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Rider boosted by NBA prospect

December 02, 2007|From the Associated Press

LAWRENCEVILLE, N.J. -- At 6 foot 11 and 250 pounds and possessing the agility of a much smaller player, Jason Thompson is giving Rider University something it has never truly had: a legitimate NBA prospect.

Perhaps as important, he and the rest of the Broncs are giving students and faculty at this small liberal arts college a bit of welcome news after several recent tragedies -- one the death of a professor Thompson considered a mentor.

"With all the bad stuff going on, we knew we could be one of those sparks for the school and the community as a whole," Thompson said. "They give us a lot of support."

Through seven games this season, Thompson was averaging 20 points and 12 rebounds, with some of his biggest games coming against teams from major conferences.

Yet playing in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference has meant Thompson "is one of the best players in the nation you don't know," according to scouting website The MAAC has sent so few players to the NBA in its 25-year history that the league office doesn't even maintain a list.

Thompson's recent performances are making him hard to dismiss as just another player putting up big numbers against midlevel competition.

At a tournament in Orlando, Fla., he averaged 23 points and 13 rebounds against North Carolina State, Penn State and Kansas State and outplayed highly touted Wildcats freshman Michael Beasley (13 points, 10 rebounds).

Rider's 82-73 win over Penn State was the Broncs' first against a major conference school since they defeated South Carolina in 1982.

Recent seasons have included one-sided losses against Villanova (108-61) and Notre Dame (86-57).

"Mentally, I wasn't there in those games and I got into foul trouble," Thompson said. "Now I'm letting the game come to me, making better decisions."

Despite his size and skills, Thompson is not the Broncs' only weapon, and his impact on a game can be deceptive -- until the stat sheet comes out. In an 84-58 win over New Jersey Institute of Technology on Wednesday, he was frustrated for most of the game by a clinging zone but managed 17 points, 17 rebounds, four blocks and six assists.

"I remember at the end of the N.C. State game thinking, 'Well, I guess his numbers maybe weren't that great,' " Coach Tom Dempsey said. "Then I looked at the box score and he had 24 points and 15 rebounds."

In 2006-07 he was one of only three Division I players to average at least 20 points and 10 rebounds. Texas' Kevin Durant and Nevada's Nick Fazekas, both NBA draft picks, were the others.

While the stats provided a certain measure of validation, Thompson credits a stint as a counselor at LeBron James' camp over the summer. Part of his experience included going toe-to-toe with the NBA superstar during scrimmages.

"I just told myself, 'Don't get intimidated, don't make yourself look bad,' " he said. "The first time he went at me and scored, so I called for the ball in the post and scored on him."

When Thompson and his teammates returned to Rider for the fall semester, the school was still feeling the aftershocks from the alcohol-related death of a freshman in March.

Two administrators were among those implicated, though charges were dropped at the end of the summer.

More tragedy followed. One student died from a heroin overdose and another died in a car crash.

In mid-October, within days of the beginning of basketball practice, 58-year-old political science professor David Rebovich suffered a heart attack while teaching a class and later died.

Rebovich had been the first professor Thompson met when he visited Rider, and the two developed a friendship that extended beyond the classroom.

"He was a good guy, he made people laugh," Thompson recalled. "He gave me a lot of good advice, not just about politics or basketball. We'd talk about everything."

With NBA scouts becoming regular visitors to Rider's cozy campus gym, Thompson and his teammates -- who include younger brother Ryan, the team's second-leading scorer -- are giving the campus plenty to feel good about.

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