Bryce Thompson exceeds expectations in return, raising KU's ceiling for stretch run
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.