As head basketball coach at Motlow State in the late ’90s, Lonnie Thompson didn’t have the luxury of a video coordinator. If he wanted to break down film of an upcoming opponent, he had to do it himself, and more times than not he had to take his work home.
That’s how he discovered he had a prodigy on his hands.
One night Thompson was watching tape when his five-year-old son Darius ambled into the room, sat down beside him and offered a quick opinion. “I can’t remember exactly what he said,” said Thompson, now the head coach at Cumberland University. “But it was something about one of our opponent’s players, and it was dead on. I said, ‘What?’ And I made him repeat it. And he repeated it, which told me he knew what he was talking about.
“I told my wife, I don’t know if he’s gonna grow into being a basketball player, whether he’ll have the size or not. But he’s gonna have the mind for it. He’s always thought like a coach.”
Flash forward to 2012. Young Darius grew to nearly 6-foot-5, and he had become a basketball player, a point guard good enough to receive numerous scholarship offers from mid-major Division I schools. One of them was Butler. On his recruiting visit, Thompson sat with then-coach Brad Stevens, watched film and talked basketball for two hours.
“During the visit, Brad came up to me and said, ‘Coach, I know Darius is going to major in accounting, but when he’s finished playing, he’s gonna be a coach,’ ” Lonnie Thompson said.
Darius Thompson appeared headed for Butler—he loved Stevens—but when word got out that the Bulldogs, who had transcended the mid-major tag with consecutive Final Four appearances in 2010-11, were interested, Southern power conference schools began lining up. Alabama, Auburn, NC State, Vanderbilt and Virginia all offered scholarships, and last January, Thompson, wanting to stay close to his home in Murfreesboro, Tenn., committed to Vandy. But a couple of weeks later, he found out the Commodores had another point guard, Eric McClellan, sitting out as a redshirt after transferring from Tulsa. He promptly reopened his recruitment, and that’s when Tennessee began applying the full-court press.
By that time, coach Cuonzo Martin and his staff had realized Travon Landry, who had signed with the Vols in November 2012, wasn’t the player they thought he would evolve into when they accepted his commitment before his junior season in high school. In need of a Southeastern Conference-level point guard to understudy Trae Golden for a year, Martin turned to Thompson.
Which brings us around to last Friday night. To the casual fan, the most impressive stat lines in the Vols’ easy victory over Tennessee State might have been the 25 points scored by senior guard Jordan McRae or the 16 points and eight rebounds contributed by junior forward Jarnell Stokes. But a more discerning fan, or a coach, might be equally impressed with the night’s work turned in by Darius Thompson. Playing a season-high 24 minutes, Thompson handed out seven assists against one turnover, nabbed five steals, grabbed four rebounds and blocked a shot. His six points—and the five shots he took to get them—were important too, if only that it showed the unselfish Thompson was beginning to assert himself offensively.
The only complaint Martin had after the game—and it was a minor quibble—was that Thompson needs to look for his shot even more. Thompson has a textbook jump shot, but he’s temperamentally disinclined to use it. That’s because he’s the son of a coach, a coach who just happened to idolize one of the best point guards in the history of basketball.
“The idol of my life is Magic Johnson,” Lonnie Thompson said. “The only thing Darius heard growing up was Magic Johnson, Magic Johnson. Magic Johnson makes people around him better.”
By osmosis, then, young Darius evolved into a pass-first point guard. He gives all the credit to his father.
“I was basically born into basketball,” Darius Thompson said. “When I got to the age where I could understand it, I was always in the gym with my dad, or watching film with him. I used to always watch point guards. I got attracted to making flashy passes, no-look passes. That gets the crowd exited. That’s just what I fell in love with.”
Once the elder Thompson learned which direction his son was leaning, he didn’t clutter his mind with a lot of coaching.
“If he took any advice from me as a coach,” Lonnie Thompson said, “it was just this: Place the ball where you want people to go, where you want them to be.”
Thompson put on a clinic against Tennessee State. In transition, he’s always looking ahead, leading teammates with a pass that allows them to get ahead of the defensive pack for easy dunks and layups. In the half court, Thompson is tall enough to see over the defense and pick it apart as his teammates cut to the basket.
“When Darius has the ball, you always have to be ready for it,” McRae said. “He sees things that most guys don't see.”
Said teammate Armani Moore, "It is very exciting to play with him because you never know when you’re going to get the ball. You have to always watch him to see what he’s going to do. I like how he passes the ball. He’s very smart with it."
Ask Martin how Thompson does his thing and he provides you with a list: “No. 1, intelligence,” Martin said. “No. 2, his father is a coach. No. 3, he studies NBA greats. No. 4, he wants to be great.”
Lonnie Thompson realized that Martin’s point No. 4 was true when, night after night, he had to chase his son away from the computer and make him go to bed. Like his dad, Darius had become a film junkie.
“I always like to watch point guards,” he said. “Past and present NBA point guards. Guys like Magic Johnson, or Chris Paul or Stephen Curry. And I ask my coaches at Tennessee which point guards to watch. I always want to keep learning.”
Part of Thompson’s job as a point guard is taking charge. That part was difficult for a young freshman at first, but he’s learning.
“I had a problem, telling guys who might be four or five years older than me what to do,” Thompson said. “But I’m getting better and better at that.”
Thompson is getting better and better at a lot of things. His defense, usually the last thing for a freshman to get the hang of, is progressing, as evidenced by those five steals. His assist-to-turnover ratio is almost 4-1, off the charts for anyone, let alone a rookie. He’s a good rebounder for his position. The final frontier is to make sure he doesn’t become unselfish to a fault.
“Darius is never gonna be that guy who takes 12-15 shots a game,” Lonnie Thompson said. “But he’s got to keep defenses honest. I’ve told him you don’t want your team to play five on four, because the other team doesn’t have to guard you. That won’t work in the SEC.”
Chances are good that Thompson is already studying film of point guards who have mastered that delicate balance between scoring and facilitating, and that he’ll figure out how it’s done. Tennessee coaches have raved about how he seemingly improves daily.
“Dad and I talk every day,” Thompson said. “He says I’m doing good. And I can sense that, too. My confidence is getting up there, more from game to game. But I can’t stop there.”