Living on the big stage: Georgia pair making most of rookie season in NBA

semerson@macon.comFebruary 14, 2012 

CHARLOTTE -- Trey Thompkins and Travis Leslie are sitting next to each other. They are happily answering questions about the present and past, and are about to be asked if they have any regrets.

But Chris Paul won’t let them.

“Frick and Frack!” shouts Paul, the All-Star point guard, at Thompkins and Leslie, his Los Angeles Clipper teammates. “Frick and Frack!”

“That’s what they call us,” Thompkins explains to a visitor.

Paul keeps the teasing up. He tells the locker room how at the team hotel he saw Leslie going into Thompkins’ room to watch TV, despite the fact this is the NBA and everyone gets their own room.

“You all need to get a double room,” Paul says.

Thompkins tries to resume an interview until he realizes that on the other side of the room another Clippers star, Blake Griffin, is also mocking them. Griffin is pretending to be Thompkins and Leslie, answering as if he were them talking about their NBA rookie seasons.

“ ‘It was tough. But we managed to find our way,’ ” Griffin says, deadpan. Another laugh from the room at the rookies’ expense.

Finally the All-Stars stop their ribbing and let the Georgia boys continue their interview.

There are those who think Thompkins and Leslie should regret going pro, that they should be stars in their senior seasons at Georgia instead of rarely playing for the Clippers. And both players do admit to some thoughts of “what if.” They think of their former team and are “bittersweet.”

But it is moments like this, in the locker room at Charlotte’s Time Warner Cable Arena, that they say are why they’re still happy with their decisions.

“At Georgia, we were the big men on campus. I miss that. But you gotta move on sometimes,” Thompkins says.

Leslie smiles and nods his head.

“It used to be nice that you walked in the room and everybody knew who you are,” Thompkins continues. “But I mean now, we’re the lowest guys on the totem pole.”

A look back

Trey and Travis. Thompkins and Leslie. Frick and Frack. They have been grouped together since their senior years of high school, when both committed to Georgia, through their careers in college, and then when they were improbably drafted by the same NBA team.

They still hang together now. Their Los Angeles apartment buildings are close by. They practice together. During Clippers games, they sit together near the end of the bench.

On this Saturday night, they are in Charlotte. It is during shoot-around that something occurs to them: This is the same building in which they played their final college game. Georgia lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament to Washington.

“For me, I’ll always feel like I didn’t do enough in that game,” says Thompkins, who had 26 points and 11 rebounds in the three-point loss. “Even though I did what I did, I’ll always feel like there was more I could have done to win that game. Just because I didn’t want to end on that note.”

Soon, both players were declaring for the NBA draft. In their absence, the Bulldogs have struggled to a 12-12 record, although they’ve won two straight.

So far, it hasn’t worked out for Thompkins or Leslie either, at least in terms of playing time. Entering Saturday, Thompkins had appeared in 10 games and Leslie six. Thompkins, a 6-foot-8 power forward, had 31 points and 81 minutes the entire season; Leslie, a 6-foot-5 shooting guard, had 12 points in 33 minutes.

But the Clippers are winning, in fact the second-best team in the Western Conference.

“I’m not mad that I left,” Leslie says. “We’re both happy with our situation here. Our time is gonna come, so we’re just gonna keep learning from the other guys, keep working on our game.”

But what if they were still at Georgia?

“We’d probably be top-10,” Thompkins says.

“We’d probably beat Kentucky,” Leslie says, smiling widely.

“I feel like we’d probably do some real big things, man,” Thompkins said. “But we’re here doing big things, too. We’re second in the West behind (Oklahoma City). We’re fourth in the league. So we’re expecting big things from our team. We’re hoping to go deep in the playoffs. And every day we’re getting closer as a unit, learning together and learning how to play with each other. So you can’t argue with that.”

Life in the pros

As second-round picks, Thompkins and Leslie each make $473,604 a season, while every other active player on the roster is earning at least $1.2 million annually. They bought cars and apartments in L.A., but otherwise they conserve and get thrown some cash from their multi-millionaire teammates.

“The little bit of money that they give us is what we use for leisure,” Thompkins said. “Just trying to manage it as well as possible. These second-round checks aren’t as big as people think they are. And we won’t let each other spend too much money.”

“Definitely not,” Leslie interjects.

“So I think we’ll be OK,” Thompkins adds.

When Thompkins declared for the draft, the expectation was to be a first-round pick. But poor workouts and a high body-fat percentage hurt him on draft night, and he was picked 37th overall.

