The year-over-year development during the college career of Indiana fifth-year senior forward Race Thompson was almost anachronistic in modern college basketball.
He was a recruit who reclassified and enrolled a year early in order to redshirt, who then became a redshirt freshman who played in just nine games, who then didn’t start once in a 2020 season that ended early due to the start of the pandemic, who became a full-time starter as a redshirt junior only to see the coach who recruited him get fired at the end of the season, who then elected to return to school for a fifth season, when he helped Indiana end its NCAA tournament drought as the team’s third-leading scorer.
Starting from his redshirt freshman season, his scoring average improved from 0.7 to 3.7 to 9.1, then to 11.1 points per game last season, as he made noticeable improvements each season. Below are Thompson’s career stats, with the advanced stats coming from kenpom.com.
Thompson’s college career — which may or may not be over, and even if it’s not, it wouldn’t necessarily have to conclude with him playing for Indiana next season — is a story of player development and slow, steady improvement. It’s the kind of story your father or grandfather might recall fondly of another era, contrasting it with the transfer portal and one-time transfer exception of today, even though both Indiana and its former players who have transferred have benefitted from the latter world. One career trajectory is not better than the other, but fans are unquestionably drawn to the loyalty, familiarity or nostalgia of a player returning year after year, showing up each fall a better player.
Thompson developed into a strong running mate alongside Trayce Jackson-Davis in Indiana’s frontcourt, shooting nearly 60 percent on 2-point attempts last season, finishing in the top 200 nationally in both that metric as well as defensive rebounding rate, per kenpom.com. In the 2021 season, Thompson’s free throw rate — the number of free throws he attempts per field goal attempt, on average — ranked 15th nationally at 67.5 percent, and he was an even more productive shot-blocker that season than Jackson-Davis. (Thompson’s plummeting free throw rate and declining block rate are curious, especially as Jackson-Davis made a significant year-over-year improvement in the latter.)
While his 3-point shooting percentage was never better than 30 percent in his college career, Thompson’s willingness (and coach Mike Woodson’s allowance of him) to shoot 3-pointers was something many fans clamored for in regards to Jackson-Davis. Thompson went from attempting just 15 3-pointers in the 2021 season to 55 last season, making 15 of them, or 27.3 percent. Now, 1.6 3-point attempts per game for a clearly below-average 3-point shooter is arguably too many, but he went 2-for-2 from deep in Indiana’s 65-63 win over No. 1 seed Illinois in the Big Ten tournament, as he did in back-to-back regular-season games against Penn State and Maryland in January.
If Thompson returns for a sixth season and if he can improve his 3-point percentage to even 32 or 33 percent, that could be a meaningful improvement for an Indiana program that hasn’t ranked in the top half of the Big Ten in conference-only offensive efficiency since Tom Crean’s final season.
Thompson may have never been, and may not be, the primary or secondary scoring option on a good team, but his development from an early enrollee who redshirted his first season in Bloomington to the third banana, as far as scoring average, on an NCAA tournament team arguably speaks to the toughness and yeoman-like effort with which Thompson played, occasionally through injury. If Thompson returns (and especially if Jackson-Davis doesn’t), then the potential sixth-year senior will have one more chance to show us just how much more of his year-over-year improvement he’s capable.