Georgetown still developing great bigs, but in a different way
Given the success that Georgetown has had over the last three decades, it is easy to forget that the Hoyas were a basketball afterthought prior to the late 1970s. It was during the reign of John Thompson Jr. that Georgetown became a basketball school, winning three conference tournaments between 1975 and 1979 before becoming a founding member of the Big East in 1980 and promptly winning the inaugural regular season and tournament titles.
Just two years later, the Hoyas reached the national title game, sparking a four-year stretch where Georgetown would play in the NCAA tournament final three times, winning the program's only national championship in 1984. Those four years also happened to coincide with the time that Patrick Ewing spent on the Hilltop. While it was those teams that earned the nickname "Hoya Paranoia" due to their tenacious style of defense, it was Ewing -- the 1985 National Player of the Year -- who personified Georgetown. Ewing was a physically imposing, explosively athletic player whose physical gifts simply overwhelmed opponents. Georgetown never again reached the level of success it had during the Ewing era, but it did win both the Big East regular season and tournament titles, while reaching two more Elite 8s, in 1987 and 1989. The 1989 team was led by "Rejection Row," the overpowering duo of Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutumbo, who both went on to become dominant players in the NBA.
Do the math, and that's three Hall of Fame caliber centers produced in the span of seven years; Georgetown's reputation for being a big man's school was well-earned.
In the latter stages of Thompson's tenure, however, Georgetown fell off. The Hoyas finished 16-15 and just 6-12 in the Big East in 1998. Big John retired in January of the following season, citing marital problems, and was replaced by longtime assistant Craig Esherick. After five-and-a-half uninspiring seasons that resulted in just a single trip to the NCAA tournament, Esherick was canned and John Thompson III -- Big John's son -- took over the program in 2004.
The younger Thompson found success almost immediately, winning 19 games in his first season and going 8-8 in the Big East, barely missing out on the NCAA tournament. The Hoyas would make the Sweet 16 the following season, and just a year later -- in 2007 -- returned to the Final Four after winning both Big East titles. While postseason success has eluded the Hoyas in recent seasons, they have remained a Big East power, firmly entrenching themselves in the top 25 while annually contending for Big East titles.
Like his father, Thompson's teams have been defined by the players on the interior. Jeff Green's emergence as a freshman in the coach's first season helped ease the transition to the Big East, and while he slowly developed into the Big East's Player of the Year as a junior and the fifth pick in the 2007 NBA Draft, classmate Roy Hibbert slowly but surely grew into an all-conference center and, eventually, the 17th pick in the 2008 NBA Draft. To replace Hibbert, Thompson brought in both Greg Monroe and Henry Sims. Monroe, who was one of the nation's most sought-after recruits, had a terrific freshman campaign that led to an even better sophomore season before he jumped to the NBA as the seventh overall pick in 2010. On the other hand, it took Sims some time to develop, but after an offseason of hard work, the Baltimore native became the centerpiece for the Hoyas as they won 24 games and finished fourth in the Big East standings.
The next two in that pipeline are sophomore forwards Otto Porter and Greg Whittington.
"[Greg and Otto] are much different positions, but yes, absolutely, I think that those two had terrific freshmen years and they both have yet to reach their best," Thompson said over the phone on Thursday afternoon. "With those two guys, you have a couple guys that, at the collegiate level, can play four positions."
While the success that the younger Thompson's big men have had in the NBA -- Roy Hibbert made his first All-Star team this season and has become a star in these playoffs; Greg Monroe averaged 15.7 points and 9.4 rebounds in his second season; Jeff Green had averaged double figures every season since entering the league before a heart condition cost him 2011-2012 -- would make it easy to simply say 'like father, like son,' the fact of the matter is that the big men churned out by the son are nothing like those produced by the father.
The biggest difference: Big John recruited athletic specimens that happened to play basketball; JT III's bread and butter lies in basketball players that just so happen to be tall.
"We've have some pretty skilled guys, and they've been good decision makers, too. I think that's something that we've put a premium on, letting them touch the ball as often as possible," he said. "Letting them touch the ball every time down the court and make the decision: 'When is it my turn? When should I help my teammates?' The big guy having the understanding that they can also get guys shots. I think we've been socialized a lot of the time that the point guard or the guards are the only ones that can create shots for others."
And that, in essence, is why Thompson believes that his program is so successful in creating NBA caliber big men. He doesn't force them to become robots trained to set screens, block shots and rebound the ball. He teaches them how to read what an opponent is doing and what they are giving you. It's not like he's eschewing teaching his big men how to do big man things -- as Thompson put it, "those guys, they were still blocking shots and getting rebounds, too" -- but basketball has become a game of versatility.
If you're not going to win by being quicker or by jumping higher, you need to be able to do more than one thing on the basketball court.
"There's no doubt that I think our system prepares guys for the league. It forces them to make reads," he said. "It's all about making reads as much as it is learning a specific play. When you're playing with a 24 second shot clock, the guy that will succeed is the guy that makes smart decisions more so than the guy running plays out of a set. At that point, you have to put a premium on playing together and making reads -- being able to read the defense, being able to read how you're being played, being able to read how your teammates are being played. That's something that we put a premium on from the time they first start here."
The beauty is in the simplicity.
Much has been made about the Princeton-style offense that Georgetown runs under Thompson, about how difficult it is to defend and prepare for. But what is unique about Georgetown's system has little to do with anything that is written in a playbook. Everything the Hoyas do offensively is based on reading the defense and reacting to those reads. Most systems involve a player being told something along the lines of: cut here, run off of that screen there, set a pick for him and roll to the basket, lather, rinse, repeat.
Georgetown's theory is different.
Thompson doesn't tell his team what to do on any given play. He doesn't give them specific instructions, rather he teaches them, from the day they set foot on campus, how to make that decision for themselves based off of what they see on the floor in front of them. In his words, "the ability to just be a basketball player is something that we stress. Don't be a position."
And that is the most difficult point to get across.
"A lot of freshmen want to be told specifically what to do," he said. "The difficult part becomes understanding that they have to make the read, because they're so used to being told where to run in the play next.
"It's new for most players to have to make reads and have to make decisions based on how they're being played and how the defense is set. But once you grasp that way of thinking, I think it is very simple."
Thompson isn't a miracle worker. As much as he would like to take credit for the way his big men develop and as proud as he is to see them succeed -- Thompson said, "When Roy called me to say he made the All-Star team this year, it was one of the most exciting times in my coaching career." -- he knows that the majority of the credit goes to the kids. Monroe is a supremely talented young man. So is Green. Hibbert is 7-foot-2 and one of the hardest working and most dedicated athletes you'll come across, turning himself from a plodding stiff into a player who had 19 points, 18 boards and five blocks in an NBA playoff game.
You aren't making the NBA without an over-abundance of talent, and each player had specific traits that made them likely to succeed. Thompson's system simply helped to accentuate those traits.
"As with every system, you have to be able to adjust and adapt," he said. "What I mean is Roy is a much different center than Greg was or Henry Sims was this past year. We have to adapt for each person that we have here. The common denominator, however, is skilled big guys that can cause problems for people."