You would be forgiven for referring to the 2023 NBA rookie cohort as the “Victor Wembanyama draft class.”
After all, the 7-foot-4-inches teenager is the most hyped prospect since LeBron James. He is a walking cheat code who is unlike anything basketball has ever seen before, with 2014 MVP Kevin Durant among those already singing the Frenchman’s praises this season.
Though multiple pairs of twins have played together in the NBA, the Thompson brothers became the first siblings to be drafted in the top five of the same draft. They were even drafted back-to-back.
“It just seems like everything they do translates to winning basketball. Crashing the glass, if it’s helping on defense, rotating, communication, ball movement, facilitation, just trying to find guys and get to great spots.”
The twins had an unorthodox path to the league. After deciding to forgo their last year of high school and renounce their college eligibility, they signed with Overtime Elite (OTE), a startup basketball league for 16 to 20-year-olds based in Atlanta.
They spent two seasons in OTE, playing on separate teams in their first year before Amen joined his brother on the City Reapers, where they were coached by Dave Leitao.
He describes the twins as having “insatiable” work ethics and says they are “very humble, tremendous people.”
“This is my 40th year in basketball, so I think I’ve been around some pretty special individuals,” Leitao said to CNN Sport. “Amen and Ausar, two or three times a week, would do something that I’ve never seen before.
“I’ve been caught on camera saying: ‘I’ve never seen that before, like, did you just see what I saw?!’”
Amen and Ausar were born on January 30, 2003, in Oakland, California, with Amen being the older twin by a solitary minute. They share the middle name XLNC (pronounced “excellence”), which was given to them to convey a sense of power and greatness, according to their father Troy, who is also their agent.
The brothers have often spoken about how inseparable they are, and told the New York Times earlier this year that they had never spent more than two days apart.
Making it to the NBA had always been a shared dream – the twins created a vision board when they were nine years old, with one of the central goals being to “become the greatest NBA player of all time.”
They played high school basketball together at Pine Crest School after moving to Florida and were both five-star recruits after graduating. They were still very much a duo at OTE (even though they played on different teams during their first year) and are each other’s biggest fan.
However, life in the league means that they now often find themselves on opposite sides of the country, something that the twins made sure to prepare for.
“They were adamant about understanding that they were going to have to separate,” Leitao said. “Now that they’re apart, they talk every day.”
The college path has long been the traditional way of making it to the league for American basketball players. Nationally televised games, the allure of the NCAA tournament and a plethora of NBA scouts watching you are all part of the appeal.
However, in recent years, we have seen aspiring hoopers choose alternative routes, such as overseas competitions and the developmental G League, to the NBA. It is not that the Dukes, UCLAs and North Carolinas of the world are losing their shine – March Madness will always be March Madness – more so that the next generation is increasingly exploring opportunities off the beaten track.
Overtime Elite was launched in 2021 as another option for young players. It is operated by Overtime, a media company aimed at Gen Z sports fans.
Players receive a minimum $100,000 wage (which they can waive if they wish to retain college eligibility) and access to state-of-the-art training facilities in the 103,000 square-foot OTE Arena in Atlanta. They also get an education that includes “applicable professional skills training” classes, which focuses on topics such as financial literacy, media training and mental wellbeing.
Amen and Ausar became the highest profile players to sign up for the league’s inaugural season back in 2021. They skipped their final year of high school and sacrificed college eligibility after agreeing to be paid a salary.
It was a huge gamble to take: OTE had not yet been established as a viable option for young players, yet here were two highly-rated prospects blazing a trail and taking a risk.
It paid off in a big way for the twins, who dominated the league as high-jumping, shot-swatting, consistently viral, highlight machines that moved at an electric pace and stifled offenses on the defensive end.
Their draft positions were also a huge boost for OTE, which saw two of its prospects selected in the top five after only its second season.
“It’s a really big vote of confidence for OTE,” said Omari Sankofa II of the Detroit Free Press to CNN Sport. “[The coaches] talked about how they wanted to come in and really give athletes a modern platform to improve their skills and translate to the pros pretty quickly.”
Leitao agrees that it helped to launch the twins’ careers, saying: “Whether they wanted to be, or we wanted them to be, they’ve become the face of Overtime Elite. It’s great for the growth of basketball, knowing that there’s not just one avenue to take to get to your dream.”
The same, but different
Amen and Ausar are so frequently referred to as “the Thompson twins” that it is almost as if they are one unit. They are identical: both are 6 foot 7 inches tall and both possess otherworldly athletic ability.
“If you’re not careful, you’re looking at the same person!” Leitao said.
On the court is where they begin to diverge.
“Although they have come up together their entire lives, they still have differences,” said Iko. “Amen is more of a primary ball handler, whereas Ausar is more of a point forward type role.”
Amen, who plays the point guard position, recently suffered an ankle injury but showed flashes – both in preseason and in his brief first string of NBA games off the bench – of what he can provide for a team. Iko has been impressed by the “poise” he has shown.
“His vision is through the roof,” he said. “The biggest thing that’s caught my attention is how quickly he moves the ball and how much he encourages unselfish team play.”
His athleticism almost goes without saying at this point.
“We’re talking about one of the top 10 most explosive players in the league by age 21,” Iko continued.
Ausar, meanwhile, has started every regular season game at small forward for the Pistons and his rebounding and suffocating defensive ability (not typically a characteristic associated with rookies) have caught the eye.
“It just seems like defensively, everything just moves really slow for him,” said Sankofa. “He has really good anticipation as far as knowing where the ball will be, where he needs to be, forcing steals.
“Sometimes, it just seems like he knew what’s going to happen before it happened.”
Ausar has had some flashy highlight plays on the offensive end, which have helped contribute to his side being dubbed the “Showtime Pistons” – a far cry from the notoriously physical “Bad Boys” of the ‘90s.
Iko compares Amen to Deron Williams and Lamar Odom, while Sankofa sees shades of Scottie Pippen in Ausar (a “lofty comparison,” he admitted). Both see natural similarities between the twins and former NBA Finals MVP Andre Iguodala.
Though the Thompsons excel in a multitude of areas, it is almost universally agreed that they need to work on their outside shooting.
Ausar has been left wide open behind the three-point line by defenses so far, and he is not making the opposition pay.
“That cramps the court for everybody else when defenses are able to pack in the way that they’ve been doing against the Pistons so far,” Sankofa says.
Amen also struggles in this aspect, with Iko explaining that the Rockets rookie had been working with lead assistant and shooting guru Ben Sullivan to improve his jump shot mechanics.
Fortunately, the twins have their whole careers ahead of them to iron out their flaws and are as determined as anyone to become the best players they can possibly be.
“They can’t function unless they’re in the gym working on their game,” said Leitao, who appears immensely proud of the brothers.
“I’m aware that you have to check certain boxes sometimes, especially in the NBA with all the money and all the things socially or humanistic that get in the way, but they’re as equipped as anybody to handle that and more when it comes to their growth and development.
“They’re well on their way to becoming special.”
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