The Thompson twins are ready to introduce themselves to the NBA
- Israel Gutierrez is an NBA writer for ESPN.com.
AS FANS BEGIN to slowly trickle into State Farm Arena, their eyes are on the handful of Atlanta Hawks and Boston Celtics who are completing individual pregame routines before Game 3 of the first-round playoff matchup. In the corner of the arena, 6-foot-7 identical twins unassumingly take their courtside seats, trying to go as unnoticed as possible by the early arriving crowd. Still, every few minutes they are interrupted by someone wanting a photo.
It was already quite a different experience from the last time Amen and Ausar Thompson saw an NBA game this close. They were 10 years old then and shared a single lower bowl seat inside Oakland’s Oracle Arena for a Golden State Warriors game, alternating between the good seat they were gifted and their actual spots in the nosebleeds.
Despite having lived in Atlanta for the previous two years while playing for Overtime Elite, the twins hadn’t been to a Hawks game. They’re more comfortable watching the games from home — or putting in work on their own games, which will lead to both of them walking across the stage at Barclays Center as lottery picks in the 2023 NBA draft on June 22 (8 p.m. ET, ESPN).
Two years ago, they bypassed their senior years of high school and entered the upstart Overtime Elite (OTE) program as relative unknowns with tremendous upside. They exit it, after a storybook second season, with a refined set of skills and a growing belief that they’ll have a tremendous impact in the NBA upon their arrival.
“I’m excited for pre-draft,” Ausar told ESPN. “I’m just excited to see how it is, see where I am at draft night, see how much better I’ve gotten.”
Year 2 of OTE for the Thompsons had everything they could’ve asked for — not only in terms of professional development, but a taste of on-court madness that rivaled the NCAA postseason.
There are still questions surrounding the Thompsons, mostly around their jump shots and the level of competition they faced in the OTE program. However, they’re confident they’ve answered those questions with their play, and will continue to answer them throughout the pre-draft process and after they arrive in the NBA to show how the program prepared them.
And as the Hawks and Celtics begin play, Ausar makes the kind of bold declaration that should excite his future fans.
“This is the last time I’m gonna watch a playoff game from here,” he says.
AFTER AMEN AND AUSAR Thompson’s City Reapers team got off to an undefeated start, OTE decided to redistribute some players to make the teams more level.
The twins had played on separate teams in 2021-22, but were teammates in their second year at OTE — a decision that was largely out of their hands, but one thought to be best for their development and to create a better product. However, their team was too dominant to start the season. So they traded their steady point guard, Johned Walker, and rim-protecting big man Somto Cyril (think Ben Wallace with more length) to their OTE rival Cold Hearts for Trey Parker, an explosive guard known for his contest-level dunks who is committed to NC State.
The move temporarily altered the team chemistry, forcing the twins to adjust while defenses were packing the paint and game planning to stop the two of them.
But by the time the Reapers and Cold Hearts met in the playoffs, Amen and Ausar were much more comfortable with the team around them, even if it meant even more defensive and playmaking responsibilities.
The pair had also developed a healthy — and at times a tad nasty — rivalry with Cold Hearts guard Rob Dillingham, a 6-foot-1 Allen Iverson-like shot creator who is on track to play for Kentucky in 2023-24.
During the regular season, the Thompsons teamed up defensively to make life miserable for Dillingham, forcing him into seven turnovers in 15 minutes in the first matchup, and five turnovers in just 10 minutes in the second of three meetings.
None of that stopped Dillingham from spewing some aggressive trash talk in the direction of the twins, telling Amen he won’t do much in the pros. It’s the kind of talk that hits a little harder for the Thompsons, who were the highest profile prospects to choose OTE and will carry the reputation of the program with them into the NBA.
By the time the Reapers were on the verge of sweeping the Cold Hearts in the best-of-three series, the Thompsons were firing back at Dillingham.
“I got an offer from Kentucky, too, you know,” Amen could be heard telling Dillingham, who offered no verbal response and missed a pair of free throws.
The line from Amen was almost as biting as his boxscore line.
He finished with 23 points on 6-of-11 shooting, 11 assists, six rebounds and four steals in 37 minutes. Ausar knocked down five 3-pointers on his way to 26 points, eight assists, five rebounds and two blocked shots as the Reapers moved on to face the YNG Dreamers in the best-of-five OTE championship series.
Dillingham finished with nine points on 2-of-8 shooting and three turnovers in 31 minutes.
This was the Thompsons on a competitive mission. Proving when they play together — which most likely won’t happen in the NBA — they can be destructive.
“Little like a cheat code,” Amen said. “First off, I know he can catch any pass. So you could throw full speed this close to him, he’s going to catch it. So I know as long as I throw it to where nobody else could get it, we’re going to score.
“It’s a lot easier than it was last year for me. I’ve learned how to play without him on the court, too. But at the beginning of the games when we’re trying to kill a team, I’d rather him be on the court, then practice without him off the court for about 20 minutes.”
