Deshaun Thomas and the Case for MVP
By Brandon Castel
COLUMBUS, Ohio — There was a moment during the 2013 Big Ten season, maybe just a fraction of a moment, when it looked like Deshaun Thomas might be the best basketball player on the planet.
Photo by Jim Davidson
We know he is not, despite the fact he did draw comparisons to LeBron James when he was a freshman at Bishop Luers High School back home in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
Thomas led the Big Ten in scoring this year. He led all scorers during the NCAA Tournament last March, yet we know the 6-7 lefty is not the best basketball player on the planet.
He’s not even the best basketball player in the Big Ten, at least according to NBA Draft boards. Indiana big man Cody Zeller is expected to be among the top 10 players taken in the upcoming draft. IU teammate Victor Oladipo shouldn’t be far behind, and Michigan could have a few guys come off the board early if Trey Burke, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Glen Robinson III decide to come out early.
But there was a moment this year when Thomas looked like he could beat them all by himself. There were also times where he probably would have had to. Thomas never quite looked as good again as he did during his 28-point performance against Michigan State back in January.
It was one of the all-timers.
Six threes. Seven rebounds. Knocking down shots over 6-11 Adreian Payne from just about anywhere on the court. It wasn’t even his home court. This was the Breslin Center. This was East Lansing, and this was Thomas at his very best.
Photo by Jim Davidson
He didn’t get a chance to take the game-tying three at the end, and while Tom Izzo insists he wasn’t going to let Thomas get off a shot – even if it was from a mountain top – that loss probably kept Thomas from being more of a factor in Monday night’s Big Ten Player of the Year voting.
Ultimately, this year’s award went to Michigan sophomore Trey Burke. It could have just as easily gone to Indiana’s Oladipo, who took home the conference’s Defensive Player of the Year at the expense of incumbent Aaron Craft.
Thomas did make first-team All-Big Ten, and he was a unanimous choice by the Big Ten media, and while the Big Ten’s leading-scorer probably wasn’t on the same level as Burke or Oladipo this year – especially after that heroic performance in East Lansing – it’s quite possible he was the Big Ten’s Most Valuable Player.
Now they don’t actually hand out an award for MVP in the Big Ten. It’s all about rewarding the best player in the conference, although that player almost always seems to come from one of the best teams in the conference.
Missed free throw aside, this year’s winner had his team in position to tie for a Big Ten championship going into the final minute of the regular season. Thomas had the Buckeyes in similar position.
If Burke connects on the front end of his one-and-one trip Sunday, the Columbus native might have delivered some championship hardware to Value City Arena next time he was back in Columbus.
Ultimately, the Buckeyes finished second in the standings, with Michigan sliding all the way back to fifth. The Player of the Year in the Big Ten, college basketball’s top conference by an overwhelming margin this year, was on the fifth place team.
Anyone who watched Burke play this year is probably all right with that. The kid from Columbus Northland scored double-digit points in every one of Michigan’s games this season. He had 12 games with 20 or more points and three games where he dished out 11 or more assists.
He led the Big Ten in assists and in assist-to-turnover ratio (Shannon Scott and Craft finished second and third). There is certainly a strong argument for Burke as MVP, along with Player of the Year, because of how often he had the ball in his hands this season.
But, then, so did Thomas. He wasn’t the primary distributor for the Buckeyes, but everything ran through the star junior this season. He replaced Jared Sullinger as the go-to guy in Columbus and it’s downright frightening to think of where this Ohio State team might have finished without him.
The Wolverines were never very good at defense this season, but they have plenty of guys who can score the basketball. Burke seemed to make it all go, but the offense ran pretty well Sunday when John Beilein had Hardaway bringing the ball up the floor most of the day.
Burke was one of four guys who averaged double-figures for the Wolverines this season. The Buckeyes had exactly two, and Lenzelle Smith Jr., the team’s No. 2 scorer this season, scored single-digit points in 10 of Ohio State’s 18 conference games this season.
As a result, Thomas was a few points away from being just the second OSU player in the last decade to average 20 points for an entire season. His 19.7 points a night accounted for 28 percent of his team’s offense this season.
No player in the last decade has carried that kind of load for the Buckeyes, not even Evan Turner during the 2008-09 season. That was the only other time an OSU player had to account for a quarter of his team’s offensive output, but Turner was built for that. He thrived on having the ball in his hands and attacked the basket in a variety of different ways.
Thomas saw his shooting percentage decline over the latter half of the conference season. That's because defenses were selling out to take away Ohio State’s top – and sometimes only – scoring threat.
Illinois ran a constant trap every time Thomas touched the ball on Sunday. They were just the latest to get creative with defending the smooth-shooter. Without a true wingman (Smith accounted for 14 percent of Ohio State’s point this year), Thomas was constantly trapped, doubled and attacked as far as 25 feet from the basket.
Yet he still managed to score 15 or more points in every game the Buckeyes played this season except for one (he had 11 in a 65-51 win over Penn State). Sometimes he did his scoring efficiently (he needed only 13 shots to get his 22 points at Purdue) and sometimes he just had to keep shooting (it took him 21 shots to get 24 points in a loss at Illinois).
Whatever the case, Ohio State was better off when No. 1 had the ball in his hands. Without his ability to score at a high volume every single time he stepped on the court this year, these Buckeyes simply were not good enough offensively to compete.
Maybe LaQuinton Ross would have developed a little quicker, but take Thomas away from this group and it’s not impossible to think their record might have looked more like 5-13 in the Big Ten instead of 13-5. Certainly some other guys came on late in the year – specifically Craft – but no player was more vital to his team’s survival this season than Thomas.
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