Jeff’s Weekly Sports Rapp: DT, Dream Tester
By Jeff Rapp
(Editor’s Note: Jeff Rapp has covered Ohio State athletics since he graduated from the university more than 20 years ago. He currently serves as a voting member of the Heisman Trophy Trust and is a longstanding member of the Football Writers Association of America and the U.S. Basketball Writers Association).
I watched Deshaun Thomas play a lot of basketball before he ever set foot on campus to begin what was a very productive Ohio State career.
Photo by Jim Davidson
High school games, camps, showcases, AAU tournaments, the McDonald’s All-American Game – every time I observed Thomas I came away intrigued if not outwardly impressed with his unique skills and uncanny ability to score the basketball.
The kid had 2,254 points going into his senior season at Fort Wayne Bishop Luers. He didn’t quite average the 34 points a game he needed to surpass Damon Bailey as the all-time leading scorer in the history of Indiana boys basketball, but he ended up third on that vaunted list with more than 3,000 points.
When Thomas signed a letter-of-intent with Ohio State in November 2009 he was considered a five-star recruit. ESPN.com gave a grade of 96 and rated him No. 12 nationally (second among all shooting forward prospects). Rivals (No. 18), Scout (No. 14), All Star report (No. 10) and Hoop Scoop (No. 8) also considered him a top-20 recruit.
My write-up of him at the time for Bucknuts Media included the following scouting report:
“The definition of a scoring machine, Thomas is long, left-handed and has an explosive first step that nearly makes him impossible to shut off from the basket. He slashes at will and also can shoot over the defense when it packs in on him. He could use a little more work on his off hand as well as some refinement with his intermediate pull-up game but he’s still a 30-point explosion waiting to happen.”
Thomas and top dog Jared Sullinger of Columbus Northland gave Thad Matta another truly elite class, and the group swelled to six with the addition of forward J.D. Weatherspoon of Columbus Northland, shooting guard Jordan Sibert of Cincinnati Princeton, combo guard Lenzelle Smith Jr. of Zion (Ill.) Zion-Benton, and point guard Aaron Craft of Findlay (Ohio) Liberty-Benton.
Today Ohio State made it official: Thomas, as expected, will leave a year of college eligibility on the table in pursuit of professional riches, which means the majority of that super six has departed.
Sibert and Weatherspoon transferred to in-state schools Dayton and Toledo, respectively, after their sophomore seasons and will be back in action in different uniforms next season. Sullinger, meanwhile, declared for the draft after last season and the Boston Celtics tabbed him in the first round.
Now Thomas has decided to follow Sullinger’s lead – just as he did in committing to Ohio State, doing so way back in June 2007.
So it’s not as if Thomas’ time connected to the OSU program was that short-lived. DT, as he is known by most, arrived with such a sterling ranking and reputation as a prolific scorer that Matta knew this day of an early exit might come.
“To see Deshaun grow into the man he has become has been amazing. His accomplishments on the floor speak for themselves but I am just as proud of him and what he has done off the floor,” Matta said. “We recruited him offering the opportunity to grow as a person and player and that is exactly what happened. I know there is much more in-store for him in the future and I am proud to have been able to coach him.”
Clearly, Thomas has lived up to much of his promise.
One of the Best
He won a pair of state titles at Bishop Luers, was on a standout AAU team that also included former Kentucky guard Marquis Teague, who is a now a Chicago Bull, and won multiple Big Ten titles in three years at Ohio State. Last year, Thomas was the highest scoring player in the NCAA Tournament as the Buckeyes advanced to the Final Four.
This year, they came up a game short, losing to Wichita State in Los Angeles in the Elite Eight. His final college stat line reads thusly: a game-high 23 points, 8 of 20 from the field, 0 of 6 from three-point range, 7 of 9 at the free-throw line, five rebounds, three assists and five turnovers.
Many would look at those numbers and say, “Yep, typical Deshaun performance,” and in a sense, it was.
The 6-7 lefty played the vast majority of his 1,309 minutes this past season at power forward and became a matchup problem for just about everyone. He led the Big Ten in scoring and came up just short of the 20-point plateau at 19.8 points per game. His field-goal percentage of 44.5 wasn’t ideal but also wasn’t bad for a volume shooter.
Interestingly, he took way more three-point attempts than anyone else on the team with 209 and made a team-high 72, which equates to 34.4 percent. Smith (37.4 percent), LaQuinton Ross (38.9), Sam Thompson (40.4) and even seldom-used Amedeo Della Valle (38.5) all shot a much higher percentage from behind the arc.
