John Thompson III Brings Experience to Men’s World Cup Qualifying Team Bench
The longtime college coach has served as a USA Basketball World Cup Qualifying assistant since 2017.
You might not have heard much from John Thompson III over the past 18 months, but he has been “extremely busy” and has remained very involved in basketball at prominent levels.
Sure, the former Georgetown University and Princeton University men’s basketball coach can regularly be seen as an analyst on the various ESPN platforms, but that is only the tip of the iceberg. He also served on former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s NCAA Commission on College Basketball, and he is about to report to training camp for USA Basketball’s continuing bid to qualify for the 2019 FIBA World Cup.
“Any chance you get to put the USA across your chest and represent your country is a privilege,” said Thompson, who joined the program a year ago, before the first World Cup qualifying window. “When the opportunity presented itself, it was a no-brainer. Coupled with that, to work with USA Basketball and work for Coach (Jeff) Van Gundy has been an honor for me.”
Training camp begins Sept. 6 for the first two games of the second round – against Uruguay on Sept. 14 in Las Vegas, then at Panama on Sept. 17. The top three teams in the U.S.’s group second round group will join host country China at the 2019 FIBA World Cup next August. The U.S. roster for these qualifiers mostly is made up of NBA G League players.
Thompson has embraced this opportunity to not only coach a different level of players, but to learn more about his craft from USA Men’s World Cup Qualifying head coach Van Gundy, the lead NBA analyst on ESPN who spent 11 seasons coaching the New York Knicks and Houston Rockets.
“I believe there is no better person to lead this World Cup qualifying team than Coach Van Gundy,” Thompson said. “Just the blood, sweat and tears that he pours — not to sound cliché, but it’s true — into the preparation and just how meticulous he is. He is a great teacher, not just a good coach, but a great teacher. I think it’s helped me to grow, helped me to learn to work for him.”
Van Gundy’s coaching style has been direct and, so far, successful, which might seem counterintuitive considering the player pool and the challenging schedule.
“I think a lot of the perception out there is that once you coach pros, you can’t coach them hard,” said Thompson, who says Van Gundy sets a “high bar” for expectations. “But Coach Van Gundy coaches them hard, and I think the guys embrace it. They want to learn, they want to get better. He’s not just out there putting in a set of plays and hoping they learn the plays and go from there.”
While most of the players Thompson is working with are looking to make a quick jump to the NBA, the coach is waiting for the right opportunity before taking another full-time opportunity. He last coached at Georgetown in 2017.
“Whether it’s in college, whether it’s in the pros, I am a coach and I want to coach again,” said Thompson, who was 68-42 in four seasons at Princeton and 278-151 in 13 seasons at Georgetown. “It’s great to have this opportunity to coach. That’s been a great experience to me.”
And it is just the latest great experience for him. He has been able to learn from two fantastic and Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame coaching minds: his dad and Pete Carril.
Thompson’s dad, John Thompson Jr., led Georgetown to the 1984 national championship. He said his knowledge from his dad is ingrained in each decision he makes, probably more so from observation and “osmosis” than from talks and teaching. But, there is one philosophy that sticks out and specifically applies to his national team duties.
“No matter what level they are, guys want to learn,” Thompson said. “They want to be coached hard. They don’t just want to be placated. People use the phrase, ‘Getting on ’em.’ I don’t necessarily mean, ‘Getting on ’em,’ but tell them the truth. They want to hear the truth, and they want to get better. They may not like it in the moment, but big picture, I think all guys want to be coached hard.”
As for Carril, the men’s coach at Princeton for nearly three decades, Thompson was able to learn lessons as a player and assistant coach from the originator of the “Princeton offense.” It was in that style of offense that Carril emphasized movement and cutting, rather than set plays and traditional positions, specifically putting five positionless players on the court rather than two guards, two forwards and a center.
“Those are things that Coach Carril was criticized for two decades ago,” Thompson said. “And now, that’s all that everyone is doing and not just necessarily just running plays, but teaching guys how to play and how to read and react. That also, in Coach Carril’s voice, is also always in my head.”