Now Thompkins says he has dropped body fat and is in much better overall shape.

“I’ll make it back,” he says. “I’m not really worried about it. People made decisions that they wanted to make, and I’m happy with where I am.”

Leslie was picked 10 spots after Thompkins. He took a bigger risk in turning pro, since his jump shot was considered a weakness. His strength was his athleticism, which was reflected in a number of highlight-reel dunks.

Griffin, probably the best dunker in the NBA, was aware of Leslie’s prowess in college.

“You know what? I heard all about his dunking abilities -- so-called abilities,” Griffin says kiddingly. “No, I saw highlights. I think the first time I saw one of his dunks is when he dunked on DeMarcus Cousins from Kentucky, on the fast break. And I saw a couple of his last year.”

But Leslie came into training camp with a slight ankle injury, which has affected his ability to get off the ground. So no dunking contests with Griffin yet.

“So we give him a little grief,” Griffin says. “But, yeah, he can definitely get up there.”

The NBA lockout also hurt both players. It wasn’t settled until December, and in the meantime rookies were not able to participate in summer leagues. There was a short training camp, and the condensed schedule means fewer practices.

“They’re trying to adapt a lot. And with the depth of our team in terms of all the changes that we made, it’s pretty hard for them,” Clippers head coach Vinny Del Negro says. “But they’re both good kids, they’re working hard. Trey has a lot of skill and Travis has a lot of athleticism. But they got to work and improve their game and understand the game before there’s an opportunity for them.”

Del Negro was then asked, by an Los Angeles reporter known for his snark: “Do you even know their last names?”

“Yes,” Del Negro answers. “Leslie and Thompkins.”

‘We miss those guys’

The rookies, sitting in that visiting area at Charlotte’s arena, are asked if they still follow their former team.

“We do a little bit,” Thompkins says. “Did they play today?”

Leslie interrupts, his face beaming.

“Yeah, they beat Mississippi State by two,” he says.

“They beat Mississippi State?” Thompkins says, surprised.

“How’d Gerald do?” Leslie asks the visitor from Athens.

The pair are apprised of the past two games, when Georgia pummeled Arkansas by 22 and won at No. 20 Mississippi State, with their friend Gerald Robinson leading the way.

“Man, we talk about them every day,” Thompkins said, a bit of wistfulness in his voice. “We talk to the guys every now and then.”

“Like the other day,” Leslie says. “When we were in Orlando.”

“Yeah, we miss those guys,” Thompkins says. “It’s kind of bittersweet. I know I could’ve been there this year helping out the team and stuff. But I’m happy with the situation I’m in. I know Coach Fox is happy for us. And we’re happy that he’s enjoying being at Georgia.”

There’s another player at Georgia who is likely to face the pro decision. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is the team’s leading scorer this year. Thompkins and Leslie got to know him during recruiting; Leslie says he knows Caldwell-Pope is going to look at the pros eventually.

Thompkins is asked what advice he would give the young guy.

“Don’t play to get drafted,” Thompkins says. “Play college basketball. It’ll take care of itself. Everything will take care of itself. Just focus on getting your team as deep into the tournament and the best record you can get. Whatever you can do to focus on that, do it. Take away everything that you possibly can.”

The game

This ends up being a game where the rookies play. The Clippers are playing the Bobcats, who have the worst record in the NBA, and it shows. The Clippers lead by 20 late in the second quarter and by 34 late in the third quarter.

The crowd has come to see Griffin dunk, and he rewards them in the fourth quarter with a windmill slam on the break. Moments later, Del Negro walks to the end of the bench and tells Thompkins and another player to head to the scorer’s table. Thompkins checks in with 6:15 left, replacing Griffin.

Thompkins makes a layup about a minute later. He converts a three-point play a couple minutes after that. Then he drains a 3 from the top of the key with 55 seconds left, tying his NBA career-high with eight points.

Meanwhile, Leslie is the final player off the Clippers bench, checking in with 3:34 left. He ends up finishing scoreless, and a chance at an assist is missed when Thompkins misses a layup.

It may not be much individually, but at least this time Thompkins and Leslie leave the arena in Charlotte with a victory.

Beforehand, they were asked if they had anything they wanted to say to Georgia fans.

Thompkins: “We love you, we miss you.”

Leslie: “We’ll always be Georgia Bulldogs.”

Thompkins: “Best three years of our lives.”

Leslie: “I wouldn’t take it back for anything.”

And they leave the locker room with their new teammates, Frick and Frack, part wistful, but always hopeful.

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