The Trail Blazers’ 50-year anniversary season is temporarily on pause as the NBA goes on hiatus to slow the spread of COVID-19. During that break, Blazer’s Edge is counting down the top 100 Blazers: players, executives, and other influencers who made the franchise what it is today.
No. 22 | Mychal Thompson
Games Played with Blazers: 551 Regular Season, 30 Postseason
*PTS: 16.7 | REB: 8.9 | OREB: 2.7 | FG%: 50.5%
*Statistics are pulled from a player’s time in Portland
Joined Club: June 1978, drafted 1st overall in the 1978 NBA Draft
Departed Club: February 1987, traded with Larry Krystkowiak to the San Antonio Spurs for Steve Johnson
Place in History: The Portland Trail Blazers have held the first overall pick in the NBA draft four times. Almost every NBA fan in the universe could tell you they drafted Bill Walton and Greg Oden with two of those selections. “Inside” Blazers folks could also name LaRue Martin, if nothing else for the disappointment factor. Almost everybody forgets that the fourth selection—Mychal Thompson—was also taken first overall in 1978. That’s OK, though. Even if they don’t remember where and when he was taken, his mark on the community is unmistakable.
Thompson was a big-time scorer coming out of the University of Minnesota. Like many of his era, he hardly seemed to miss shots, seldom falling below 50% for a season. In 1981-82 he shot 52.3% while scoring 20.8 per game for the Blazers. But he didn’t do it traditionally.
Thompson wasn’t a seven-foot behemoth, throwing around weight. He wasn’t your prototypical 6’8 power forward either, muscled to the hilt and scoring from two feet and in. Instead he was 6’10, playing below 230 with the smooth ease of a surfer catching his next wave. Thompson didn’t power over defenders or dart around them; he just flowed where they weren’t and put up a shot.
And oh, those shots. Thompson obliterated the false dichotomy between low post player and jump shooter. He wasn’t either, purely. Instead he’d go back to the basket anywhere between 8 and 15 feet from the hoop. While you were trying to figure out what he was doing, he’d spin for a hook shot or turn the other way for some kind of graceful flip that would just go in somehow. If water follows the path of least resistance, Thompson’s shots were liquid, always pouring towards the bottom of the net.
A broken ankle suffered before his second season (which would keep him out the entire year) took away some of Thompson’s leaping ability. While he was out, he put on muscle and learned to play with his head as much as his body. Thompson ranks among the best all-around big men the Blazers have ever fielded. He could pass and rebound. Unlike many Blazers players in the 80’s, he was fully committed to defense.
Thompson still holds the franchise record for blocked shots with 768. He didn’t get them with elevation as much as timing. He knew where the ball would be, and once his long arms unfurled, the result was all but predetermined. So, too, with his board work. Thompson ranks 10th among all Blazers for rebounding average, 4th in total rebounds, 5th in offensive rebounds. Watching him work is a master class in positioning and patience.
Whether Thompson played with Jim Paxson and Kenny Carr or Clyde Drexler and Kiki Vandeweghe, he provided a seamless complement. He enhanced everyone else’s game, stepping up to assert his own when needed. His attributes are on full display in the video below, a triple-double effort against the Denver Nuggets in 1984, with defense attached:
Thompson wasn’t just a regular-season wonder either. His teams didn’t win many series, but he always showed up for the playoffs. 15 points and 8 rebounds per game on 49% shooting was the low end. In 1981 he averaged 25.0 points on 60.8% shooting in three games against the Kansas City Kings.
Thompson would play with the Blazers through the summer of ‘86, when he was traded for San Antonio Spurs center Steve Johnson. At 31, Thompson still had gas in the tank, but the Blazers were embarking on a new era without former Head Coach Jack Ramsay, whose system favored Thompson. Johnson became an All-Star, so the deal ended up fine for Portland. Thompson would play for half a year with the Spurs before being traded to the Los Angeles Lakers. He won a pair of championships in L.A., so it worked out fine for him too.
But Thompson’s influence in the Pacific Northwest wasn’t over. After his playing days, he moved back to Portland to pursue a career in broadcasting. Sports Talk Radio wasn’t brand new in the market, but it was hitting puberty about then. The ever-quotable, never-shy Thompson was the perfect voice to cement its place in the market. He was funny, insightful, and not averse to hyperbole. Whether he talked Trail Blazers or pro wrestling, his shows became must-listen appointments.
Paralleling his basketball journey, Thompson moved moved to Los Angeles in 2003 to become a color commentator for the Lakers. He continues his work on radio to this day.
The only criticism surrounding Thompson might be that he did not become Bill Walton, the other “first overall pick” center of his era. The memories of the 1977 title burned bright in Thompson’s early years. Fans weren’t just looking for greatness, but championship-level performances.
Let’s get real. Walton played in 209 games for the Blazers, averaging 17 points on 51% shooting with 14 rebounds, 2.6 blocks, and 4.5 assists. Thompson played in 551, averaging those same 17 points on the same 51% shooting with 9 rebounds, 1.4 blocks and 3.5 assists. Maybe he wasn’t Bill, but he wasn’t bad.
The main point is, Thompson’s longevity and all-around excellence more than justified the pick the Blazers spent on him. They also more than justify the 22nd spot on our list of Trail Blazers Top 100 players and influencers.
Share your memories of Mychal Thompson below and stay with us as the countdown heads onward towards #1!