Though he only logged 19 minutes in his return to the Kansas lineup Thursday night, freshman Bryce Thompson played a starring role in making basketball look easy again for the Jayhawks in a 97-64 dismantling of Iowa State.
With Thompson out due to a broken right finger since Jan. 12, KU hadn’t blown anyone out in even longer. And after missing the 6-foot-5 guard with play-making skills and strong defensive instincts for seven games, the Jayhawks’ first chance to play with him again proved promising for the stretch run ahead.
This didn’t look like a freshman who had only played one game out of the previous 11 due to a couple of injuries. Thompson came out not tentative, but craving the chance to reintroduce himself to the Big 12.
His eight-point, three-assist night off the bench began with Thompson seeking opportunities to attack off the dribble from the perimeter. In his first game action since hearing something “pop” in his hand at Oklahoma State more than four weeks back, Thompson put up four quick points in the first half, but also slid over as a help defender to smack a Tre Jackson layup try out of the air.
Said teammate Jalen Wilson of Thompson’s return: “He gave us great energy. We’ve been missing him.”
Thompson even acted as the primary ball handler late in the first half, when senior Marcus Garrett was on the bench. That led to him feeding Mitch Lightfoot inside for a bucket, but the stretch also included Thompson trying to take on all of the Cyclones by himself, dribbling into a forced turnaround jumper when there were still 15 seconds on the shot clock. It was a decision head coach Bill Self didn’t care for, and Thompson heard about it at the next timeout.
The next time the freshman touched the ball, though, coming off a screen, he went straight to the paint for a floater to score, an example of him remembering the brief shot selection lesson sent his direction during the recent stoppage.
Thompson came through with more unselfish plays for KU (14-7 overall, 8-5 Big 12) in the second half, including a drive where he looked to kick the ball out to Christian Braun for an open 3-pointer instead of trying to go one-one-one himself in the paint. He also dished an assist to David McCormack on another break when his own foray into the paint nearly got knocked away at first. Never lacking confidence, the next trip up the floor Thompson went end to end off a defensive rebound to get to the hoop for his own layup.
His passion for the game came through with every big play he delivered.
“It felt amazing,” a beaming Thompson said about finally returning, during his postgame video interview. “Being away from the game for so long, to get back out there and just compete and to win and hear the crowd — all the little things you kind of take for granted.”
Plenty of KU looking better than it had in weeks had to do with the opponent — ISU fell to 2-13 on the year and 0-10 in Big 12 games. But Thompson’s return played a noticeable factor, as well.
It would’ve been reasonable to have low expectations for what a freshman guard coming back off of so much missed time and playing with a fingerless protective glove on his shooting hand could provide.
But the outlook for how much he can help this KU team changed immediately shortly after he stepped onto the court versus ISU.
And according to Self, Thompson set himself up for success in recent weeks, allowing him to play assertively and with poise.
“He’s a student. He studies. He watches,” Self said. “When he came on his official visit (as a high school recruit from Tulsa, Okla.) and we were practicing, he was walking up the sideline, up and down, to make sure he heard every word that every coach was saying to everybody as we practiced that day.”
That’s when Self first learned how much Thompson “cares” and wants to learn.
“He’s been that way also since he’s been out,” Self said of Thompson’s approach while sidelined during recent weeks. “He was not a thinker tonight. He was more (reactive). Most guys that had been out that long would’ve been a thinker.”
Thompson thought he was “pretty good” in his return. But he also quickly brought up some botched defensive assignments he wanted to go back and review, to prep for the rematch at ISU on Saturday.
This week and next will be crucial for Thompson to get himself totally reacclimated for KU’s stretch run of the season, with games at ISU and Kansas State followed by matchups with Texas Tech, Texas and Baylor.
“Games like (Thursday’s) where we’re a lot better than the (opponent), it helps me to be able to stay out there, get my flow, get everything good,” Thompson said, adding the first thing he needed to do following the win was take an ice bath and get his body “back right.”
The Jayhawks, who went 5-5 without Thompson, could actually turn this season around with him. It won’t be easy like it was against the Cyclones, but his cerebral approach and love for the game will inject some life into a rotation that has missed him more than many onlookers probably realized.
