Motivation comes with this over-riding thought:
“I just want to play,” he says with a laugh.
Thompson plays because, entering Thursday night’s game at Iowa, no college player in America is better at taking care of the ball.
Thompson leads the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio, at 5.17 to 1. That’s the best nationally since at least the 2007-08 season. His career mark is 3.48 to 1. Bruce Parkinson has the school record at 2.70 to 1.
Thompson does this by minimizing risk without eliminating it. He is substance over spectacle, although not so much that he always plays it safe.
Reward does sometimes come from risk, after all.
“I know that’s how I’ll play a lot of minutes — take care of the ball, play defense, make open shots and just being really solid,” he says. “That’s how I earn Coach (Matt) Painter’s trust. That’s what keeps me on the floor.”
Thompson spends plenty of time on the floor, ranking third on the team in minutes played behind only Caleb Swanigan and Dakota Mathias. He’s started every game.
He will push the pace when it’s there, but you won’t see him attempt passes that elevate his coach’s blood pressure.
“It’s a fine line between playing safe and still making plays without turning the ball over,” Thompson says. “I don’t want to just go out there and pass it around and not be aggressive just because I don’t want to turn it over. I don’t want to get it to that extent.”
Neither does Painter.
“We need him to be aggressive and take care of the ball.”
Every point guard in America wants to do that, but few did it so well.
What’s Thompson’s secret?
“He values the ball,” Painter says. “He has good ball skills. He can pass. He can handle the ball. He’s a smart player.
“When you’re trying to create a lot, you’ll have a higher chance of turning it over. He is very choosy when he creates.”
“Choosy” has its limits.
“The thing we want from him,” Painter says, “is be more aggressive. We want him to look for his shot, look to drive.
“Against Wisconsin he misses a three, and Isaac gets the rebound, kicks it back to him and he shoots it immediately, and makes it.
“That’s a good sign for us.”
There are other signs. Thompson averages 40.3 percent from three-point range. That’s close to last year’s average (41.5 percent) and a big jump from his first college season (28.6 percent).
“I put a lot of work in the off-season and throughout my life to get where I’m at as a shooter,” Thompson says. “I know I can shoot at a high level.”
And if his stroke isn’t a thing of beauty, as long as it goes in, who cares?
“Coach Painter gets on me if I don’t take open shots. That’s my job — to take open shots and make them.”
Thompson often gets open shots, partly because opponents don’t fear his shooting, mostly because they’re too worried about what 7-2 Isaac Haas and 6-8 Caleb Swanigan are doing in the post.
“I know what we have down low,” Thompson says. “Teams definitely want to stop the guys low from scoring, and make it tough for them to kick it back out.
“I don’t take it personally if teams back off me. I know they know I can shoot. It’s a kind of pick-your-poison thing. Some teams like to pressure and make it tough to get the ball inside, other teams will back off.”
Thompson’s passing success reflects Purdue’s many offensive weapons. The Boilers lead the Big Ten in three-point shooting (40.5 percent), and are second overall in field goal percentage (48.8).
“It’s a huge advantage to have guys like Biggie (Swanigan) and Isaac,” Thompson says. “If I want an assist, I can throw the ball to them and more times as not, they’re going to score. With the shooters we have on the outside, anytime I can get them open looks, more times as not it will go in.
“I like the team we have with our ability to score inside and out. They make my job as a point guard a lot easier.”
Thompson is a big reason why Purdue ranks second nationally in assists. The Boilers average 19.5 a game. Only UCLA, at 22.8, averages more.
Thanks to the quirks of Big Ten scheduling, No. 17 Purdue (14-3 overall, 3-1 Big Ten) faces Iowa (10-7, 2-2)for the second time in two weeks. The Boilers won 89-67 at Mackey Arena.
The Hawkeyes are 9-2 at home. They have the Big Ten’s leading scorer in Peter Jok, who averages 22.6 points.
“Some things went our way in the first game,” Painter said. “We shot well from the perimeter. They have a young team, and they were on the road for the first time right after Christmas.
“They’ve been able to get a couple of (Big Ten) wins. Peter Jok is a really good player.
“The main thing for us is we have to take care of the ball, take good shots, and set our defense. We can’t let them have a lot of opportunities to score in transition.”
TIPOFF: Purdue at Iowa, 9 p.m., today
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