Still, given how important Thomas was to the offense and how much attention he drew, his offensive shortcomings are understandable, as is the fact that he had just 48 assists in 37 games. His job was to shoot early in the shot clock, shoot it late and shoot it in between. And he displayed the creativity and effectiveness to strike from all areas of the court – nifty reverses and power-ups down low, turnarounds on the baseline, fadeaways from the mid-post, bombs from every spot behind the arc.
What was disappointing about his junior season, in my view, was his average of 5.9 rebounds per game. Sure, that led the team and Thomas has a truly unusual knack for quick-grabbing offensive rebounds, especially his own misses. We saw him do that all the time – flip up a shot, grab the carom and go back up with it before defenders even had proper time to react.
But given this trait, Thomas should have snared more overall rebounds. He rarely lifted up above others for statement defensive rebounds and often left misses for Smith (4.8 rpg) and Craft (3.6 rpg) to chase down. He only logged five double-doubles in his OSU career including two this year and two in Big Ten play.
Perhaps, Thomas is well aware that his bread will be buttered by his scoring ability and he felt he had to put the majority of his energy into that aspect. But he still strikes me as someone who could have averaged seven or more rebounds per game this past season after averaging 15 a game in high school.
Admittedly, though, Thomas is not an explosive athlete, and therein lies the problem with his future. He doesn’t fit an NBA prototype for a combo forward or even a three-man. He gets off the ground as much as he has to at the collegiate level but is not springy legged.
He runs like he has glass in his shoes.
And Thomas is not as unguardable as he appeared in high school and on the AAU circuit, when he seemed to get a step on his defenders with regularity. Mostly that’s because the fitness and competition level has risen. Also, Thomas is not as sinewy as he was a few years ago after beefing up to deal with absorbing contact in the Big Ten.
Please don’t misunderstand: I am not going out of my way to knock Thomas. I actually like the way he plays and have learned to appreciate the complexity of his talents. I don’t think it’s bad at all for an offensively challenged team to have a high-confidence, low-conscience leading scorer as long as he has some grasp of shot selection and team dynamics – and despite his reputation as a self-serving gun, Thomas did develop those qualities.
He just had an All-American season and the Buckeyes won 29 games and a Big Ten Tournament title. He leaves with 1,630 career points, which ranks ninth all-time at Ohio State.
Finding His Niche
But it’s also evident why NBA scouts are skeptical. They are looking for the next LeBron James, James Worthy or Kevin Durant to play wing forward – 6-8, 6-9 and 6-10 freaks who can run like gazelles, shoot with efficiency and throw down dunks over the league’s most feared shot-blocking centers.
Thomas is a dinker – not a dunker – a fader, a line-drive shooter, an up-and-under draw-the-foul guy. That doesn’t excite GMs.
I was on WTVN’s “Bucksline” show most Monday nights of the basketball season and found myself in many discussions with host Matt McCoy and analyst Tony White about the pluses and minuses of Deshaun Thomas.
Tony and I had the same reaction to a couple moments of the Wichita State contest.
“There were two plays in the game when he was trying to lead the fast break and the ball was turned over,” White said. “He looked completely uncomfortable with the ball in his hands. He has to spend the entire offseason remaking his game to the point where he is a mobile, left and right, with the dribble type of an offensive guy who can create his own shots and beat people one-on-one.”
Most NBA teams don’t draft someone with a high pick and then hope they can develop in that way. The label is already affixed.
In a recent column for CBSSports.com, Jeff Goodman said it’s time for Thomas to head to the NBA because – paraphrasing here – he’s not going to get any more athletic in a year.
That’s one way of looking at it. Considering it’s a weak-looking draft comparatively and Thomas is right in the 30-40 range on most boards, he could even sneak into the first round.
No doubt, that’s what prospective agents and friends are telling him right now. My guess, though, is that Matta and assistant coach Chris Jent, who is well-connected to the NBA, conveyed a more realistic view when they sat down with Thomas earlier this week.
Matta said it’s important to get all the facts and information out there to his star player, which could have been read, “Hey, go ahead and go if you don’t mind playing in Europe.”
That basically was White’s take on the situation.
“If he goes pro he is not going to be drafted in the first round; it’s not going to happen,” White said on Bucksline. “At 6-6 or 6-7, you have to be a face-up, beat your man, handle the ball in transition, spread it around, shoot the three off the dribble type of a guy and that’s not who he is. He’s a second-round pick at best. If he goes pro, he’s going to end up overseas.”
Thomas is a guy willing to take that risk. He didn’t exactly grow up in luxury in Fort Wayne and he and his girlfriend have a son, Deshaun Jr., who just turned 1.
“He can make a decent amount of money (overseas) and he’s got a family, I understand that,” White said. “But you hope the kid is focusing on the long-term factors.”
