Instant Impact: Thomas Exits

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Last updated: 04/08/2013 2:52 AM

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Men's Basketball
Instant Impact: Deshaun Thomas Exits Stage Left
By Brandon Castel

A year ago, Ohio State was forced to replace arguably the best – or least the most consistently great – player in the Big Ten. Now they will be asked to replace the most consistently great scorer.

Deshaun Thomas
Photo by Jim Davidson
Deshaun Thomas

From a volume standpoint, Deshaun Thomas was the best scorer in the Big Ten this past season. His field goal percentage of 44.7 percent left something to be desired, especially after a sophomore season where he scored on 52 percent of his shots.

But Thomas had a lot on his plate as a junior. He was asked to slide up two spots in order to replace Jared Sullinger as the Buckeyes’ primary weapon offensively, a challenge Thomas was all too eager to accept.

Without Sullinger on the floor, his looks were not quite as good this season. He saw constant double-teams for the first time since his Mr. Basketball days back in Indiana, and there were times earlier in the year when he was surrounded by four offensively challenged teammates.

Thomas hoisted up an incredible 584 field goal attempts this season. That number was the sixth-highest in the country and far-and-away the most in the Big Ten. Michigan’s Trey Burke – the National Player of the Year and Wooden Award winner – was second with 478 shots this season.

By comparison, Sullinger never attempted more than 440 shots in a season during his two All-American years at Ohio State. Thomas went through a bad shooting slump in February that knocked his percentages out of the top 15 in the conference, but he scored 15 points or more in every game this year except for one (he had 11 in a 14-point win over Penn State).

He also scored 20 points or more in all four of Ohio State’s NCAA Tournament games this year. His final scoring average in 12 appearances in the Big Dance was 17.1, but that includes the three games from his freshman season. He only played three minutes in Ohio State’s loss to Kentucky. Take those games away, and his NCAA Tournament average was over 20 in nine games.

In other words, Deshaun Thomas knew how to score the basketball. He was it his best when he was putting it in the hoop efficiently, but even when he wasn’t taking great shots, Thomas still found a way to score.

Picking Up the Slack

Now the Buckeyes will have to find a way to score without him. Thomas declared Friday he will skip his senior season at Ohio State to enter the 2013 NBA Draft. He’s taking his 19.8 points per game and his 584 shots with him.

LaQuinton Ross
Photo by Jim Davidson
LaQuinton Ross

That’s a lot of volume to replace, and the most immediate benefactor of those extra touches will be LaQuinton Ross. About a month ago, we still didn’t know what to make of Mr. Ross. The natural ability to score the basketball was undeniable, but the rest of his game seemed to be lagging pretty far behind.

His emergence during the Big Ten and NCAA Tournaments made the decision by Thomas a much more manageable crisis, for the OSU coaches and for the fans. Ross averaged over 14 points per game during Ohio State’s run to the Elite Eight this season, and he did it very efficiently, taking fewer than 10 shots per contest.

It’s a pretty obvious statement, but it needs to be said: this will be the biggest offseason of LaQuinton Ross’ career, probably ever. He has to transform himself from a guy who had games where he played single-digit minutes in the Big Ten to a guy who can put up the numbers he did in the tournament every night.

The Buckeyes will need Ross to be a 15-20 point per night guy next season if they are going to compete for another Big Ten title and another shot to get back to the Sweet Sixteen, or further.

In terms of pure talent, Ross has it all. His silky smooth jumper is good from 25 feet and he is starting to show some confidence putting the ball on the floor. It’s still a weakness for him at the moment, but if he can improve that area of his game, he has shown a nice, soft touch around the basket.

Like Thomas, Ross is never going to be confused with a lockdown defender, but you can tell he’s trying on defense. It’s become startlingly obvious that he is better off defending a stronger, slower guy in the post area than chasing around a quick shooter on the perimeter.

Maybe they can build off that this offseason.

Where Will Help Come From?

If Ohio State is going to be a great basketball team next season, they probably don’t want Ross taking over 580 shots the way Thomas did this season. A lot of that was facilitated by the fact the Buckeyes were painful to watch offensively for long stretches this year, and the team often had to rely on Thomas to literally carry them to the finish line.

That reared its ugly head again in the loss to Wichita State, before Ross came up big in the second half, but there were plenty of times over the last month where Thomas didn’t have to carry the Buckeyes all by himself.

Aaron Craft
Photo by Jim Davidson
Aaron Craft

The most obvious choice for No. 2 scorer next year would be point guard Aaron Craft. He has shown an ability to get inside against a defense and when his jumper is falling, he is very difficult to contain at the offensive end.

But Craft’s jumper is as unsightly as it is unpredictable. If he could play like he did against Iona every night, the Buckeyes would never lose. There’s no doubt Craft will be working hard on his jumper again this offseason, but he can’t seem to force the ball to go in the basket no matter how many late hours he spends in the gym.

Another option for No. 2 scorer would be Sam Thompson. The high-flyer out of Chicago came on strong down the stretch for the Buckeyes this season. He needed to after such a slow start, but Thompson has all the physical tools to be an elite player at the college level.

What should really give Ohio State fans hope with Thompson for next season was the way he improved his outside shooting as a sophomore. After making just seven of his first 29 tries from behind the arc (24 percent) to start the year, Thompson knocked down 16 of his last 28 threes (57 percent) to close out the season.

The Buckeyes should also expect more from Lenzelle Smith Jr. as a senior next season. His shooting percentages and three point percentages both dropped as a junior this past season.

What Changes?

One of the biggest changes for the Buckeyes without Thomas next season will be the loss of Thad Matta’s trusty small lineup. The Buckeyes played some of their best basketball in the postseason with Thomas at the five and LaQuinton Ross at the four. That allowed him to rotate Craft, Thompson, Lenzelle Smith and Shannon Scott between the three other spots.

It was especially effective after they figured out Ross was better served defending the paint, while Thomas chased the opposing team’s four-man around the perimeter. Without Thomas, that whole concept sort of falls apart. Maybe Thompson can slide up and play the four defensively, but he’s more of a perimeter defender than a guy who can match up with bigger forwards.

Incoming freshman Marc Loving is another possibility, but it seems unlikely Matta is going to have a rookie out there playing big minutes in crunch time next season. That puts a lot of pressure on Amir Williams and Trey McDonald to get a lot better this offseason.

Williams in particular has to take his game to the next level if the Buckeyes are going to repeat their success from the past two seasons. With Thomas and Evan Ravenel gone, Williams is probably going to have to play big minutes all season.

Is he ready for that? We won’t know the answer to that until next fall. 

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