Deon Thompson returns to North Carolina's basketball roster this season as the only scholarship player with 'true senior' standing. While Marcus Ginyard has been classified as a senior he's a fifth-year player, while fourth-year player William Graves is classified as a junior after he redshirted back in 2006-2007.
That makes Thompson the last member of his freshman Class of 2006 that finds himself preparing to make his final run with the Tar Heels this coming season.
"It definitely is different now that practice is actually going. It's a totally different feel. Time goes by so fast. It's crazy to think that with my class, I'm the only person left," said Thompson. "Three guys are in the NBA, one guy transferred, and another redshirted, so it's just me. It's crazy to think how time flies, but I'm definitely excited this time is here, and I'm going to enjoy this ride."
"I have to adopt Marcus (as a fellow senior). He was by himself so I picked him up," Thompson joked. "Of course with me and Marcus being here for so long, Marcus being here for five years, we know what to do and we know what Coach expects out of us."
After averaging 10.6 points and 5.7 rebounds per game last season during Carolina's title run, Thompson didn't elect to take an extended vacation or a hiatus from court action this offseason.
Quite to the contrary, Thompson engaged in a rigorous offseason workout regimen in Chapel Hill before and after going with Team USA's 21-Under team to Belgrade, Serbia for a series of challenging international competition.
Thompson served as captain for the USA squad during its time in Eastern Europe.
"I've been continuously working. I don't think I've taken a break since last season ended," said Thompson. "I've been continuously working with (strength and conditioning coach) Jonas (Sahratian), going and playing with USA Basketball, and then coming back to Chapel Hill and continuing to work with Jonas and on my game."
"I just feel since I was so late coming to the game of basketball, I just feel like I need to catch up. That's why I just try to play as much as I possibly can," Thompson added. "I'm constantly working on scoring the ball with my back to the basket, shooting the ball, dribbling, everything I can possibly do to make myself better."
Thompson, who lost considerable weight earlier on in his UNC career, added muscle mass and more bulk to his physique this offseason as he continues to transform himself physically.
"I definitely just got stronger and a lot more muscle and just continued to maintain and transform my body more as well as continue to work on my game," he said.
Thompson's international opportunity---his second in three summers since coming to UNC---provided him a golden chance to step into a leadership role similar to the one he'll be expected to step into this season for the Tar Heels.
"If I'm not mistaken, he (Thompson) was the only guy that had played on another USA team," said UNC head coach Roy Williams. "In fact he had gone to Serbia two years before."
"Definitely being a captain on that team and being a leader on that team with a bunch of guys who are just as talented as I am and who are some of the best players on their individual teams across the country, just definitely gave me some more leadership abilities," said Thompson. "I was able to lead that team and do some more good things."
"It definitely helped out a lot just being able to lead another group of talented players," he added. "If you look at that team all those kids are leaders on their own team, so to be a leader of a bunch of another group of leaders is something that will help me."
Thompson, due to his status as the team's only returning starter and arguably its most seasoned veteran, has eased nicely into a solid leadership role with the Tar Heels as they've started preseason practice and are gearing up for next week's start to the regular season.
"There is no question that he is adapting to the role of being a leader very well and he's enjoying that part of it of getting our guys going at practice, getting the guys together at the end of practice," said Coach Williams of Thompson. "So that part of it I think has been really good for him. He's done a nice job."
"I think it (stepping into a leadership role) has already happened, honestly," Thompson said. "It happened once all of those guys left and the freshmen came. The leadership role was there and I'm definitely embracing that role and doing the best that I can, and I'm doing a good job at it. It's not something really different. It's just being more vocal with this team."
"The fact I'm a leader, it's not just about me," Thompson continued. "I've got to worry about other guys, younger guys, because I am a leader. It's not just about myself. I'm just going to continue to work hard."
Individually, Thompson is looking to stay within himself as a player and realize that he alone doesn't have to assume the production of Carolina's departures---most notably All-American Tyler Hansbrough.
"The spotlight falling on him, I have tried to get him to be aware that he does not have to be Tyler Hansbrough," said Williams. "I don't want him to think he's got to get 25 (points) and 14 (rebounds every night) or he's not a success, because we just need him to get a little bit better like he has each and every year and be Deon Thompson."
"It would have been very difficult in my opinion for Deon Thompson to come in with Tyler Hansbrough's freshman class and for me to need him to do what I needed Tyler to do, because I needed Tyler to be a stud from the first day, and he was," Williams added.
"Deon, that might have been more difficult for him, and yet at the same time, with Deon it's been a process all along, and he hasn't gotten discouraged. He hasn't changed his work habits. He's continued to put forth the effort each and every day, and I'm really proud of him for the way he's attacked it."
