By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — He grew up in a household where his father loved to point out how Magic Johnson could dominate a game without scoring 30 points. It was no surprise, then, that at an early age Darius Thompson gained an appreciation for the nuances of basketball.
“Darius has always been a unique kid,” said his father, Lonnie Thompson, head coach of the men’s team at Cumberland University in Tennessee.
It didn’t hurt that Darius was a coach’s son. More important, though, he was “a son that listened to his daddy about being fundamentally sound,” Lonnie Thompson said. “He’s always had basketball knowledge.”
By the time he reached high school, the younger Thompson said, “I felt like I knew so much more than other kids around me, just because I’d been around the game. Like coming in and watching film, I’ve been doing that since I was a little kid, watching with my dad, watching his teams play.”
Thompson’s high basketball IQ was among the reasons UVa’s coaching staff became enamored with the 6-4 guard from Blackman High School in Murfreesboro, Tenn. As a Blackman senior in 2012-13, Thompson averaged 16.4 points, 6.4 assists, 3.6 rebounds and 2.3 steals for a team that finished 30-1.
“We all said the same thing when we watched him: `Boy, he’s really talented,’ ” recalled Virginia associate head coach Ritchie McKay, who as a Bradley assistant in the early `90s got to know Lonnie Thompson, then an assistant at Creighton.
“We felt like it was going to be hard to get him out of the SEC or out of the Southeast, and it was.”
In March 2013, Thompson committed to Tennessee after also considering such schools as UVa, Alabama, Auburn and Vanderbilt. As a freshman, he started 10 games for a deep, talented team that, like Virginia, advanced to the NCAA tournament’s Sweet Sixteen.
Thompson, who averaged 2.6 points and 2.0 rebounds in about 17 minutes per game, led the Volunteers in steals (36) and was second in assists (87).
“Unfortunately, we didn’t get him the first time around,” said McKay, but the Cavaliers’ patience was rewarded in May when Thompson decided to transfer to UVa.
“Coming out of high school, I really liked Virginia, I really liked Coach Bennett,” Thompson said this week at John Paul Jones Arena. “I just felt like I wasn’t ready to make that move so far away from home. I just wanted to stay close. And then going to college, you realize you really don’t ever get a chance to go home.”
Had Cuonzo Martin remained at Tennessee, Thompson probably would have stayed in Knoxville. In April, though, Martin headed west to become California’s head coach, and “when he decided to leave, I just felt like it was time for me to relocate as well,” Thompson said.
“Once I decided to open back up and Virginia decided to recruit me again, it was just a blessing to get a chance to go to a place I felt really comfortable with coming out of high school. I already knew the head coach, so I felt like coming to Virginia was a great fit for me.”
When coaches from other schools asked him why his son chose the Cavaliers, Lonnie Thompson said, “I say because they had a prior relationship with Darius. I tease Tony about it all the time. I say, `Tony, I don’t know why he likes you so much, but there was always a connection.’ Maybe because they’re both sons of coaches.”
As chance would have it, Thompson and the Wahoos found themselves in the same arena twice last season.
The first time was for the Dec. 30 regular-season game between UVa and Tennessee in Knoxville. In the Vols’ 87-52 rout — the low point of Virginia’s season — Thompson hit the only shot he took and also had two rebounds, two assists and no turnovers in 13 minutes off the bench.
“I guess that game, either Virginia was off or we were just playing really well at that time,” Thompson said. “I guess we just caught them at a good time when we played them.”
There was no rematch later in the season, but both teams ended up at PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C., on the first weekend of the NCAA tournament. On March 23, Tennessee hammered Mercer 83-63 to advance to the Sweet Sixteen. Later that night, Virginia pummeled Memphis 78-60.
“After we played Mercer, we watched a little bit of the UVa-Memphis game, and UVa just dominated that game,” Thompson said. “It seemed like they ran everything right. They were making great plays as a team. I was watching them and looking at them and really liked how they were playing.”
Thompson’s father has long preached the importance of excelling at both ends of the court, and the Vols, like the Cavaliers, were known for their stingy defense last season.
“At Tennessee, that’s all there was, defense,” Thompson said. “Our motto was, If you play defense, the offense will come. So coming here to Virginia, Coach Bennett’s system is run the same way, so I feel like I’m better prepared for it now after a year with Coach Martin.”
Under NCAA rules, Thompson must sit out the coming season, but he can practice with the team and train with strength and conditioning coach Mike Curtis. For encouragement and advice, Thompson need look no further than three of his new teammates: Brogdon, Gill and Hall.
Brogdon and Gill sat out the 2012-13 season, the former while recovering from a foot injury and the latter after transferring to UVa from South Carolina. Hall redshirted in 2013-14, his first year at Virginia.
“I was worried about sitting out and how that would affect my game,” Thompson said, “but talking to Coach Bennett, he said how Malcolm improved in his redshirt year and how A.G. improved, and when I first got here, I started talking to Devon, because I knew he sat out last year. But he just told me it really benefits you more than you think. You get to learn the system, work out in the weight room as hard as you can, and the year you sit out is going to really help you out.”
Gill, a 6-8 forward from Charlotte, N.C., will attest to that.
“This is a big year for him,” Gill said. “It was a big year for me, being able to get your skills right and to own your skills, and that’s one of the things that I really wanted to do when I was sitting out. So I really want to get that into his head, so he can really work on his game.”
At 185 pounds, Thompson is “a little bit on the slight side,” Bennett said, “so he has a chance to really develop his body and his athleticism and his strength with Coach Curtis. That’s invaluable to have that year. We’ve seen that play out with [former UVa star] Mike Scott and certainly A.G. and Malcolm.”
In a five-on-five scrimmage during practice Tuesday at JPJ, Thompson drove in from the left wing and, unimpeded, threw down an emphatic dunk. He’s a good athlete with long arms, but Thompson “plays the game with his mind instead of his body first,” his father said.
“I told him back a few years ago, not knowing what level he would end up playing at in college, I said, `Darius, when your body catches up to your mind, you’re going to be a very good player. Most of the time it’s the other way around.’ Darius is not going to come into his true body until he’s about 21 years old. He’s a late developer.”
Thompson shot 74.2 percent from the free-throw line as a Tennessee freshman. His percentages from 3-point range (19.5) and the floor (38.1) were less impressive, and he’s determined to raise them.
“I feel like I’m a lot better at shooting than I showed last year,” Thompson said. “I just feel like last year, I guess I didn’t have the confidence to shoot, because I felt like I was the youngest [player on the court]. But I’m putting that aside now and coming up here and working on it. I’ve really got to improve my jump shot.”
Tennessee listed him as a point guard, but Thompson is comfortable playing off the ball, too.
“I really say I’m just a guard,” he said. “I like making plays as if I’m a point guard, but I’m just going out there to play basketball. Whatever position I’m put at, I’m going to be happy.”
The `Hoos are happy to have him, especially given the success their other SEC transfer has had in Charlottesville.
“In Anthony’s case, it’s worked out exceptionally well, and I think Darius will be right behind him,” McKay said. “You don’t recruit transfers, so to speak, but maybe you wait for transfers, maybe [players] that you recruited in the past and you’ve done your character and your background check on. I think in Darius’ case, that’s what we did. He liked us. We loved him, and it worked out for him to be a Cavalier.
“It’s just a good fit. For us, we’re not overly flashy. We just try and do it the right way, and he’s a right-way kid.”