Adam Zagoria covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
NEW YORK — When Ro Russell says Tristan Thompson has the potential to be the best forward ever to come out of Canada, he should know.
Russell is the longtime coach of the powerhouse Grassroots Canada AAU program that has produced numerous Division 1 players, including the immensely talented 6-foot-8 Texas freshman out of Brampton, Ontario.
“He could be the best forward [out of Canada],” Russell said. “Steve Nash is the best ever.”
“Those are big shoes to fill,” Thompson said after putting up 20 points, seven rebounds, five blocks and four assists in a 90-84 overtime victory over No. 13 Illinois in the Coaches vs. Cancer event.
“A forward from Canada is Jamaal Magloire [of the Miami Heat] and he’s an NBA All-Star, so I’m just flattered and that just motivates me to work harder every day.”
Texas (3-0) faces unbeaten and No. 5 Pittsburgh (4-0) in the championship game at 7:30 (ESPN2), while Illinois and Maryland meet in the consolation game.
It was difficult to dispute Russell’s assertion Thursday night as Thompson, the former St. Benedict’s Prep star, dazzled in his return to the New York area with an ability to soar over defenders, score with either hand and sink a sweet fadeaway jumper.
“Tristan Thompson’s potential is immense,” said Jonathan Givony, who runs the Website DraftExpress.com and attended the game along with numerous NBA scouts.
“He has all the physical tools you look for in an NBA forward, as well as the work ethic and intangibles you hope to see in a young prospect. His skill-level has improved by leaps and bounds lately, and it will be really interesting to see what kind of progress he can make between now and the end of the season.”
Thompson is averaging 16.3 points and 7.0 rebounds on the young season.
Asked what Thompson’s upside was, Texas coach Rick Barnes said: “There’s no ceiling to it. He continues to get better each and every night he’s gone out. He does some really, really good things on both ends of the court. I’ve said all along, I think his greatest talent is that he can just go forever.
“For a freshman coming in here and doing the things that he’s done up to this point. From Day One, we talked about both he and Cory Joseph are the first guys in the gym every day and the last ones to leave.”
When few other coaches were recruiting in Canada, Barnes and assistant Rodney Terry scouted the Grassroots Canada team during games in the U.S. and also trekked north of the border.
“They tried to get involved with a bunch of kids over the years, Theo Davis and recruited some of the guys in Canada before they had heard about those guys [Thompson and Joseph] when they were young,” Russell said.
“They decided to recruit them right away and develop a relationship with the family.”
Thompson left Canada for St. Benedict’s after his freshman season and Joseph departed for powerhouse Findlay Prep after his sophomore year.
Texas remained in touch throughout.
“They followed them when they went to high school and St. Ben’s and just jumped on it right away hard,” Russell said of Texas.
Thompson committed to Texas during his junior year, while Joseph chose the Longhorns in the spring of his senior season.
Thompson joked that the Canadians were attracted to the climate in Texas.
“I think its’ the heat because it’s very hot [down] there,” Thompson said. “Coach Barnes is a great coach. Texas is a first-class school. How everything is run down there is just really attractive to us and that’s how we ended up there.”
In February 2009, Thompson had a falling out with then-St. Ben’s coach Dan Hurley and subsequently left the school.
“That’s the state of basketball,” Hurley told ZAGSBLOG said at the time. “The kid came here as an unknown kid with potential and as an intelligent kid who is very likable. The problem in our sport now is that as kids get better and as their ranking rises, the people around these kids ruin them.”
That was widely interpreted as a not-so-veiled shot at Russell, who at the time took the high road in his comments.
“[Thompson] has nothing but respect and gratitude for Coach Danny Hurley and his athletic staff and coaches,” Russell said then. “Tristan also maintains a strong relationship with the school master Father Ed [Leahy] as well as the school faculty.”
Thompson landed at Findlay Prep, where he and Joseph helped the team win the ESPN National High School Invitational in April 2009.
Despite what transpired, Thompson said he still has a close relationship with Hurley, now the Wagner College coach.
“After I left St. Ben’s I just wanted to start with a clean slate,” Thompson said.
“Players make mistakes, coaches make mistakes and I just grew from that. I think me and Coach Hurley are even closer than ever.”
Thompson also remains very tight with Joseph, who hit a clutch fallaway jumper to put Texas up 75-73 in the final seconds of regulation.
The chemistry the two have developed over the years has certainly benefitted Texas.
“They’ve been playing with each other since they were freshmen with Grassroots Canada,” Russell said.
“It helps a lot because they’ve developed really good chemistry. They can make plays without having the defense knowing what they’re going to do. Things come quicker, easier, more natural for them.”
Texas will land a third Grassroots Canada player next year when Findlay Prep guard Myck Kabongo joins the Longhorns.
Kabongo briefly rescinded his commitment from Texas and flirted with Duke but quickly changed course once it became clear that top high school recruit Quinn Cook was Durham-bound.
Whether Thompson leaves for the NBA after one or two years remains to be seen, he appears destined for the pros.
Thompson said he looked around at the Clyde Frazier and Willis Reed jerseys inside the Garden Thursday night and was awed.
Some day he hopes to follow those former Knicks, and his fellow Canadian Magliore, into the league, perhaps to finish as the best Canadian forward ever.
Adam Zagoria is a Basketball Insider who covers basketball at all levels. A contributor to The New York Times and SportsNet New York (SNY), he is also the author of two books and is an award-winning journalist and filmmaker. His articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide. He also won an Emmy award for his work on the SNY mini-documentary on Syracuse guard Tyus Battle.
A veteran Ultimate Frisbee player, he has competed in numerous National and World Championships and, perhaps more importantly, his teams won the Westchester Summer League (WSL) championships in 2011 and 2013.
He lives in Manhattan with his wife and children.