COLUMBUS: The fate of this Ohio State basketball team is in Deshaun Thomas’ hands. If he could shoot it, he probably would.
“Archie Miller and I were at the state championship game in Indiana his junior year,” OSU coach Thad Matta said, mentioning a former assistant. “Deshaun gets the tip, and he shoots about a 30-foot three off his back foot and air-balls it. Archie has never seen anything like it. He’s like, ‘My gosh.’… And I said, ‘Oh, it gets better.’ ”
Matta laughed. It’s a beautiful thing for a basketball coach to have a player as talented as Thomas on his roster, even one who still prefers shooting to, say, breathing. After two seasons in Matta’s system, Thomas is trying to excel in ways that might not come as natural to him — and succeeding. In the Buckeyes’ 89-55 win over Long Beach State on Saturday, one of his biggest grins came after he earned an assist on an Aaron Craft three.
“It’s just me becoming a player,” Thomas said. “It’s just knowing the game and knowing when to make the extra pass. Freshman year, I probably wouldn’t make that pass. I would have jacked it up.”
Reporters laughed; Thomas smiled. If there’s a concern about the 6-foot-7 junior, it’s that Thomas is probably the most-emotional player on the roster — one who probably enjoys the game as much as anybody else who has ever played for OSU, but one who also can get frustrated when his shots aren’t falling.
He missed two threes in a five-second span early in the game Saturday — if you blink, you can miss a lot in Thomas’ world — and he threw his hands up in exasperation when the second one rimmed out. Craft caught up to him and offered encouragement, and Thomas quickly went from dead stop to 120 mph in the happiness department.
“When that second one went in and out, I knew it felt good and it should have gone in,” Thomas said. “Aaron just pulled me to the side and said, ‘Hey, man, the next one is going to go in and I’ve got you.’ [After] that, the shots were falling and I was making great passes and the game was rolling and I was very excited.”
Thomas’ energy and enthusiasm are infectious, but it’s important that he doesn’t let them take him too far out of his game. Matta knows how closely this team’s success is tied to Thomas, so he constantly reminds him to stay in the game mentally.
“My most-consistent message to him is ‘Mind right, game right,’ ” Matta said. “We’re constantly trying to get him thinking the right thoughts, that kind of thing. He’s been in this position before at the high-school level, and he has to learn it’s a different game now in terms of ‘being the guy.’ What you can do to help your team at the college level entails a lot more besides just scoring.”
Thomas is getting the message. He loves to shoot, yes, but he also loves winning.
He came into last weekend averaging 21 points a game and ended up with 18 points on 7-of-16 shooting against Long Beach State.
“I think I’m fine where I’m at,” he said. “It’d be nice to be averaging 25 or 26, but if you’re losing or not giving the effort, that’s bad. If you’re averaging 21 and the effort’s there and your teammates are scoring and everybody’s playing well, I’m happy with that.
“I’m learning to do the little things: Being a leader out there. Getting stops. Playing defense. Going after offensive rebounds. This game is all effort. People out there know you can score, but can you do other things? Can you grab 10 rebounds? Can you get a steal? Can you block out? Can you make the hustle plays? I’m learning that it’s not just all about the scoring, it’s all about the effort.”
It’s not all about the scoring, but it doesn’t take much effort to get Thomas to talk about offense. His eyes noticeably brightened when he talked about high-school games when he got 35 or 40 shots.
If he had to pick his ideal game now, how many shots would he get?
Thomas looked around to see if anyone else was listening, then grinned
“Probably 30,” he said.
At least he didn’t say all of them.
Bob Hunter is a columnist for the Columbus Dispatch.