Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2023 | 2 a.m.
From looking at D.J. Thomas, you wouldn’t know he’s carrying the weight of a storied college basketball program on his slender shoulders.
Thomas is relaxed and quick to smile after a recent practice, and why shouldn’t he be? He’s about to suit up for his hometown college for the first time on Wednesday, when UNLV hosts Southern in the season opener, and his family — headed by his father, former UNLV point guard Dedan Thomas Sr. — will be there inside the Thomas & Mack Center to cheer him on.
Tha’s not bad for a kid who should be in his senior year at Liberty right now.
It starts to explain why Thomas has been in such a good mood throughout the past six weeks of preseason practice.
“I’m just happy to be here,” Thomas says. “I’ve always got a smile on my face when I’m here. This is a great place to be.”
How long will his happy-go-lucky attitude last? It will likely be tied to how well UNLV plays this season, and that will likely be tied to how well Thomas plays under pressure.
The program has a lot riding on the 6-foot-1 point guard. Thomas arrives on campus at a time when UNLV is positively aching for relevance, which would come with an NCAA Tournament berth. The Scarlet and Gray haven’t reached the tourney since 2013, a drought that Thomas, by virtue of the five stars next to his name on recruiting sites, is now expected to end.
He won’t be doing it alone. Head coach Kevin Kruger remade the roster with at least two new veteran starters to flank Thomas, but Thomas’ visibility on the local scene makes him the headliner. Two years ago, he led Liberty to its first state championship. Last year he brought them back to the title game and claimed Gatorade State Player of the Year and Las Vegas Sun Male Athlete of the Year honors in the process. UNLV is counting on his star power to translate to the college level immediately.
That’s why the staff encouraged him to finish high school a year early and reclassify to the Class of 2023, enabling him to join the team for the upcoming season.
That’s a lot of responsibility to hang on a freshman, even one as easygoing as Thomas.
Kruger thinks he’s handling it well so far, thanks largely to the support system his family provides.
“I think the best part about D.J. is his circle,” Kruger says, fittingly as Dedan Sr. watches post-practice shootaround from the bleachers of the Mendenhall Center. “There’s nothing being thrown out there that, ‘He’s got to do this, you’ve got to average this many points, you’ve got to do this to be a top pick and you’re only here one [year].’ There’s none of that. It’s fair expectations, so that he can have a great experience as a freshman.”
Thomas is a blur with the ball, capable of blowing by defenders and creating easy scoring opportunities for himself and his teammates. That speed is the foundation of his game, but he says the best advice he has gotten from his father has been to slow down.
“It’s been great having him here,” Thomas says. “The biggest thing that he’s told me is, don’t put too much pressure on myself. I’m pretty young. I’m the youngest one here. But don’t put too much pressure on myself and enjoy it.”
Thomas averaged 22.8 points and 5.1 assists last year at Liberty. It’s difficult to project what kind of numbers he’ll put up for UNLV, but the Scarlet and Gray are probably going to need him to play like the Mountain West Freshman of the Year — and then some — in order to realize their March Madness potential.
Coincidentally, Thomas was named Preseason Freshman of the Year in what was presumably a landslide vote. An injury to his shooting hand has kept the southpaw from participating in UNLV’s two closed-door scrimmages, but he has been taking part in practices and should be ready to hit the ground running at full speed on Wednesday.
Is he ready to lead a lineup of seniors to the NCAA Tournament?
“He’s real mature for his age,” junior center Isaiah Cottrell says. “I think he’s going to be good.”
Senior forward Jalen Hill, one of this offseason’s prized acquisitions, concurs.
“He’s done a great job of sharing the ball and getting us involved,” Hill says. “He’s becoming a leader out there.”
That’s well and good for practice, but what about when the real games begin? What about when the calendar turns to conference play, and Thomas is going against older, more physically mature opponents on a nightly basis?
Kruger thinks his babyfaced point guard is talented enough to figure it out on the fly.
“It is an older, kind of more physical conference, but he’s also the most accomplished and highly touted and most talented [recruit] at that age that we’ve had here in a while,” Kruger says. “I think that will allow him to do a lot of things that, maybe other guys he plays against have learned through experience, he’ll be able to bridge that gap a little bit because he’s just a natural basketball player.”
That’s the plan: Hand the keys to Thomas, let the kid rev the engine and see how fast he can make UNLV go.
The goal is a party on selection Sunday and that elusive trip to the NCAA Tournament. Will Thomas be weighed down by those expectations?
“No. It’s just basketball,” Thomas says. “They take the pressure off me with all the older guys and the coaches, so big thanks to them for making it easy on me.
“I’m here to have fun.”