The Cleveland Cavaliers' season opener will be doubly special for Tristan Thompson: Not only will the 20-year-old from Brampton, Ont., be making his NBA debut but he'll be facing the team he grew up idolizing, the Toronto Raptors.
"I think the people in the NBA office in New York, or whoever made the schedule, it's very Tristan Thompson friendly," the Cavs' rookie forward said over the telephone late last week. "They made the Raptors the first team we play.
"It's going to be fun playing the team I look up to when they had Marcus Camby, Vince Carter, Antonio Davis. It's going to be like a kid opening his Christmas gift."
Thompson and Cavaliers square off Monday night against the Raptors in Cleveland in the first game of the regular season for both teams.
It has been a rapid ascension for the 6-foot-9, 235-pound athlete, who left the Toronto suburb of Brampton at 15 after Grade 9 to attend a prep school in New Jersey with his goal of playing in the NBA already ingrained in his mind.
In September of 2010, Thompson landed at the University of Texas, where he earned Big 12 freshman-of-the-year honours playing for the Longhorns before declaring for the NBA draft last June.
With a freakish wingspan of 7 foot 3, the athletic Thompson was a menacing defensive presence with the Longhorns and the Cavaliers selected him fourth overall, the highest drafted Canadian-born player in league history.
It was a difficult time over the summer for Thompson, who was anxious to get his NBA career going but very mindful of the lockout that almost caused the cancellation of the entire season.
"It was a conflicting time but I think I was prepared for the whole lockout," he said. "I was prepared if there was no season this year. To be honest I wouldn't have been surprised if there wasn't. But I'm glad they got a resolution by Christmas so everyone can have some Christmas gifts."
In two preseason games against the Detroit Pistons, Thompson did not look out of place at the defensive end, hauling down nine rebounds and blocking two shots and averaging eight points.
"I think the biggest thing for me is just really going from playing teenagers and young adults to playing grown men, many who have been at this for a long time," Thompson said. "These guys are pretty strong and just being able to compete against them has been real challenging."
Thompson still needs a lot of work on the offensive end, making just five of his 12 shots.
With veteran Antawn Jamison to get the starting minutes at power forward, Cleveland coach Byron Scott is not expecting too much too soon from the rookie.
"I like his game," teammate Anderson Varejao said of Thompson. "He reminds me of me. He goes after every loose ball, always playing hard. I told him, 'Play the game. The offence will come.'"