“I see Bryce playing an integral role in our success the rest of the season,” Self said, sharing Thompson may also be the team’s best passer off of ball screens. “Bryce plays with a smile on his face. He’s got personality. He plays with energy.”
Thompson set the bar high for himself in his return. And that’s just the type of player KU needs heading toward the close of the regular season.
Bill Self isn’t the type to coach one of his Jayhawks up to the point that the player is pretty good on the basketball court and call it a job well done. And that’s why Self is expecting more out of freshman Bryce Thompson in January, February and March.
The highest rated prospect in the Jayhawks’ 2020 recruiting class, Thompson has had his moments for Kansas through the first nine games on the schedule.
In his collegiate debut against top-ranked Gonzaga, Thompson scored 12 points off the bench and shot 5-for-10 from the floor, with a couple of steals, one block and an assist.
In the Jayhawks’ most recent win, the 6-foot-5 guard from Tulsa, Okla., scored all four of his points in the midst of a late second-half run that buried West Virginia.
As with most freshmen, though, there have been downs to accompany those ups. Thompson went 0-for-9 and finished scoreless against the defensive length of Kentucky. A few weeks back, during a rout of outmatched Omaha, Thompson went 1-for-8. It’s those two games in particular that are skewing his season shooting percentage — 37.5% from the floor — in the wrong direction.
Back to the positives, though, because this is a young player that just seems to be going through a cold streak of late (2-for-13 field goals, 1-for-6 3-point shooting in KU’s last three games).
Here’s what Thompson’s done well to date in a KU uniform, as Self sees it:
• “I think his defense has been pretty good.”
• “I think he’s been a good blend guy for the most part.”
• “I thought he shot the ball pretty well early.”
• “I think he’s made some plays that we had to have made at very crucial times — primarily the Creighton game.” (You may recall that’s the game in which Thompson replaced Ochai Agbaji in crunch time and made a key pass late.)
But his coach knows there is one area in particular where Thompson can provide the Jayhawks with much more, too.
“He hasn’t shot the ball well of late like he’s capable of — at all,” Self said.
Given the confidence with which Thompson (5.4 points per game in 17.4 minutes) carries himself on the court and the stroke on his jumper, his 5-for-19 (26.3%) 3-point shooting in November and December is one of the more surprising developments of the young season.
Agbaji, KU’s top marksman (24-for-54 on 3-pointers) entering Saturday’s game versus Texas, agreed that Thompson is a better 3-point shooter than he has shown in games so far. But Agbaji also praised Thompson’s ability as a scorer.
“Attacking off the dribble, I think his first step is one of his better attributes that he has,” Agbaji said. “His first step and the way he gets to the paint and plays off two feet is good.”
Mid-range jumpers aren’t for everybody, but Thompson does look comfortable firing when he’s open around the elbows. In the expanse of the floor between the rim and the 3-point arc, Thompson is 11-for-21 on the year, per hoop-math.com. His 52.4% accuracy on 2-point jumpers leads the team.
Eventually — and this may not come until he’s a sophomore or junior — KU would love to have Thompson scoring at all three levels. For the moment at least, just like most freshmen, he’s adjusting.
“I think the game is in fast forward a little bit right now for him,” Self said. “They have that expression: the longer you play the game the slower the game becomes. And I think the game right now is kind of in fast forward. It’s just a matter of time before he slows it down a little bit on the offensive end.”
Veteran big David McCormack thinks Thompson isn’t far away from delivering a breakout game.
“He’s right there. Bryce is one of those kids who kind of reminds me of myself,” McCormack said. “Harder, faster, stronger is kind of like his mantra. It may not be what he needs to do (at the time), but he always gives it his all.”
Self said Thursday Thompson "dinged" his back but was expected to be going at full speed by Friday. Prior to that, KU's coach has liked the way Thompson has defended and fit in. If the only knock on the freshman is the game is sped up for him right now, as Self said, that’s correctable. And it’s hard to knock a learning young player who is giving effort.
“I think the thing he’s done pretty well is be solid,” Self said. “But good players, sometimes solid isn’t good enough. And I think he’d be the first to tell you, he’s got a lot more that he can give.”