Thompson turns into sharpshooter
At some time in a future less distant by the day, Kate Thompson will take a doctor's oath to do no harm. And coaches across the Big Ten will wince at painful memories and wonder what took her so long.
Rare is the player better at sticking daggers precisely where they cause opponents the most pain.
University of Michigan senior Jenny Ryan described her teammate as the kind of aspiring pediatrician whom kids will feign illness to see. Even now, when the Wolverines sign autographs for younger fans, Thompson's teammates know they're going to have some time on their hands if they are after her in line. To their occasional dismay, there isn't a story the autograph seekers can tell that she won't wait patiently and attentively to hear through to its conclusion.
Outside of Delaware's Elena Delle Donne, there isn't another long-range shooter quite like [Kate Thompson] in the country.
And yet there is no more sickening feeling for a defense than that which bubbles up in the pit of the stomach at the sight of Thompson open at the 3-point line -- or several steps beyond it. Entering this week's Big Ten tournament with the fifth-seeded Wolverines, she ranks second in the NCAA in 3-pointers per game (3.59) and 18th in 3-point accuracy (40.8 percent).
A 6-foot-4 guard in a game where many teams lack even post players of equal height, Thompson can shoot over defenders who think they are in position to close her out or shoot from distances those same defenders are unaccustomed to patrolling. Outside of Delaware's Elena Delle Donne, there isn't another long-range shooter quite like her in the country.
"I've played with some pretty phenomenal shooters, but there's no one like Kate," Ryan said. "Her release combined with her range she can get out there, I've never played with someone quite like Kate. When Kate shoots the ball, I expect it to go in. It's just one of those things where you know she's not perfect, but her follow-through and the look of her shot is so good that you can't help sometimes but start running back, because you think it's going right in."
That stroke was her ticket to a starting role as a senior and the means by which she is making that final season memorable. It is also the product of a passion for playing that never required those tangible results to sustain itself.
The outside touch notwithstanding, any list of Thompson's most noteworthy skills leans heavily away from the court. It's there that the senior is the equivalent of a five-star talent, a molecular, cellular and developmental biology major who plans to go to medical school. It's in that realm she has to push herself, lest she coast on natural abilities.
"I don't think she needs to put in the amount of time that most people in this world would put into being a premed major and also a Division I athlete," Ryan said. "It amazes me sometimes the things she'll remember."
Basketball is a bit of an odd fit in Thompson's world. While she would like to play professionally overseas, the game isn't how she will ultimately make a mark on the world. But something about it took up residence in those recesses of ourselves that define us. Nothing about Thompson adds up to what she is. She's too smart and too interested in bigger things to waste her time on a game. She's too thin, too lanky to hold her own in the Big Ten. She's too nice to need to win.
And here she is as the leading scorer on a 20-win team looking for a second consecutive trip to the NCAA tournament.
"She doesn't really have a killer bone in her body," Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico said. "So sometimes you wonder how she's going to handle tough situations or pressure situations. But she's done a great job. I mean, the pressure has been on her every game, and it's been mounting and mounting. And she continues to make shots and make plays. I think that's just because she's practiced it so much. She has put in more time, I would imagine, than 95 percent of the country."
The daughter of a psychiatrist mother and attorney father, Thompson grew up with books and basketball. Television was verboten in the house but for one annual event: March Madness.
"That was the exception," Thompson recalled. "And we watched that religiously every year."
It might pain Michigan fans that the Minnesota native's favorite March memory was watching Mateen Cleaves and Michigan State win a national championship in 2000.
I've played with some pretty phenomenal shooters, but there's no one like Kate [Thompson] When Kate shoots the ball, I expect it to go in. It's just one of those things where you know she's not perfect, but her follow-through and the look of her shot is so good that you can't help sometimes but start running back because you think it's going right in.” -- Michigan teammate Jenny Ryan
By the time it came to recruiting, big schools weren't falling over themselves to secure her services. Her choices came down to Michigan and Bucknell, a small academically prestigious school in the Patriot League. It's reasonable to think that had Barnes Arico or almost any other coach with experience at the top tier of the sport been Michigan's coach at the time, even Ann Arbor might not have been an option. (ESPN Hoopgurlz gave her a grade of 78 as high school senior; it takes at least a grade of 92 to crack this year's top 100.) But Thompson fit the mold on which former Michigan coach Kevin Borseth built his reputation at Green Bay, with the added benefit of those long limbs.
"I decided that even though I wasn't probably going to play as much, especially when I was younger, that it would pay off," Thompson said. "I would be playing with better competition, and being in the Big Ten, that was huge."
She played just 104 minutes as a freshman (although she still hit 8 of 14 3-point attempts). That turned into regular minutes off the bench as a sophomore and junior, but it wasn't until Barnes Arico arrived that Thompson started a game. The coach built St. John's into a national contender before she moved to Michigan, but she did it without the benefit of 3-point shooting. The Red Storm hit just 75 3-pointers last season. Thompson enters the Big Ten tournament with 104. It didn't take the new coach long -- partly because Thompson was always around -- to decide she needed the shooter on the court as much as possible.
Even if the senior remains wired just a little differently than most.
"She's sensitive at times; she cries a little bit too much -- I give it to her for that," Barnes Arico lamented while spinning a story right out of "A League of Their Own," the New York transplant staring in befuddlement at her sharpshooter tearing up for little discernible reason.
"She's extremely sensitive, but for me, she made an impression on me immediately. She's incredibly coachable."
When she's available to be coached, that is. Michigan schedules practices around the academic demands of the cellular and molecular biology major. One of her classes this semester runs four hours on Tuesday and Thursday mornings, with an extra hour of lecture thrown in on Mondays. Another class eats up three hours of her Mondays. And these classes aren't math for poets but the likes of cellular biology, brain development and a cellular molecular lab. Some professors are understanding about her other time commitment; others don't much care about a trip to Purdue or Penn State or some other destination that coincides with a test or a lab.
Thompson would have plenty to occupy her time without basketball (her guilty pleasure for her final year amounted to nothing more salacious than getting a library card to read Agatha Christie mysteries), but she is perhaps the easiest member of the team to locate. Just look for the nearest pickup game on any of the courts around campus or listen for the sound of a ball coming through the net in an otherwise empty practice facility.
Medicine is her ambition. Basketball is a passion.
"You know Kate loves the game of basketball," Ryan said. "She has a genuine passion for it that's true, it's genuine. It's something that's great to see. You see it in a little kid a lot, that they just love the game. As you get older, you kind of lose it. For a lot of people, it becomes a business. But basketball is never business for Kate. It's something she loves. It's just a pureness."
Pure like the shot that turned her senior season into one to remember. Even as it does some harm to opponents.