Butler basketball’s Aaron Thompson is not your typical freshman

Aaron Thompson in a game earlier this season. Through the team’s first eight games, Thompson is averaging a team-high 3.9 assists per game. Collegian file photo. 

GRAEME WRIGHT | STAFF REPORTER | grwrigh1@butler.edu

Freshman guard Aaron Thompson repeatedly exclaimed the same words, gazing into the eyes of his high school teammates with a steely-eyed focus and look of determination.

“We’re gonna win this game. We’re gonna win this game.”

All of the teammates were wearing the black and gold road jerseys of Paul VI Catholic High School. Before he was a freshman guard for Butler basketball, “AT” was a senior at Paul VI, a nationally-ranked high school team in Virginia. They were staring at an 11-point, fourth quarter deficit in a hostile environment against their rival, Bishop O’Connell.

The Paul VI Panthers chipped away. Two points for O’Connell. Three points for Paul VI. They had the momentum and Thompson and his coach, Glenn Farello, knew it.

“He and I laughed with about five minutes left,” Farello said. “We were making our comeback saying, ‘You just can’t kill us. You just can’t kill us.’”

Thompson and the Panthers scratched and clawed their way back and gained an improbable 3-point lead with seconds to go. The O’Connell Knights quickly hit a game-tying 3-pointer with five seconds left. Thompson flew down the length of the court, drove to the rim and was fouled with 1.2 seconds to spare.

Two free throws awaited as he picked himself up after hitting the floor hard. Thompson got to the line and shoots. Clink. The ball hit off the rim and dropped to the floor.

Thompson stepped back to the line. He could essentially end the game and fulfill his promise to his teammates. He went through his free-throw ritual, three quick dribbles and shot.

Clink, clank and wisp.

The ball bounced around the rim and sank through the net, giving Paul VI a 67-66 lead. O’Connell inbounded the ball to attempt a full-court Hail Mary. It fell harmlessly to the floor. Paul VI’s student section immediately stormed the court to meet the team.

It was a triumphant victory for the Panthers who were just finding their stride five games into the season, and, for Thompson, it was affirmation of the type of player and person he is.

“I think that whole performance was just him willing us to victory,” Farello said. “In a moment where we were not playing our best basketball in a rival game on the road [and were] down double digits … for us to come back and win that game, you know that’s Aaron Thompson.”

The Panthers went on to win the conference in the regular season, but fell to Gonzaga College High School in the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference championship. They also were runner-ups in the state championship.

As Thompson grew up, he began to catch the eyes of many coaches, especially his eventual high school coach, Farello. Thompson was in 6th grade when he started turning heads at a Paul VI basketball camp. It was enough to gain Farello’s attention.

By the time Thompson’s 8th grade year came to a close, he needed to decide where to spend his next four years. Anywhere he decided within the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference would secure a spot on one of the best high school basketball rosters in the country. That year, ESPN named the WCAC one of the best basketball conferences in the nation.  

Two of the schools nearby provided the easiest commute. But something about Paul VI hit home with Thompson, even if it meant waking up at 4:50 a.m. every morning, catching multiple trains to school and getting home at 9 p.m. every night.

“I fell in love with the program and the whole dynamic of me going to Paul VI,” Thompson said. “I live pretty far from Paul VI so it was a tough decision for me and my family to make, but we put a lot of trust in Coach Farello.”

After Thompson graduated from Paul VI, he decided to take his talents to Indiana to become a member of the Butler Bulldogs.

In the second game this season, the freshman scored 15 points against Princeton. Thompson received a unique opportunity in November when he got to go home and play against the  University of Maryland. His family, coaches, teammates and former classmates filled the stands to watch.  

“It was like a homecoming game for me,” Thompson said. “Everyone could see me. They could see where I was at from my last game at Paul VI and to see where I’ve come this year at Butler.”

The game was a 20 minute drive from his hometown in Glenn Dale, Maryland and 40 minutes away from Paul VI.

“You never know how much information or what the capacity is for each guy to absorb, especially defensively.” LaVall Jordan, Butler men’s basketball coach, said. “It’s a strength for him to pick up defense quickly. That will get you on the court sooner than later as a freshman.”

Thompson’s play not only fit the bill for Farello, it fits Jordan’s offensive scheme. The first year Butler coach is trying to implement a similar up-tempo offense, a coaching style Thompson already has experience with from his days at Paul VI.

“Aaron in particular is always asking questions; he wants more,” Jordan said. “He embraces his role as point guard of the team on both sides of the team. That’s always fun because you can never give him enough.”

Thompson intakes so much information; Jordan consistently refers to the freshman as a sponge. When does he start the offense? When does he go and when is he supposed to wait? If Kelan Martin is on the left, where does he need to be?

It mirrors his approach to freshman year at Paul VI, when he was entering a program that had 10 Division I commits. Still, Thompson was humble about it; most students in his class didn’t even know he was on the team until they saw him play. The team won the WCAC championship and state championship that year.

Thompson continued to learn and grow as an upperclassman. He needed to be more vocal and to assert himself as a leader. Consistency of effort was never an issue for him, Farello said. It was a matter of performing consistently.

Thompson took the criticism from his coach and ran with it, finishing his career with Paul VI as the winningest player in program history. He became the first to accumulate more than 800 points, 400 assists, 300 rebounds and 200 steals over four years.

“Winning is everything,” Thompson said. “I would sacrifice my body. I take charges and dive on the floor. It’s a lot more fun to win. I think that, when you win, everyone else on the team gets recognized.”

Thompson literally sacrificed his body his junior year. He felt a pain in his chest before the state semifinals and went to the hospital. The doctors told Thompson he was dehydrated from overworking his body and not drinking enough water.

The Panthers advanced to the state championship, but Thompson was not cleared to play. They lost to Episcopal, 67-63.

“You learn a lot from him by just watching him,” said Brandon Slater, a former high school teammate and Villanova commit. “He doesn’t have to say much, he will just show it in his actions.”

Maybe it started with a simple phrase his high school coach told him: “Don’t look like a freshman. Don’t act like a freshman.”

Jordan can attest to Farello’s words when it comes to Thompson: he isn’t looking like a freshman.

“He took four charges the other night,” Jordan said, referring to the Ohio State overtime win. “I can’t name a freshman that I’ve coached since I’ve been doing this that has taken that many in a high level game that matters.”

Jordan said he doesn’t know how good Thompson can be, but knows he will get even better. Thompson has a pretty good formula to becoming better.

“I just want to feel my way into the team. I want to win a lot of games. I want to win championships here.” Thompson said. “I want to build relationships with my teammates and have them trust me on the court as much as I trust them.”

Farello said he believes Thompson has a lot to offer Butler as a basketball player and human being.

“It’s about Butler basketball and not about him,” Farello said. “I think when you have players like that, especially at the point guard position, that give everything they got to a program and they’re all in. That’s who Aaron Thompson is.”

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