rotation this winter and what kind of role he plays in it. He’ll get a chance at minutes, however, because of his defense.

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

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