Tuesday, May 30, 2023 | 2 a.m.
D.J. Thomas has an unbeatable résumé.
The Liberty point guard is a 4-star recruit in the Class of 2024, and he’s rated the No. 22 prospect in the nation by 247 Sports. After averaging 22.8 points and 5.1 assists as a junior this season, he was named Gatorade State Player of the Year, and just last week he took home the Sun Standout award for Male Athlete of the Year.
But those are just accolades. What about his play on the court? What makes Thomas such an award magnet?
After dominating the local prep scene, including a state championship in 2022 and another run to the title game in 2023, no one knows Thomas better than the coaches who went against him in the biggest games. So the Sun reached out to some of Liberty’s toughest rivals — Coronado coach Jeff Kaufman, Bishop Gorman coach Grant Rice and former Durango coach Chad Beeten — to get their scouting report on Thomas.
That pair combined to coach seven games against Liberty last season, and Thomas averaged 23.4 points in those contests, including a pair of 30-point performances. He went 1-1 against Coronado and 1-3 vs. Durango (including the state final, which Durango won, 57-47), and he put up 26 points in a win over Bishop Gorman in the teams’ lone meeting. If anyone has a read on how Thomas’s game might translate to the next level, it’s them.
Here’s what the coaches had to say about UNLV’s biggest recruit in years:
What are Thomas’s best attributes on the court?
Kaufman: He’s just a great player. He can shoot the ball, handle it, defend. Basketball-wise, everybody knows that. The difficulty I see with Dedan, and what makes him a brilliant point guard, is that he’s coaching the game. As a coach, you know what the other coaches are doing and they know what you’re doing; when Dedan is on the floor, he’s coaching against you too. You try to make a move or try to do something tricky, and he’s countering you without having to think about it.
Beeten: His best attribute is his IQ and leadership out there. I think he does a great job of understanding his teammates, getting them involved in the game and finding them to play to their strengths.
What makes him difficult to strategize against as an opponent?
Kaufman: It’s hard when you have a versatile point guard like that. We tried to force him in a certain direction and that didn’t work out so great for us. We tried to put a bigger kid on him, we tried to put a longer kid on him; he’s very good at posting up other guards, so we tried to stop that, but it didn’t work because he can go around somebody bigger than him. We tried to keep him out of the pick-and-roll and hedge it as much as we can, but he is such a good passer he can pick that apart. He’s clever about what he does. He’s like, ‘OK, Coronado is trying to put a tall guy on me, I’ll just bring him out to the line and then go by him.’ Or, ‘Coronado is trying to put a quick guard on me, I’ll set him up in the pick-and-roll and if they switch I’ll just make the pass.’ There’s a lot of good guards out there — I just came back from coaching the McDonald’s game, they’re all good, they’re all talented. But they don’t think the game like he does.
Beeten: You’re just trying to guard him in multiple different ways with multiple different people. D.J. is a really good player, so you’re not going to shut him down. You’ve just got to take away some of the other options he has to complement him rather than trying to stop him.
Rice: We tried everything. We played him five times in the last two years, so we got a chance to try a lot of different stuff. We tried to double him on screens, we tried to go full-court man against him, we tried to face-guard him; he’s just so good about controlling the ball. He’s either making the jumper or getting into the lane, getting to his really good fallaway jumper. He also creates contact very well and can make unorthodox shots. We tried a whole lot of different things and had some success at times, but this year we played him and we didn’t have any success at all. They gave us one of our most convincing losses I’ve had in my 22 years.
How is he as a scorer?
Kaufman: In the game we played them here at Coronado that went to overtime, he had maybe 10 points going into the fourth quarter. Then all of a sudden he went off and finished with 26 or something. He knows when he needs to score and he knows when he needs to take over a game.
Beeten: He scores well at all three levels. He shoots the ball well, he’s got a really good mid-range game and he gets to the basket when he needs to. He has a really good idea of when to use those different options. Just knowing and seeing him since he was in fifth or sixth grade, he always finds a way to figure out how to get it done in those different situations.
Rice: Not only does he play the right way and make the right decisions for his teammates, but if you back off him he can score the ball. He’s not known for his scoring, but I’ve seen him put up a lot of points. He has done that against us.
How is he at running a team?
Rice: D.J. is a pure point guard and he does everything the right way. He does everything you want someone running your team to do. He’s a natural point and he has leadership skills. You can tell that his teammates respect him and that he’s a leader. His team at Liberty the last two years definitely followed his leadership and a lot of their success was due to him having the ball in his hands and making the right decisions.
Beeten: He has a really good understanding of who he is and what he’s good at and what his teammates are good at. I think it’s maturity with him. That’s a sign of a mature player. Not many kids his age have as good of a grasp of that.
Is he ready to step in right away as a true freshman on a veteran team that has NCAA Tournament aspirations?
Beeten: Yes. Simple answer. I’ve seen him grow and mature over the years and I’ve seen him answer any critics’ questions. I don’t see why he won’t be able to do the same thing at the next level. I’ve seen his work ethic. D.J. is smart enough to know that stepping up to another level means he’s got to continue to step his game up. I don’t think he’ll have any issue there.
Kaufman: It seems to me that veteran college guys that you get in the portal, they want someone who can get them the ball and find them. Big guys that run the floor want to be rewarded. Guards that pop off screens want to get catch-and-shoots. So I think they’re all looking forward to it because here’s a kid that will do that. He distributes the basketball, he wants to win and he plays the right way. I don’t care if you’re a freshman or a senior, you want to play with someone who plays the right way and will get you the ball when you’re open. So I think he’ll really fit right in.
Rice: Without a doubt he is ready to be a leader at that level. I think from Day 1 he’s the leader of that team. I’m sure coach Kruger will trust him to put the ball in his hands and lead the team. It’s similar to his sophomore year [at Liberty]. He missed his freshman year because of Covid, but right away his sophomore year, he ran that team and they ended up winning the state championship and were a top-25 team in the country. I think he’s definitely ready to make that step.
What can he bring to a program like UNLV?
Rice: I’ve known their family for a long time. Obviously my brother and his dad Dedan are very close from their UNLV ties, and I’ve known them for a long time. It’s a huge get for UNLV. Point guard is the most important position, like a quarterback in football, and to get a kid like that who is a true teammate and a true point guard, does everything the right way — it’s a big deal for UNLV basketball.
Kaufman: I’ve known Dedan for a very long time. Here’s what he can bring: He’s a really good young man. He’s got a good disposition, he’s nice to people, and he’s the kind of guy we need to keep in town. UNLV fans will appreciate what he does on and off the court.
Beeten: It seems to be a great fit for him. He’s a tremendous kid and obviously a tremendous player, so I think most people in this city will be rooting for him to do really well. I’ll be rooting for him, I know that.