Tristan Thompson has a guiding principle that, in many ways, has steered his NBA career.
It’s simple. It springs easily to mind. And it derives from Mike Brown, who coached the veteran center in Cleveland during the 2013-14 season, Thompson’s third in the league.
“Mike Brown always told me: ‘You want to be a player that (a) coach can plug in in any scenario,’” Thompson told reporters after Wednesday’s practice, his first media session since signing with the Chicago Bulls. “(When) coaches have to draw up stuff for you, draw up plays for you or tailor-make situations for you to be successful, it’s hard for guys. Not every team can use them…
“I've made a niche for myself in this league by being one of those guys you can just plug in there and go out and play.”
That’s what the Bulls will need the 11th-year big man, who brings high-level rebounding, energy and championship experience to a group with lofty postseason aspirations — but was thin on frontcourt depth before plucking Thompson off the free-agent market, and has slipped to 20th in defensive rating with key injuries across the board.
“I'm a guy that just plays hard each and every night. Kind of like how the old-school bigs played. Punch in that clock, be a workhorse, do whatever it takes to win,” Thompson said. “Whether it's set screens, dive for loose balls, finish around the rim. Whatever my team needs to win, that's all that matters. So I think I'll mesh pretty well with this group.”
The Bulls, as of the All-Star break, rank fourth in defensive rebounding rate, but 29th in offensive rebounding rate — and even that former figure craters in the minutes that Nikola Vučević, who averages 11.7 boards (fifth in the NBA) per game, rests and gives way to either Tony Bradley or one of the undersized Tyler Cook or Derrick Jones Jr. So Thompson’s work on the glass will be needed off the bench.
Head coach Billy Donovan also has a high opinion of Thompson’s ability to protect the rim, finish at the basket, set screens, defend pick-and-roll actions and communicate, both on and off the court. The two have known each other since Donovan attempted to recruit Thompson to Florida in the late aughts — only to have Thompson choose Texas over Florida.
“I saw him play in high school, and then obviously followed his career. (I’ve) always admired how competitive and tough he was,” Donovan said. “Just a lot of the dirty work things that he's done throughout his career that really impact winning.
“The ability to talk and communicate is really impressive. The physicality around the basket, the defense, the screening. A lot of times guys don't get a lot of recognition and credit for that stuff. I think he's one of those guys, you watch him, he's always been a team guy his whole entire career. It's like, what can he do to help the team. I've always had great respect for him.”
But Thompson’s voice could be his most impactful skill of all as this group braces for its first playoff run together, bolstered by the experience of Alex Caruso and DeMar DeRozan, but also staffed with multiple key players who have never seen NBA postseason action, from Lonzo Ball to Zach LaVine to Coby White and Ayo Dosunmu.
"He's got a wealth of experience, if you look at his career. And he's also got a good way about him as well," Donovan said of Thompson, noting that his approachable nature makes him a natural locker-room fit. "I think he can talk about his experiences of where he's been at, teams that he's been on that have won at a really high level. I think all those experiences being shared will be helpful."
“I would be doing everyone a disservice if I wasn't going to bring that to the table and I wasn't going to be myself,” Thompson said of sharing lessons from his 83 games of playoff experience, which is more than anyone else on the Bulls and features a championship with the 2016 Cavaliers. “If you ask anyone that's played with me or been around me, I'm a vocal person. I'm gonna say what's best for the team because I've been part of championship-level teams, won a championship, played with Hall-of-Fame players and took stuff that I learned from them, and I think it's only fair and right in this game of basketball, you've gotta pay it forward.
“It's only right that I share that wisdom to the younger generation, and if I can help whoever is on this team to get one percent better with what I bring to the table then I've done a good job.”
Thompson flashed a wide grin for the majority of his media session, and played the hits. He took an anti-deep dish pizza stance, jokingly deflected a question about non-Bulls free-agent suitors to his agent, called DeRozan the league MVP, and even fondly reflected on past postseason bouts with the Bulls during the Tom Thibodeau era.
“Feeling the energy in the United Center is something, at this point in my career, if I can be a part of that and help this team reach some of their goals this season, which I know is definitely the playoffs and beyond,” he said.
As for Thompson’s impressions of this year's Bulls? He wouldn’t be here if he didn’t like what he saw from afar — or envision championship-contender potential.
“There's a lot of potential here,” Thompson said, citing (deep breath) Zach LaVine’s effortless offensive prowess, Lonzo Ball’s status as a “walking triple-double,” DeRozan’s midrange mastery, Vučević’s versatility, Javonte Green’s energy, Coby White’s “firecracker” scoring ability, and on and on.
“All those pieces are what you need to be one of the last teams dancing. The key is gonna be can we put it all together.”
With the 23-game stretch run beginning Thursday against the Hawks, we’re about to find out.