INDEPENDENCE — Cavaliers power forward Tristan Thompson came into his own last season when Anderson Varejao was lost for the year after just 25 games.
The next task is for the third-year pro to show he can produce when he’s on the floor with “The Wild Thing,” who will be the team’s starting center again with free-agent acquisition Andrew Bynum still recovering from knee surgery.
“Anderson is a great player,” Thompson said following a recent practice at Cleveland Clinic Courts. “He was big for us before he went down.
“When he went down, I stepped up and did what I had to do. There’s no need to worry about that (not continuing). I’ve been working on my game.”
When he played with Varejao last season, Thompson averaged 8.4 points and 7.5 rebounds. His struggles were such that some were on the verge of calling the No. 4 pick in the 2011 NBA Draft a bust.
But when Varejao went down with a blood clot in his lung, Thompson had to do more. He did, averaging 13.2 points and 10.3 rebounds the rest of the season to finish at 11.7 and 9.4 overall.
“I think they can,” Cleveland coach Mike Brown said when asked if the two players can form a successful starting front line. “It might not all the time look pretty with the spacing offensively because you don’t have a guy that can step outside the 3-point line and stretch the defense.
“But as active as they are, if they have time to play with one another and understand where the other is going to be, it won’t be like bowling pins and running into each other all the time. Their determination and instincts and all that other stuff will help them on both ends of the floor, especially defensively.”
Early returns have been good. Thompson had 17 points on 7-for-10 shooting and eight rebounds in the Cavs’ exhibition opener Tuesday against Milwaukee.
Though five of his field goals came on layups or dunks and another was left-handed — he’s converted to a right-hander this season — Thompson was active on the offensive boards and extremely impressive on the defensive end, where he repeatedly showed on high screens and disrupted the Bucks’ offense.
“What he’s got to understand,” Brown said, “is that he has a motor like few others have in this league.”
That goes double for Varejao. But, as Brown said, it may not always be a work of art on the offensive end, as Thompson still has almost no ability to step away from the bucket and hit jumpers.
Varejao has improved greatly in that area, but he’d also still much rather crash the boards than shoot.
At the time of his latest injury — he’s played the equivalent of one full season over the last three years — the Brazilian was averaging a career-high 14.1 points on .478 shooting.
Varejao was also averaging a league-best 14.4 rebounds at the time, including a whopping 5.5 on the offensive glass, but didn’t play enough games to qualify for the league’s statistical leaders.
Thompson, who appeared in all 82 games, did. His 3.7 offensive boards per game ranked fifth in the NBA, and his 306 total offensive rebounds set a franchise record and ranked second in the league.
The 22-year-old had 31 double-doubles in points and rebounds, 26 of them coming after Varejao was gone.
Neither Varejao (0.6) nor Thompson (0.9) was much of a shot-blocker last season, but that’s OK with Brown, who would much rather have his big men maintain solid defensive positioning than gamble.
“I’m not a big shot-block guy,” the coach said. “If you go for the block, a lot of times it can put you out of position because you’re always anticipating. If you leave the ground before the shooter leaves the ground, then we’re at a disadvantage.
“I’m a position coach. I prefer the charge over the blocked shot. Just come big and see what type of impact you can have on the ball instead of try to block it.”
Though only 6-foot-9 and not terrifically fast off his feet, Thompson owns a 7-4 wingspan, which can make him an imposing presence defensively and lead to a lot of offensive rebounds.
Thompson is also a smart enough player to know offense won’t be his primary focus with Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters starting in the backcourt and guys like Jarrett Jack, C.J. Miles and No. 1 pick Anthony Bennett coming off the bench.
“I’m not going to go out and search for (shots),” he said. “I’m just going to go out and play pick and roll. If the opportunity comes and I’m open and they’re sagging off me, I won’t be afraid to shoot it.”
Thompson also knows the Cavs will have the ability to utilize a lot of different lineups and have a history of injuries with Varejao, Bynum and Irving in town.
“It’s a long season,” he said. “Injuries are going to happen. The good thing is we have depth. We can go big or small. We’re kind of a mismatch nightmare.
“In order to be a playoff team and a team that makes noise in the East, you’ve got to be able to have versatility and you’ve got to have depth.”
Assuming the Cavs keep Australian point guard Matthew Dellavedova, who has shown little but has some guaranteed money in his two-year contract, they have one roster spot open.
Someone to keep an eye on is 6-10, 242-pound Kenny Kadj, a rookie who went undrafted after averaging 12.9 points and 6.8 rebounds as a senior at Miami (Fla.).
Kadj had 15 points and five boards in 12 minutes against the Bucks and badly outplayed one of the other candidates, 12-year veteran DeSagana Diop, during a scrimmage Saturday at Baldwin Wallace University.
* The Cavs will play the second of their eight exhibition games Friday in Orlando.