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Durango Beats Liberty, 76-69

Steve Marcus

Liberty’s Dedan Thomas (11) takes the ball upcourt during the Big City Showdown basketball tournament at Cox Pavilion at UNLV Saturday, Jan 21, 2023. Durango’s Tylen Riley (10) defends at left.

UNLV basketball scored a potentially program-changing win on the recruiting trail on Sunday, as hometown high-school star D.J. Thomas committed to the program.

Thomas, a Las Vegas native who led Liberty to a state title two years ago, made the announcement on social media:

Thomas was one of the most coveted prospects in the Class of 2024, but is expected to reclassify to 2023 and join UNLV for the upcoming season. His other finalists were Arizona, Gonzaga, Houston, UCLA and Florida.

A 6-foot-1 lefty, Thomas is quick and aggressive off the dribble and has drawn praise for his winning attitude. Kevin Kruger made Thomas his No. 1 recruiting priority when he became head coach two years ago, frequently sitting courtside at his games whether he was playing Las Vegas or in another state.

Thomas is the son of Dedan Thomas, who played three seasons at UNLV from 1991 to 1994. Thomas Sr. was the point guard on Jerry Tarkanian’s last UNLV team in 1992.

Before reclassifying, Thomas had been rated the No. 31 recruit in the Class of 2024 by 247 Sports; according to the site’s composite rankings, he would probably land in the same range in the 2023 class.

As a sophomore at Liberty, Thomas averaged 13.3 points while leading the Patriots to the 2022 state championship. Last season he upped his scoring to 22.8 per game and also dished out 5.1 assists in guiding Liberty to another title game appearance.

UNLV now has 12 players under scholarship for the 2023-24 season, with one opening remaining.

A look at what Thomas’s commitment means for UNLV:

Instant impact

Let there be no pretense of “position battles” or “preseason competition” — Thomas is UNLV’s starting point guard, no question about it.

Kruger was very intentional in the way he reconfigured the roster this offseason, adding transfers Keylan Boone, Kalib Boone and Jalen Hill to fill out the wings and frontcourt positions. The coaching staff kicked the tires on a few veteran point guards in the portal, but the preferred option all along was to reel in Thomas and get him on campus a year early.

UNLV has NCAA Tournament aspirations this season, but Kruger has no qualms about giving the keys to a true freshman and asking him to run the show. That’s how much faith he has in Thomas as a floor general. The job is his.

Vision complete

Speaking of roster construction, this has to feel like a mic-drop kind of moment for Kruger. After missing the tournament his first two years in charge — and drawing some criticism for not landing big-name recruits — he went into the offseason with a plan, and on Sunday he stuck the landing.

The Scarlet and Gray should be formidable in 2023-24, with size and shooting on the perimeter, athleticism in the frontcourt, and talented, willing defenders up and down the roster. Adding an explosive playmaker in Thomas is the final piece for a team that now looks like a top-tier Mountain West contender.

Recruiting strategy

It’s been a while since UNLV has landed a prep talent like Thomas. Marvin Menzies was the last coach to pull it off when he inked 5-star center Brandon McCoy from the Class of 2017; since then, the program’s track record with high schoolers has been spotty.

Kruger was on staff as an assistant when T.J. Otzelberger secured commitments from Zaon Collins and Arthur Kaluma, both of whom were blue chippers in the Class of 2021, but that all fell apart when Collins was arrested following a fatal car accident and Kaluma de-committed in the wake of Otzelberger’s departure. Since then, the vast majority of Kruger’s recruiting has been focused on the transfer portal.

Could Thomas’s commitment signal a return to high-stakes prep recruiting under Kruger’s leadership? Kruger has been selective about handing scholarships to prep players, signing just one apiece in each of his first two incoming classes, but there are two coming in this year (Thomas and Washington guard Brooklyn Hicks), and momentum is real in the recruiting world.

With one open scholarship remaining, does Kruger try to strike while the iron is hot?

Mike Grimala can be reached at 702-948-7844 or [email protected]. Follow Mike on Twitter at

Article written by #LasVegasSun