Friday, Nov. 17, 2023 | 2 a.m.
Midway through the first half of UNLV’s game against Stetson on Saturday, the Scarlet and Gray held a modest 12-10 lead. Given the way the season opener went just a few days earlier, there were undoubtedly some fans beginning to fret.
Then UNLV hit three consecutive 3-pointers, went on an 11-2 run, and that was that. Kevin Kruger’s squad was never really threatened the rest of the way in a 71-55 win that got the team back on track, at least for now.
What did those 3’s have in common? Freshman point guard D.J. Thomas assisted on all of them.
Thomas enjoyed a breakout game as a facilitator, racking up nine assists against Stetson in just his second collegiate game. Five of those helpers led to 3-pointers.
That may end up being Thomas’ most valuable contribution to this team. Though the 6-foot-1 lefty is a gifted scorer in his own right — he was named Nevada’s Gatorade Player of the Year in 2022-23 after averaging 22.8 points at Liberty — his ability to break down defenses and create open 3’s for his teammates is just what this UNLV team needs.
Kruger said Thomas did all the right things in his 34 minutes of court time.
“Multiple paint touches is what this team needs,” Kruger said. “It’s what we need to score and what we need to get good looks. D.J. has got a very natural ability to get paint touches and find open guys, and he did that at a really high level with no turnovers.”
UNLV made nine 3-pointers against Stetson, and Thomas assisted on five of them. It was a similar ratio against Southern, as his passes led to four of UNLV’s seven triples.
Kruger has built his offense around creating open 3’s, and his preference is to do it by generating inside-out looks. There are ways to get the ball into the paint by rote — mainly through post-ups — but having a player like Thomas, who can beat his man off the dribble at will, can really pull in help defenders and get opponents out of position. That’s when 3-point kick-outs appear.
Kruger liked the way Thomas’ penetration stressed the Stetson defense.
“That’s something we challenge our guys to do, is create advantage for each other and create looks for each other,” Kruger said. “D.J. certainly did that.”
Thomas now has 14 assists through two games, and after committing five turnovers in the opener he didn’t give it away a single time against Stetson. And he’s doing it with a wrap on his dominant left hand as he recovers from a preseason injury.
When asked if he’s comfortable in a distributor’s role, Thomas smiled.
“Absolutely. I’ve got great pieces around me like Lu, Jalen, Webb, all those guys,” Thomas said. “So they make it easy for me.”