EMU preview: James Thompson back, stronger than ever

David Goricki
The Detroit News
James Thompson IV

Ypsilanti – James Thompson IV submitted his name for the NBA draft after last season and learned a lot about the process before backing out. He hopes to give the scouts and coaches a better glimpse of his talent this winter while trying to help Eastern Michigan contend for the Mid-American Conference championship.

Thompson is the top center in the MAC and he has put on 30 pounds of muscle since the end of last season to make life miserable for opponents trying to slow down the 6-foot-10, 240-pound force.

Thompson hopes to take care of unfinished business this season. The Eagles lacked team chemistry despite having a talented roster in 2016-17 and finished 16-17 (7-11 MAC).

“I got a chance to go through the NBA draft process, got to learn the business aspect of the game, what they look for, like my attitude coming out of the game, my attitude on the bench if we’re losing, my attitude if we’re winning and I’m playing bad, how I cheer my teammates, how I help people if somebody’s missing shots,” said Thompson, a junior from Baton Rouge, La. “I learned the little things they look for, not just if you can play ball. So that was good for me, good that I had to go through it and learn those types of things.”

Thompson was the MAC Freshman of the Year during the 2015-16 season, then averaged 14.6 points and 11.2 rebounds last season, including 4.8 on the offensive boards to rank second nationally. He shot 57.4 percent from the field.

After a season-ending MAC quarterfinal loss to top-seeded Akron last March, Thompson went straight to the weight room, and also changed his eating habits to make himself stronger.

“I gained 30 pounds since last year,” Thompson said. “I was 215 when the season ended, but a lot of scouts said, ‘I want you to get stronger.’

“I talked to Coach (Rob) Murphy after last year and he told me that I need to come back and show people that I worked (in the offseason). I decided to work hard to put myself in the best position to reach my goals. I also started changing my diet, didn’t drink sodas, stopped eating fast food, started eating sweet potatoes, rice, chicken – things I had never done before.”

Thompson has some mighty lofty goals for the upcoming season.

“My personal goals this year are to be either MAC Player of the Year or MAC Defensive Player of the Year; I want to get a thousand rebounds, score a thousand points, I want to lead the country in rebounding, want my shot percentage to be better,” he said.

The Eagles have a couple of transfers in point guard Paul Jackson from Eastern Kentucky and 6-9 power forward Elijah Minnie from Robert Morris.

Thompson said Jackson is a “great passer, not selfish at all. He’s a true point guard, but when he needs to score he will. He’s not like a selfish player like someone who comes down and says, ‘I’m going to get mine.’ He’ll make sure the ball’s where it needs to be.

“I feel like Minnie’s going to be an All-MAC player. I feel like he’s going to shock a lot of people, probably be the best power forward in the league, and that’s a big piece that we’ve been missing. He’s athletic and has post moves, can stretch the defense out, has a good shot and is a good passer. He’s not selfish and me and him work well on the high-low stuff.”

Still, it all starts with Thompson.

“Anytime at this level you have a game-changer it gives you the chance to be successful,” said Murphy. “James dedicated himself to the weight room, strength and conditioning, and changed his eating habits. He’s packed on muscle but hasn’t lost any of his athleticism and he’s actually more explosive. He’s gotten better with his footwork in the post and obviously he’s one of the best rebounders in the country.”

Murphy is looking forward to having a true point guard in Jackson.

“Paul is a solid point guard, pass-first point guard, and he’s something we haven’t had in the program during my tenure here, so it’s refreshing to have a player who is a semi-coach on the floor,” said Murphy, now in his seventh season at EMU. “We had guys that were caught up in themselves last year, looking to score.

“With this team, what I’ve seen is a point guard who is a leader, and Paul knows where to get the ball all the time, knows when James needs a touch, when Elijah hasn’t had a shot, and knows how to get his own shot off and that’s important.”

Eastern Michigan Eagles

Coach: Rob Murphy (seventh season, 107-97, 50-54 MAC)

Last season: 16-17 (7-11 MAC)

Top returning players: James Thompson, 6-10, Jr., center (14.8 points, 11.2 rebounds), Tim Bond, 6-7 Sr., guard (9.1 points, 3.7 rebounds).

Who can’t have a bad season? Thompson who should elevate his game and be a legitimate candidate for MAC Player of the Year after putting on 30 pounds of muscle.

Who must have a good season? Transfer Elijah Minnie, a 6-9 power forward, who will take the pressure off Thompson by being able to score in multiple ways.

This player will surprise everyone with a big season: Point guard Paul Jackson, another transfer, who will give the Eagles a true point guard who can set up Thompson, Minnie, Bond and freshmen guard Malik Ellison and Kevin McAdoo (West Bloomfield).

EMU can win the MAC championship if … Thompson has his best season, Minnie becomes a 10-point, 6-rebound player and Jackson lives up to his billing as a quality point guard.

EMU won’t win the MAC championship if … the Eagles don’t get quality point guard play out of Jackson and Minnie has a sub-par season, which would allow teams to double team Thompson inside.

Toughest opponent: at Indiana Nov. 24 with the Hoosiers expected to be improved with Archie Miller as the new head coach.

Team to not overlook: Oakland University. The Eagles play the Grizzlies twice, at home on Dec. 6 with the rematch set for Dec. 22 at the O’rena.