Getting your degree is a long-term factor. Returning for another run at the Final Four is another one. So is walking the earth being hailed as the greatest scorer in the history of Ohio State basketball – something Thomas no doubt would have cherished.
Cash grab is a short-term decision, but one 18 underclassmen already have made at this writing with many, many more to follow.
What Could Have Been
Moments after the season ended, Thomas didn’t divulge which way he was leaning on his impending decision while talking to reporters in the locker room of the Staples Center, but he might have slipped when he said it would be a “sad decision.”
Ohio State fans wanted him to stay for his senior season. That would have allowed the Buckeyes to return all five of their starters and everyone in Matta’s 2012-13 rotation with the exception of center Evan Ravenel, a fifth-year senior. OSU also adds some wing help next season in the form of 6-2 shooting guard Kameron Williams and 6-7 forward Marc Loving.
The outlook would have been very, very bright, but his decision to go could lead to headaches on both sides of the aisle.
According to NBADraft.net, one of the best sites of its kind, Thomas has increased his stock from the postseason but still is considered an early second-round pick at this point.
In fact, in the site’s latest mock, Thomas is listed as the first pick of the second round, No. 31 overall. Interestingly, the Cleveland Cavaliers own picks 32 and 33.
Analyst Aran Smith considers Thomas to be the No. 42 prospect of those who are likely to be eligible for the draft. NBADraft.net’s latest assessment lists Thomas as the No. 9 shooting forward on the board – right in the area where he is more likely to plummet than inch into the first round.
Following a Similar Path
Former Buckeye Michael Redd, a 6-6 lefty and not a skywalker, was supposed to go somewhere in the first round of the 2000 draft but fell to No. 43. The shooting guards taken ahead of him included washouts DerMarr Johnson, Keyon Dooling, Courtney Alexander, Desmond Mason, Quentin Richardson, Morris Peterson and Lavor Postell.
Why? One word: athleticism. One other word: upside.
Redd’s story has a happy ending. He worked on his shot like nobody I’ve ever seen before, became a star with the Milwaukee Bucks and even won a gold medal with the U.S. Olympic team. But he also had a lost year rotting on an NBA bench and missed out on a chance to be the leading scorer in the history of the OSU program.
Plus, Thomas is not about to completely revamp his shooting form. He displays surprisingly good touch for a low-arc shooter. At this point, his game is what it is.
Looking at All Angles
Thomas, who will turn 22 on Aug. 28, is consistently listed at 6-7 and 225 pounds. He measured 6-7 (in shoes) and 221 pounds with a 6-9 wingspan at the 2012 Amare Stoudemire Skills Academy, a prominent Nike developmental camp for post players.
His decision came at a time when many underclassmen were yet to make their announcements. For example, the Michigan trio of Trey Burke, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Glenn Robinson III has some business to attend to in Atlanta this weekend and it’s doubtful we’ll receive official word from any of them until the middle of next week. It’s likely all of them will bolt and even possible (but not likely) that UM big man Mitch McGary could join them.
Indiana center Cody Zeller and forward Victor Oladipo also are expected to enter the draft and it’s at least 50-50 that Michigan State forward Adreian Payne will do the same.
The Big Ten already is losing several seniors who project to go somewhere in the second round of the draft including Minnesota forwards Trevor Mbakwe and Rodney Williams as well as Illinois guard Brandon Paul, a personal favorite.
If Thomas does indeed get picked somewhere in the middle of the draft, he’s a long shot to have a lasting NBA career, if at all. Teams at the bottom of the first round are looking for polished role players. Teams at the top of the second are seeking immediate help.
It would take an NBA GM or coach to fall in love with Thomas’ strange effectiveness for him to get the sample size he needs to show he can play at the top level – and even that rare opportunity would come with no guarantees.
Maybe he would have been best served to stay around the people who already love him – family, friends, his college coaches and championship-starved Buckeye fans.
But even though Thomas has until April 16 to change his mind and withdraw his name from early entry, that’s not the way it’s going to play out.
I enjoyed covering Deshaun and wish him nothing but the best. I applaud his career and the maturity that he has nurtured during it. And I hope he gets the chance, the real chance, he needs to show what he can do.
But, as I often feel when these kinds of decisions are made, most of all I hope he has some semblance of an idea of what he’s now up against.
It’s a tough business world out there.
But you stay cool, DT. Stay cool.
* This is the latest installment of Jeff Rapp’s Weekly Sports Rapp on The-Ozone.net. He is a regular voice on 610 WTVN in Columbus and long-time reporter covering the Buckeyes. If you enjoyed this article, be sure to check out more of Jeff’s work on SportsRappUp.com.