"I don't think anybody can be Tyler Hansbrough in a season. Everything he did was over a four-year span, and there's no one that can do what he did. Definitely that's not even in my mind," Thompson said. "I'm just going to try to be who I can be and just be myself on a day-to-day basis, just being accountable every day and bringing that game every single day and not taking any kind of breaks and being there every day, being mentally focused on whatever the task that's at hand."
"I've told him on more than one occasion, 'Don't let anybody say you're the only returning starter and you've got to average 25 (points per game),' because to me, that would be a bad thing for Deon to try to do. For us, he just has to continue improving to get a little bit better in every phase of the game," Williams added.
Specifically, Williams indicated that Thompson needs to find the necessary mental strength to overcome individual setbacks and adversities over the course of games---which has been a problem for him at times over the course of his career---and avoiding being too hard on himself and letting his focus vanish in those kinds of situations.
"What I hope is the biggest change (in Thompson) is in the past when things are going good, he was fine. If things went south or he had some adversity, it took him a while to get over that," Williams said. "It sort of snowballed on him. He'd start worrying about things and then they would get worse. And so I think that the confidence level and the maturity level will help with that."
"So far I see in practice sessions that he's able to get over things, and if he continues to do that, that will help his consistency," Williams added.
"(I told him) You just have to be Deon Thompson a little bit better, because you're a year older. You've had more work on your game. Do everything a little bit better. He's got to defend a little better. He needs to rebound a little more. He needs to score a little more. He needs his shooting percentage and free throw percentage to be up a little more."
"I just need to continue to be consistent every day," Thompson said. "If you look at the way I played when Tyler was out (last season) I think I played pretty solid. I just need to constantly be consistent on a night in and night out basis, and once I'm able to do that I think I'll be fine."
Defensively, Thompson needs to improve his mobility and his footwork in order to effectively handle what opposing big men will throw at him and the other UNC forwards during the upcoming season.
"I need to be able to slide my feet better and continue to get better with that," he said. "Coach wants to be able to play three big guys at once and somebody is going to have to guard the perimeter spot, so why not let it be me just by sliding my feet and just playing good solid defense?"
Thompson knows that he has to help set the tone defensively each and every day in practice.
He also knows that this year's UNC team, with all its youth and question marks in various areas, can't afford to get lazy defensively.
This is an area that could quite literally make or break the team's success early on in the season as the team works to find itself.
"I think with last season's team, we didn't really get focused on the defensive end until towards the end of the season. I think with this team we can't do that," he said. "We have to be focused on defense and everything we need to do in the beginning to make up for the fact that we're so young and inexperienced. Just being mentally focused at the beginning of the season will help this team so much."
Coach Williams did an impressive prospecting job landing Thompson out of Torrance (Calif.), where he didn't even play organized basketball until he got into high school.
Thompson had a major growth spurt and put his skills on display on the AAU circuit during the summer of 2005, when Williams, fresh off his first NCAA title, was looking to replenish his program's depth with a large and multi-talented class.
"I went to see a game in the summer time. I didn't even know who he was, but he had just a sensational game," said Williams about the first time he watched Thompson play.
"I thought he was a little bit better than a lot of other people did, and I thought he could do the things we like," the UNC coach added. "It didn't take me long talking to him on the phone, visiting him in his home, to see that he would be hungry and try to do the right thing. He wanted to be coached. He was young to the game, and I like those late bloomers and always have, and I think he fits right in there. He's a tremendous kid with tremendous desire."
When the dust settled, Thompson was a member of Carolina's six-man freshman class for the 2006-2007 season.
Three years, two Final Fours and an NCAA title later, he's in the enviable position of being a veteran leader on one of the nation's most prominent college basketball teams under a Hall of Fame coach who Thompson says was the biggest reason why he ultimately became a Tar Heel in the first place.
"Coach Williams, honestly, he gave me that best feel out of all the coaches, and just playing for him, I've had the best three years thus far," Thompson said. "Just his honesty---he doesn't always tell you what you want to hear, but he'll always tell you the right things. He doesn't really sugarcoat it. It's just straight-forward, and that's something I really respect about him is just his honesty."
"I can't see myself being anywhere else," Thompson added. "I just feel he (Williams) can help me reach my full potential as a player and as a man."
As for his experience at North Carolina, Thompson says he wouldn't change a single thing thus far.
"I don't think I would change anything," he said. "We won a national championship and have a chance to defend it. There's not a lot of people who can say they can do that, so there's nothing I would change."
For his senior year, Thompson wants the Tar Heels to find some consistency and compete hard to keep the NCAA title in Chapel Hill, while also stopping occasionally to smell the roses and enjoy his final run as a UNC player.
"Just defend our national championship to the best of our abilities, and just be consistent on a nightly basis and actually just enjoy this time that I have here, my last year here in college---just enjoy it," he said.