Ausar Thompson’s athletic skills dazzled former longtime NBA player: ‘It’s rare’

Detroit Free Press

Damien Wilkins took a moment to catch up with a longtime friend this July during summer league in Las Vegas.

Wilkins — Overtime Elite general manager, former NBA veteran and one-time Detroit Piston, son of 13-year NBA pro Gerald Wilkins and nephew of Hall of Famer Dominique Wilkins — has known Jarrett Jack since the two competed against each other as high school standouts in Georgia.

Jack, a former NBA vet himself who joined Monty Williams’ coaching staff this offseason and coached their summer league team, had inquiries about the Pistons’ latest lottery pick, Ausar Thompson.

“He would ask me things like what are his strengths, what are his weaknesses, how can I get him the ball,” Wilkins recalled in a phone interview with the Free Press on Thursday. “I would just tell him, ‘Just put him on the floor. Just put him in the game. They are basketball players, Ausar and Amen. They’re basketball players. You put him on the floor and a lot of good things are going to happen.’”

Ausar Thompson rose toward the top of the Pistons’ draft big board over the last year following two standout seasons with Overtime Elite, an Atlanta-based professional league founded in 2021 that provides basketball prospects between the ages of 16 and 20 an alternative path to the NBA. The Pistons selected him fifth overall. Ausar’s twin brother and OTE teammate, Amen, was drafted one spot higher by the Houston Rockets.

Wilkins has been with OTE since the start, serving as Dean of Athlete Experience and Culture during Year 1 before being promoted to GM in Year 2. He’s well-acquainted with the twins, who he also visited during his Vegas trip.

Wilkins’ advice to Jack was sound, as Thompson was very productive in Vegas. Through four games, he averaged 13.5 points, 10 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 2.3 steals and 1.8 blocks. His athleticism popped — he brought the Thomas & Mack Center crowds to its feet with a pair of highlight dunks that spread across social media. He wreaked havoc defensively, floating through screens as though he possessed the power of intangibility. His floor vision made him one of the team’s best playmakers. He was second on the roster in rebounds per game, despite standing 6 feet 7.

“Those winning plays, 50-50 balls, trench rebounds, cutting, pushing the basketball, making the extra pass, sacrificing himself in some instances to cut so someone can get the extra pass on the backside, that’s something you can’t teach,” Jack said after Thompson’s debut, in which he tallied seven points, nine rebounds, three assists and three blocks. “That’s something that we want to be a part of and something that he is. I’m excited for his growth.”

The Pistons have high expectations for Ausar, who they believe has all of the tools necessary to become an Andre Iguodala-like lockdown defender and Swiss Army knife on offense. Everything Wilkins has seen thus far leads him to a similar conclusion.

“A lot of positive things are going to transpire throughout the game with (the twins) on the floor because they do so many things,” Wilkins said. “They take pride in defense. They take pride in locking their guys down. They take pride in making their teammates better. They take pride in making the right play. They take pride in playing hard. Just those abilities alone, the skillset alone, make them net positives when they get on the floor.

“It’s no surprise to me that they’ve played as well as they have played so far. And I expect them to continue that once the season starts.”

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‘God sprinkled a little extra on them’

David Leitao’s lengthy coaching career includes stops at Northeastern, DePaul, Virginia and the G League. He joined OTE before its first season and coached Ausar both years, first with Team Elite and then with the City Reapers.

“Once we get to 2024 it’ll be my 40th year coaching basketball,” Leitao told the Free Press. “I say this a little bit jokingly, but 90% truthfully that every week, he did two or three or four things that I’d never seen before.”

Ausar terrorized opposing offensive players both in OTE and Vegas. He has a knack for anticipating where players will go, and then beating them there. He blocked multiple jump shots during summer league. Toronto Raptors sharpshooter and 13th overall pick Gradey Dick scored 22 points against the Pistons, but Thompson hounded him into making just eight of his 19 shot attempts (42.1%) and two of 10 3-pointers.

Wilkins theorized if Ausar and his brother alone faced a team of five players, they’d be able to keep the score close for at least six minutes due to their IQ and the ground they’re able to cover. He watched them take over games through sheer defensive will, even when they struggled to hit shots.

