For some time now, Husky nation has known it has something special in freshman Isaiah Thomas. But now, the nation, and specifically the rest of the Pac-10 are getting to know what Washington has as well.
Though UCLA's Jrue Holiday and USC's Demar DeRozan, the second and third ranked players in the class of 2008 according to Rivals.com, draw the majority of the attention, Thomas quietly leads all Pac-10 freshmen in scoring with 16.3 points per game, and has been instrumental in the Huskies' rise to the top of the conference.
But being overlooked is nothing new for the small statured Thomas. Following an outstanding junior season at Tacoma's Curtis High School, one in which he earned Class 4A State Player of the Year honors while also setting eight scoring records in the state tournament, Thomas transferred to South Kent (CT). However, he wasn't able to showcase his scoring ability immediately.
"When I went to see them play, the game was on the line, and I noticed they didn't know what he was about yet, because they were freezing him out. They just weren't giving him the ball," explained Washington head coach Lorenzo Romar. "They'd already played some games and kind of had their team together. They had half a dozen Division I players without him on that team, including Matthew Bryan-Amaning.
"But by the time the dust settled, he was averaging close to 30 [points per game]," said Romar. "And he was MVP of that team."
Though he's only 19 games into what should be an outstanding Husky career, Thomas is already drawing comparisons to former co-Pac-10 Player of the Year and NBA Rookie of the Year Damon Stoudamire.
"I was in Hawaii two summers ago and I saw Damon Stoudamire. I said 'Damon, I've got to tell you something - we've a got a guy coming in'. He says 'from Tacoma?'. I said 'yeah', and he said 'Isaiah Thomas?', and I said 'yeah'," explained Romar. "He said 'you're going to tell me he reminds you of me aren't you?', and I said 'yeah'. He said 'you don't know how many people have told me that'.
"I think Damon shot from the outside more than Isaiah does - Isaiah probably penetrates more," said Romar. "But if you ask me who he reminds me of, I'd say Damon would be the closest."
Despite standing a mere 5-foot-8, Thomas constantly finds himself in the lane, either scoring, drawing a foul, or a combination of both. And in Romar's opinion, it's Thomas' ability to create in the paint, that is a primary reason the Huskies have reached the foul line more than any other Pac-10 team.
"He's more athletic and a lot stronger than people think. I think he goes into the lane and says 'I'm going to jump up and I'm going to force the issue, then I'll adjust to what you do'," explained Romar. "'I'm going to draw this contact, and if there's no contact, I'll just lay it up. But if there is contact, great, now I'm really going to focus on finishing and getting an and-one'. With his strength, athleticism and talents, he's able to do that.
"That's the plan, for us to attack - play inside-out and be aggressive that way. But how many foul shots has Isaiah taken?," said Romar. "I haven't looked at it, but take Justin Dentmon away, and I bet he's taken more foul shots than the rest of our guards combined last year. He makes a big difference with how many times he goes to the line."
But Thomas' ability to score doesn't stop in the lane or at the line. 'Zeke' has developed a jab-step that's tough for opposing defenders to contain.
"It's something that he's developed on his own to be able to get his shot off. When you're that size, you've got to be pretty creative and pretty clever," explained Romar. "He's got a way of keeping you off balance. While he has his dribble he can lift you, making you think he's about to pull up, but he's not and he gets in the paint. There are other times, where it appears he's about to take off and go by you, and he pulls up. He's kind of mastered that area."
However, it's not Thomas' offensive prowess that has surprised Romar, but rather his defensive awareness.
"I'm only surprised that he's played better defense earlier than I thought he would, because we've talked before about how defense wasn't something he was as interested in," explained Romar. "To his credit, he's even come to me at times and asked 'how's my defense?'. He's got a lot of pride and he wants to be the best. He's taken it upon himself to become a better defender. He's not there yet, in terms of the finished product, but he's made strides from where he was before he got here."
And here, by all estimations, should be the current leader for Pac-10 Freshman of the Year honors. Only time will tell for this budding star.
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