COURTSIDE AT THE Hawks game, Ausar has a question for which the Internet doesn’t have a satisfactory answer.
“How much does Jaylen Brown weigh?” he asks. “And don’t Google it, ’cause that’s not right.”
The Celtics star was taking shots at the far end of the court, and Ausar insisted Brown was heavier than his listed 223 pounds.
Ausar weighed in at 218 most recently, and Amen at 215. They’ve gained about 25 pounds each since arriving at OTE late in 2021. NBA body types are among their obsessions.
When it’s noted that Jayson Tatum’s added weight seems to come from his broadening shoulders, Ausar chimes in with another similar example.
“That’s what I’ve said about DeJounte Murray — we see him at Target all the time,” Ausar says of the Hawks guard. “He looks like an upside down traffic cone. Like a walking slice of pizza.”
The twins envision how their frames would hold up defending Brown, or how their ball-handling and quickness would allow them to get to their favorite spot on the floor at will, the way Murray does.
Those are thoughts that rattle around the brains of the twins longer than other prospects at this stage. Their confidence coming into the draft process has to come from within, given how many have openly doubted the path they took to get here.
OTE started in 2021 as a program that prepares potential NBA prospects while still offering schooling, life-skills coaching and the option of either accepting a salary or bypassing the money and instead maintaining college eligibility. The twins had a high ceiling, but were raw, most noticeably in their jumpers.
The competition the twins played at OTE was questioned every step of the way, even from those who never watched a minute of it, simply because their roster only ran so deep and included almost all teenagers.
Their draft class features an unprecedented 7-foot-4 talent in Victor Wembanyama, who is considered the No. 1 pick and a can’t-miss franchise changer. There is also G League Ignite’s Scoot Henderson, whose explosiveness as a guard has some comparing him to a young Derrick Rose. Everyone else in the class gets dinged by comparison.
Amen and Ausar, however, have carried an obvious confidence about them since their second and final season at OTE ended in early March.
“They always bring up those names, ‘How you going to pass Victor and Scoot, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah,” Amen said. “And it’s just like, I’m going to do my thing. I’m going to run my race. And I think if I run my race, I’m one of the best players there is.”
IT’S GAME 2 of the OTE Finals, and the City Reapers lead the series after winning the opener by four points.
The Dreamers were the only team to beat the Reapers in the regular season, and their roster is loaded with NBA prospects of its own. Izan Almansa is a 6-11 forward from Spain and Alexandre Sarr is a 7-foot-1 big man from France. Both are projected as first-round picks in Jonathan Givony’s 2024 mock draft. Together they made scoring in the paint a nightmare for Dreamers opponents.
With under three seconds remaining in Game 2, the Reapers came out of a timeout with possession and the score tied 78-78.
Ausar, who was awarded the regular-season MVP award earlier in the playoffs, had already dropped 22 points and could have easily been who the Reapers went to for a game-winning attempt.
Except, Amen remembered a play he saw from LeBron James in a similar situation nearly 10 years earlier in the 2013 Eastern Conference finals with the Miami Heat. Down a point in Game 1 with 2.2 seconds left, James caught the inbound pass from the sideline, pivoted around closing defender Paul George and drove to the basket for a buzzer-beating layup.
In a near replay of that moment, Amen took a sidelines inbound pass from Ausar above the 3-point line. But rather than drop a pass back to his brother on a dribble-hand-off play, Amen pivoted left, took one dribble toward the basket, jumped and maneuvered his body around a leaping Almansa and snuck in a left-handed layup just before the buzzer sounded –a much tougher basket than even the one James hit in 2013.
The rest of the Reapers mauled Amen on the baseline afterward. It was March 3; Amen got a taste of March madness.
The play itself showed off high IQ, a quick first step, athletic ability and deft touch around the rim. But it also displayed self-assurance, despite having gone 3-of-13 from the field before that layup.
“Last year I felt like I could bring the ball to court, but I didn’t know how to lead a team as much,” Amen said. “It’s using my voice, putting people in position, being one with the coach, being one with the team, just trying to control, make sure we get what we need to get done. … I still feel like I still got a lot more I can get better at.”
The twins spent the entire OTE experience balancing personal skill development with trying to win. The two goals don’t always align at this level when all the individuals are trying to shine.
It’s partially why the Thompsons expect to continue to surprise NBA personnel throughout the pre-draft experience.
“I feel like a lot of scouts already know about my vision,” Amen said. “But they don’t know my level of shot creation for myself and getting to my spots, because I didn’t really do that in OTE this year.”
While Amen tends to operate mostly from the top of the circle, Ausar initiates offense more from the wing or elbow. But the assignments remain similar to Amen’s.
“I’m improving on shooting, working on pick and roll reads, just reads in general,” Ausar said. “My ability to get paint touches, collapse the defense and kick it out for others. Then for myself, just getting open and being able to rise up over defenders and hit a jump shot, or get to the cup.”