Both players were stat sheet-stuffers at OTE, and Ausar averaged 16.3 points, 6.1 assists, 7.1 rebounds, 2.4 steals and 1.1 blocks per game last season. The blocks and steals speak to his defensive effort and instincts.

“The things I’ve seen them do both on film and in person, just how fast twitch they are, their reaction time, the ground that they cover, all of those athletic abilities and knowing the game, knowing the cutoff angles, seeing things before they happen, those are uncanny instincts and fast twitch things that they do, and people just don’t have,” Wilkins said. “It’s rare. God sprinkled a little extra on them. Their bodies, their legs, how muscular they are, these guys are just freak athletes and they used their athleticism well where they’re not just jumpers. You see how some guys that can jump really high, that’s all you really see them do from an athletic standpoint.”

Thompson’s defense was a key selling point to the Pistons. GM Troy Weaver said the rookie is “physically ready,” and he believes the Pistons’ eventual turnaround will be because of what they’re able to accomplish on the defensive end. Beyond his physical profile, Thompson’s intelligence and want-to on that end of the floor helped to separate him from the pack.

“The athleticism is certainly going to take them really, really far,” Wilkins said. “But their basketball IQ and their ability to use that athleticism to do other things on the court and dominate in other ways on the court is going to take them even further.”

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‘They just had it’

Immediately after games, Wilkins would often see Amen and Ausar in the locker room or training room, still wearing their sweat-drenched jerseys, watching footage of their performance. Their priority was self-correcting their mistakes, even after strong outings.

“I would always go up to them and say, ‘Have you guys even eaten yet?’” Wilkins said. “‘Have you guys showered yet?’ One time, we planned on leaving the building because we had to get out of there, and it was just constant. That consistent wanting to get better, wanting to know how to improve, wanting to learn and know about the flaws in their games so they could be better the next time. Those are things that you see in people that you know that they just are different.”

He quickly learned the twins are not only basketball junkies, but had an unrelenting desire to master their crafts. They trained in the gym sometimes four times a day in preparation for the NBA draft. And they used Wilkins as a resource, drawing from his experience to prepare for the journey ahead of them.

“Just some of the questions that they would ask about the game, about guys that I played against, how I defended, ways that you can score and things of that nature,” he said. “You can tell they just soaked up all the information. Some guys, when you talk to them you can look at them and tell that they’re really not listening. They hear you, but they’re not listening. Whereas Amen and Ausar, this thing about them is when you’re talking to them, especially about basketball and ways to improve, they’re almost looking through you trying to comprehend what you’re saying. You can see it registering in their mind. You can almost tell from the conversation that these guys are about to go out here and practice this as soon as this conversation ends.”

The twins share the same weakness — their outside shooting. Ausar is ahead of his brother, but still only knocked down 29.8% of his 3s during the regular season. He worked with his coaches and trainers to reconstruct his shot mechanics. Leitao says his jumper now has less hitches, and he gets it off quicker. He’s more cognizant of tucking his right elbow in. But the biggest difference is his self-confidence, Leitao said.

His work paid off in the playoffs. Thompson knocked down 15 of 39 attempts, including the winning 3-pointer in Game 3 of the OTE Finals that clinched an 84-82 win and the title.

“There’s no better story to tell than that, but then there’s no better and no fitting opportunity to display what two years went into to create that moment for himself and for his team,” Leitao said.

Wilkins said Ausar’s drive and work ethic was evident from Day 1. You don’t have to tell him to do things; he does them. He’s fueled by competitiveness. Neither Wilkins nor Leitao took credit for the twins’ rise to the top of the draft.

They did it themselves.

“It’s hard for me to take a whole lot of credit for the things that they just naturally do, and that’s just work their butts off,” Wilkins said. “And they’re extremely focused and disciplined in that regard and it’s rare that you have guys that work the way that they do, that have studied the game the way they do. It’s no surprise to me that they went where they went, actually. I’m totally not surprised at all. They just had ‘it.’ They had that thing that a lot of people just don’t have, and whatever happens in their career, I know good things are going to happen in their career. It’s going to be extremely deserved.”

Contact Omari Sankofa II at osankofa@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @omarisankofa.

Catch “The Pistons Pulse” draft reaction Friday morning live on YouTube or on demand later in the day wherever you listen to podcasts. Catch all of our podcasts and daily voice briefing at freep.com/podcasts.

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