Race Thompson likes to say that his decision to exit the transfer portal and return to Indiana became relatively easy as he got to know his new head coach.
“I don’t know how you can say no to coach Woodson,” Thompson has said on multiple occasions since announcing his return.
If Thompson is going to continue to say yes to his new coach, you can expect to see new aspects of his game in what will be his fifth year with the program. Or at least he has agreed to try to modify the game we have come to know.
The 6-foot-8 Thompson has developed a reputation as a physical Big Ten power forward. He was top-20 in the league last year in both offensive and defensive rebounding rate, block rate and steal rate, and he was one of the best in the conference at drawing fouls.
In many ways Thompson has sacrificed becoming the player he thought he was out of high school for what the prior coaching staff believed was the betterment of the team. More often than not Archie Miller’s first recruit was in the paint, playing with his back to the basket and setting screens.
“Our offense was just different,” Thompson said of playing under Miller at the Big Ten’s media day earlier this month. “It’s not that I couldn’t do it, it’s just the role that I was in, I was just really focused on doing my best at that role and I was just doing what coach told me to do to win games.”
Part of the appeal to Thompson with playing for Woodson is that he is going to have much less of a defined role on the offensive end of the floor. A lot of coaches talk about positionless basketball, but it has almost become a cliché at this point because it rarely manifests in such simple terms. Players at the college level often do have limitations that tend to land them right back in those traditional positional categories.
Time will tell how Woodson’s vision of offensive basketball plays out at the college level, but his message to Thompson is to forget about pre-defined roles, forget about what you did in the past, and just go play ball.
“‘I just want you to play basketball,” Thompson said was Woodson’s message. “I don’t want you to play anything other than your game. I don’t want you to feel uncomfortable. I don’t want you to do anything that you don’t want to do.”
Although Thompson has attempted just 28 3-pointers (and made just six) in 65 games at IU, and rarely has handled the basketball in the open court, he was often described as a “skilled big-man” coming out of Armstrong High School in the Minneapolis area, a four who could shoot the ball and bring it up the court. You doubt that? Watch this:
Of course Thompson wasn’t facing high-major Division One competition in that video, but there are clear skills there, and a confidence level that we haven’t seen since he arrived in Bloomington.
The Race Thompson he ostensibly became at IU led the remnants of the Miller coaching staff to tell Woodson he was inheriting an old school power forward, and thus someone who probably didn’t fit a four-out wide-open style of basketball.
“When I took the job, some of the coaches that were here, you know, I’m a great listener, I like to pick my coaches,” Woodson said. “I ask about Race. Some of the coaches, ‘Well, he can’t handle the ball that well. You probably don’t want him handling it. Can’t shoot out on the floor. You probably don’t want him.’
“I just squashed all of that because I don’t believe that. As a coach, I feel like I can take a player, like Race, who everybody said can’t make threes, can’t bring the ball up the floor and make plays. Well, it’s my job, your job as a coach on my staff, to get him to do that. That’s what we do as coaches. I think that’s the biggest challenge.”
Make no mistake about it, Woodson isn’t going to live or die with Thompson chucking five 3-pointers a game with the hope that a couple go in. No, what Woodson has been busy doing since he arrived is in essence reprogramming his veteran big man. Before he can even find out what Thompson is capable of in games, Woodson has had to make sure Thompson understands that there are no pre-defined barriers in front of him.
Want to shoot threes? Show me. Want to handle the ball? Show me.
“He told me ‘if you show me you can do this then I’m going to let you do it,'” Thompson said. “He said ‘as long as you show me you can do something I’m not going to limit your game.’ And that was something that was exciting. It’s really what I used to do in high school a lot, so it’s just getting back to my roots.”
As it turns out, Thompson is as guilty as anyone when it comes to how he thinks about himself as a basketball player, and there has been some hesitancy.
The idea is that Thompson is no different than a shooting guard. If he finds himself open on the perimeter, he should shoot it. If he has the ball in the open court, he should advance it.
For four years Thompson’s role was defined for him. This year, he is being told to just go play basketball. Woodson wants his veteran big man to be confident and play free, and at times that has required persistent reminders.
“We watch film before practice and he’ll just keep replaying it, asking me what he wants me to do,” Thompson said of Woodson. “‘What do we want you to do? Shoot it. Shoot it. Shoot it. Shoot it.’ And he’ll just keep playing it over and over and over until I say it loud enough.”
Woodson isn’t just telling Thompson to shoot the ball, he is forcing his hand, designing actions that require him to use his playmaking instincts.
“He’s drawing up a play where I’m coming up off a pin-down (screen), or get the ball on the perimeter and drive down to the baseline and make a pass or shot,” Thompson said. “it just instills confidence when he trusts you to make a play like that.”
Woodson is basically testing Thompson’s limits. He desperately needs a four who can be comfortable out on the perimeter, both as a shooter and someone who can attack off the bounce.
Because of his experience and tough-mindedness, Thompson is the obvious choice to be given every opportunity to be the four Woodson wants and needs. That’s the plan for now, and it can always be adjusted down the road.
“I can always scale back,” Woodson said. “But Race has got to be able to make shots out on the floor and feel good about it, shooting the ball.
More 2021-22 player previews:
- Trayce Jackson-Davis can make major strides even without perimeter shot or right hand
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