Justin Thompson played multiple positions out of necessity during a stellar high school basketball career at Schenck of East Millinocket.
That versatility now is helping the 6-foot-4, 205-pound forward make a relatively quick transition to the rigors of Division III college basketball.
Thompson, a freshman at Husson University of Bangor, broke loose for 21 points, 11 rebounds and two steals Saturday as the Eagles improved to 15-4 overall and 11-1 in the North Atlantic Conference with a 95-73 victory over Green Mountain College.
It was Thompson’s sixth straight start for coach Warren Caruso’s club.
“He’s performed well and looked really comfortable as a starter. He had a really good weekend for us,” said Caruso, whose team visits New Hampshire this weekend for games against New England College and Colby-Sawyer, which both are 9-3 in NAC play and tied for second in the league.
Thompson’s ascension to the starting lineup was based in part on by his ability to play both near and away from the basket.
“He’s a good-sized wing who handles the ball well, shoots it and rebounds well so he makes us bigger in that lineup, but we can also utilize him at (power forward) in different rotations,” said Caruso.
Thompson became the leading scorer in Schenck boys basketball history with 1,756 points while playing for his father, head coach Darrick Thompson.
Thompson opted to attend Husson after a senior season at Schenck during which he averaged 28.4 points, 14,5 rebounds, 7.2 assists, 2.3 steals and 2.1 blocked shots. He subsequently was named a Mr. Basketball semifinalist and made the Bangor Daily News All-Maine third team.
“Most of my high school career I was playing point guard and playing down low,” said Thompson.
“My dad and I worked a lot of hours just on post moves near the basket because that was something I’d never really done, but throughout my junior and senior years I got bigger so it was just a natural, I guess.”
Thompson is among three freshman starters — along with roommate Cole Thomas and sharpshooting guard D.J. Bussey — from a highly regarded Husson recruiting class.
He came off the bench for the Eagles’ first 13 games as he continued his adjustment to the college ranks.
Thompson’s mother Stephanie (Carter) led the Schenck girls to consecutive Class C state championships in 1987, 1988 and 1989 and later played at the University of Maine and Saint Joseph’s College in Standish.
“Coming from a small school in Maine it was a pretty big jump for me. Defensively, offensively, everything. It just took me a while to get used to everything but now I get more and more comfortable every day.”
Thompson has averaged 19.8 minutes of playing time through Husson’s first 19 games, but since making his first start against Bowdoin on Jan. 16 that has increased to 24 minutes per contest.
“I think he got off to a slower start than he wanted,” said Caruso, “but by January we really felt like he had grown comfortable out there and was doing some really good things.”
Thompson is scoring 8.8 points per game on 44 percent shooting from the field and 83 percent shooting from the free-throw line for a Husson offense that ranks 30th in NCAA Division III at 85.8 points per game.
He’s one of eight different Eagles averaging more than five points, a contingent led by all-everything redshirt senior guard Raheem Anderson (21.6 ppg).
“We have so many talented guys on this team and every day, every practice, it’s a battle,” Thompson said. “No one is comfortable out there and I think that’s good because everyone’s pushing each other.”
Thompson said his transition has been focused on improving defensively and continuing to grow stronger to handle the physical rigors of the game.
While Thompson was a defensive centerpiece at Schenck, the Wolverines typically played zone. At Husson, man-to-man defense is the norm.
“I’ve been working as hard as I can defensively because that’s something that never came naturally for me,” he said. “When I first got here I was struggling with that aspect of the game but as the season’s gone along I’ve become a lot more comfortable on the defensive end.”
Thompson has worked for the last two years on increasing his strength, adding 20 pounds between his junior and senior seasons at Schenck and another 15 pounds of muscle during the most recent offseason.
“There’s definitely times I can tell that I’m 18 years old and playing against guys who are 22 or maybe even 23,” he said. “I feel like that for the most part I’ve been able to hold my own with the strength part of it.”
That additional strength has helped Thompson under the basket as he ranks third on the team with 4.7 rebounds per game.
“The thing we like about Justin is that he does a lot of things on the floor well,” said Caruso. “Like any freshman adjusting to the college level the defense is a little more sophisticated than a lot of times what our student-athletes played in high school, but he’s growing more comfortable out there.”
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