For most rebuilding teams, a No. 4 overall pick is a scarce commodity, a player whose strengths and weaknesses you take into consideration when building the rest of your roster in order to put him in the best position to succeed. But when you have four top-four picks in three seasons, like the Cleveland Cavaliers, they become a little more expendable. Kyrie Irving is the franchise player; everyone else, no matter how high a selection, has to fit around him.
Tristan Thompson, the No. 4 pick in 2011, was never expected to carry the franchise. He was drafted to be Kyrie's defensive-minded sidekick, someone who could anchor the defense and be a finisher on the pick-and-roll. Still only 22 as he heads into his third season, he's established himself as a legitimate NBA player with a promising future.
However, with so many talented young players in Cleveland, his place in the Cavaliers' long-term plans is unsettled.
An athletic 6'9, 230-pound power forward with a 7'1 wingspan, Thompson came into the league with an NBA-ready body, as well as a willingness to bang in the paint. Although he isn't the most skilled player with the ball in his hands, he can be a difference-maker on the glass and defensively. After struggling through a difficult rookie campaign without much talent around him, he began to blossom last year, averaging 12 points, nine rebounds and one block per game on 49 percent shooting.
Interestingly enough, Thompson played his best basketball in the second half of the season when Anderson Varejao was sidelined. Thompson, like Varejao, is a much more efficient player when he can play closer to the rim. Last season, he shot 36 percent from outside of 10 feet. Defenses don't have to respect him on the perimeter, which makes him much less valuable when paired with another non-shooting big man. He had a 16.6 PER as a power forward and a 20.6 as a center.
Like most athletic young big men, Thompson came into the NBA needing to improve his jumper. Unlike most athletic young big men -- or anyone else, really -- his solution is a bit unorthodox. After playing as a left-hander his entire career, Thompson has decided to shoot with his right hand going forward. It's hard to know what to make of the move, since it's unprecedented. At FIBA Americas this summer, he averaged 12 points a game on 40 percent shooting, although he did shoot 79 percent from the free throw line.
It wasn't an academic decision either. The ability to knock down 15-foot jumpers will make or break Thompson's time in Cleveland. With Andrew Bynum and Varejao expected to play big roles this season, the paint will be much more crowded. Even if both struggle with injuries again, Thompson isn't a long-term answer at center. He's just not big enough to match up with giants like Roy Hibbert and Andre Drummond. In 2013, opposing centers posted a 22.8 PER against him.
Prior to this year's draft, I expected Cleveland to take Alex Len with the No. 1 overall pick, primarily because of his fit up front. If you are committed to Thompson as your power forward of the future, you need to find a center whose game complements his skills. Len is a big seven-footer who can function as a shot creator and a floor spacer; Nerlens Noel, in contrast, would have replicated Thompson's rebounding, shot-blocking, lack of a post game and inability to stretch the floor.
Instead, the Cavs surprised everyone by bypassing both centers and taking UNLV PF Anthony Bennett. And while Bennett and Thompson have a Canadian connection off the court, they aren't natural fits on it. At UNLV, Bennett played primarily as a small-ball power forward, a 6'8, 240-pound mismatch nightmare with the ball-handling and shooting ability to devastate bigger players off the dribble. If they're both on the floor, either Bennett is defending small forwards or Thompson is defending centers.
Bennett could play as a small forward, at least for stretches, but that's not the direction the NBA is going. In the NBA Finals, the San Antonio Spurs and Miami Heat benched their conventional power forwards and played as small as possible in order to get more shooting on the floor. With floor spacing at a premium, Bennett's shooting is a better complement to Irving and Dion Waiters than Thompson's ability to finish at the rim, especially if Mike Brown is committed to playing a more conventional center.
Thompson doesn't have to become a stretch 4, but he has to be a release valve in the half-court offense. While he would have projected as a good power forward a decade ago, the rise of 4-out basketball is changing what a good power forward is being asked to do.
As talented as Thompson is, he isn't big enough to be a center and he isn't a good enough shooter to play on the perimeter. His decision to change his shooting hand isn't just bold; it's necessary. If it doesn't work, he may not be long for Cleveland.