76ers film review: Inventing Hollis Thompson

The 76ers' Hollis Thompson. (Chris Szagola/AP)

After two almost unprecedented blowout losses, the Sixers can only take solace in that Michael Carter-Williams is probably the lone future building block in the team’s current rotation. He’ll be joined by Nerlens Noel on that short list if his former AAU teammate suits up this season.

The rest of this year’s team can be divided into two groups: The three “veteran” starters — Thaddeus Young, Spencer Hawes, and Evan Turner — and young players trying to carve out an NBA niche.

Of that second group, 22-year-old rookie Hollis Thompson has been a pleasant surprise. Virtually unknown when he walked into the team’s September media day, Thompson leads the Sixers in effective field goal percentage. A D-Leaguer last season, he’s quietly making a case that he belongs in the NBA.

“Quietly” is the operative word, because it’s pretty remarkable how little Thompson shoots the ball. The only player who has logged more minutes and used (shot the ball, drawn a foul, or turned it over) less of his team’s possessions while on the floor is Gerald Wallace, who actively doesn’t try to shoot.

To be clear: Thompson’s reluctance isn’t a positive and he’s far from guaranteed a place in the NBA going forward. Still, he’s made progress and some of his advanced metrics are pretty good.

While Thompson is receiving the opportunity to break into the NBA on a bad team, his ceiling is probably a role player on a good one. More specifically, he could potentially provide a contender with three-point shooting and strong perimeter defense against opposing scorers, a “3-and-D“ player.

Examples of 3-and-D players that have helped teams win titles are Bruce Bowen, Trevor Ariza and Shane Battier. For Thompson, who is battling to stick around in the NBA, those players should be the ultimate goal. Over the season’s last 29 games, he should be working on the two tenets of 3-and-D.

1. Making spot-up threes. Thompson’s best skill is the ability to knock down open shots. During his final year at Georgetown, he shot 43 percent on a boatload of three-point attempts (58-135, to be specific).

If that level of marksmanship carried over to the next level, Thompson would have something to hang his hat on. Alas, he’s only making 36 percent of his threes, which is around the league average. It’s weird, but Thompson mainly has to improve his best skill.

Three-point specialists aren’t shot creators in the traditional sense, but their ability to draw a defender away from the paint can be invaluable to their teammates. By and large, Thompson hasn’t been enough of a threat to warrant the defense’s attention. Take a look at how far Patrick Patterson sinks into the paint against this fairly contained Lorenzo Brown drive.

Now look at how much Deron Williams strays off Thompson to offer extra resistance against a Lavoy Allen roll to the basket.

Finally, see how LeBron James totally disregards Thompson in favor of surrounding Carter-Williams.

Thompson missed all three of these wide-open looks, and he’s only shooting 17-54 on spot-up threes, per Synergy. That’s simply far too low. After a cold start, Thompson’s three-point percentage has improved every month he’s played. He needs for that positive trend to continue.

2. Continue to defend wings well. At six-foot-eight, Thompson has the frame to be the type of player that enjoys a decade-long NBA career. And while not a great athlete, it’s evident that he plays with maximum effort.

The conventional wisdom is that at 206 pounds, Thompson could stand to add strength. From what I’ve seen, though, he already holds his own pretty well against the league’s stronger small forwards. He’s only surrendering a respectable .76 points per possession in isolation situations.

A few extra pounds wouldn’t hurt, but Thompson already seems to understand some of the nuances of perimeter defense. Generally, he’s happy to sag off a little bit and contest a jumper off the dribble with his length.

Thompson is never going to be an Iguodala-type force defensively, but it’s impressive how fundamentally sound he is. It’s rare to see a player his size routinely in a defensive stance. Even shots that are made against Thompson tend to be of the difficult variety.

Not all of Thompson’s defense is positive. The Sixers actually surrender five more points per 100 possessions when he’s on the floor. Off the ball, Thompson could use major work with rotations, but it’s tough to be too harsh on him considering two factors: One, he’s a rookie just learning the ropes and two, he’s playing on a terrible team defensive unit that routinely gets destroyed by threes.

Thompson is far from assured to stick around past this year, but he definitely has a chance. As the Sixers’ season has turned extremely bleak, the undrafted rookie trying to gain his NBA footing is currently one of the only positive stories worth monitoring.

Rich Hofmann Jr. can be contacted @rich_hofmann.

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