But anyone who knows anything about the twins is well aware of the one area that requires the most improvement. Outside of them looking identical, and maybe the fact that “Thompson Twins” was also the name of a popular 1980s pop band, there’s one topic that comes up more frequently than any other: their jump shots.
THE BALL IS in Amen’s hands again, with 16 seconds left in Game 3 of the OTE Finals, with the City Reapers trailing 82-81.
This time, with more time to operate than he had in Game 2, and a brother who had made 14 3-pointers over his past four games, Amen decided to look for Ausar and put the “win” in twin.
Ausar took the pass from above the left break and laced a contested 3-pointer that put the Reapers up two. A final desperate Dreamers attempt bounced off the rim, and this time it was Ausar who was mobbed by teammates, getting his taste of madness. They followed him all the way back to the team bench, where they grabbed a broom to celebrate the three-game sweep and an OTE championship, the second for Ausar.
Ausar’s postseason performance settled some of the concerns about his jump shot, but for him and Amen, it remains a main area of focus.
“I used to think my shot, it looked nice,” Ausar said. “I just was making it. And then I learned that I was shooting a different shot every time.”
Pat Quinn is the shooting coach at OTE and has been helping basketball players with their skills since 2005.
He said when he first started working with Ausar, his balance was erratic and his hand placement was less than ideal.
“One big thing with Ausar, all of his misses last year were hard left, off the side of the backboard even,” Quinn said. “He used to hold the ball with his [shooting] thumb almost attached to his hand. We had to really spread it out to have a better balance under it, and now … I showed him the video of all his shots the other night. Four of them were in and out. One wasn’t a great one, but they’re right there. Those will turn into makes.”
Amen didn’t have the 3-point barrage Ausar had in the playoffs, but he’s finding signs in other areas, like the clincher against the Cold Hearts when he went 11-of-11 from the free throw line with rows of NBA scouts lining the crowd.
Given where he came from when he arrived at OTE, it is undeniable progress.
“He was basically shooting a curveball,” Quinn said of Amen’s old jump shot. “I have pictures on my phone of when he was in high school and it was coming off the wrong fingers, and the ball was spinning and his wrist was going a whole different way.
Quinn had to take Amen back to basics, rebuilding his form starting with simple chest passes before graduating to throwing the ball off the backboard, then eventually shooting.
“I give him so much credit, because most players that come here who are already labeled talented, good, would not go back to second grade and be like, ‘All right, I trust you. I’ll go through this process,'” he said. “But both of them very early on realized, ‘For where I want to go, I need this.'”
For Amen, the improvement didn’t translate in games, where he shot 25% from 3 in the regular season and 30% in the playoffs. But on the practice floor, it’s been a different story, where Quinn says Amen has become statistically a better shooter than his brother.
“I’d be scared to look at a video of my shot from the beginning of last year because when I look I just think, ‘What in the world was I doing?'” Amen said. “It was getting my base, getting my elbow up, making it the same shot every time — there was a lot that I had to do.
“I even had to do some stuff this year, too, to be honest. But this year it wasn’t changing my shot more. It was fixing little things. Last year it was fully reworking my shot midseason and I feel like I did it. I came a long way in that aspect. I really believe in my shot.”
Even if Amen is not fully convinced his jumper is NBA ready, Ausar has evidence it can be quite reliable.
“I was looking at someone’s stats earlier today, Jaylen Brown in college, and I saw he shot 64 from free throw, 29 from 3,” Ausar said. “And now he shoots what, 37 from 3?”
Brown is indeed a career 36.5% 3-point shooter. In this Game 3 against Atlanta, he’d go 0-for-4 from 3 and 7-of-15 overall in his team’s loss.
The twins never get too excited watching their future colleagues from up close. They did share an impressed look while Hawks star Trae Young had a fourth-quarter scoring burst, but nothing had them awed. In fact, Ausar spent a decent amount of the second half watching his own workout footage from earlier that day. “I’m checking to see if I hold up my follow through,” he said, insisting the playoff action didn’t bore him.
After two years, they’re as prepared as they can be for a pre-draft experience that will truly show how much they’ve grown.
It’s hard to tell their level of excitement as the two slide out of State Farm Arena as quietly as they came in. Amen and Ausar appear both at peace and especially eager to move on to their next phase. The next time they walk into an NBA arena at game time, they’ll be participating. It’s a thought they couldn’t help but have on the way out. And they know how much these past two years at OTE have helped prepare them for that reality.
“I feel like it was a great move for me because I feel like at college where the coaches need you to win right now, their job is on the line, whole organization is on the line,” Amen said. “You don’t get to develop stuff that you’re not so good at right now.
“But at OTE I get to develop whatever I want to make myself better for the future because I feel like OTE is more of a development league. Even though we got games, we develop and I think that’s one of the more important things for a young basketball player.”
Source: Read Full Article