Friday, Feb. 2, 2024 | 2 a.m.
It’s getting to that time of the season when freshmen typically hit “the wall,” as the physical and mental demands of their first season at the Division-I level combine to take their toll.
Fortunately for UNLV, point guard D.J. Thomas doesn’t appear to be a typical freshman.
He came up clutch in Tuesday’s win over Fresno State, helping UNLV get back to .500 in Mountain West action, and if his recent play is any indication, he is the runaway favorite to win the league’s Freshman of the Year award (Thomas already claimed the preseason award).
Coach Kevin Kruger, a former point guard himself, has been most impressed with the work Thomas has done behind the scenes, making full use of film study and practice time to prepare for the next game.
“I think he’s been really good,” Kruger said. “He’s learned every game. I think he’s gone into each game with adjustments from the previous game.”
The Mountain West Conference presents unique challenges for any newcomers, let alone a point guard who would still be in high school had he not reclassified to move up a year. It takes a cerebral type to deal with the intricacies of the league, and so far Thomas has aced that portion of the test.
One night, the opponent could be New Mexico, which employs pressure defense and plays at the eighth-fastest pace in the country, according to KenPom. Then it’s time to pivot for a game against Air Force, the seventh-slowest team, with its zone defense and never-ending backdoor cuts.
Kruger said Thomas’ studious nature has helped him navigate the wildly different looks thrown at him on a nightly basis.
“I do think the Mountain West might see one of the more drastic swings in terms of styles of play,” Kruger said. “Our styles are maybe the most unique. Colorado State runs a lot of actions, and then you’ve got Air Force which is on the entire other end of the spectrum. Then you’ve got San Diego State, which is arguably the most physical team in the country. You’ve got so many styles of play that you’ve got to prepare for. I think he’s done a great job so far.”
Though he checks in at a slight 6-foot-1, 170 pounds, Thomas has held up against the league’s more mature point guards. Top defenders like San Diego State’s Darrion Trammell, New Mexico’s Jaelen House and Colorado State’s Isaiah Stevens have tried to muscle him off the ball, to no avail.
Thomas runs the offense as UNLV’s lead playmaker and has excelled in that role, as his 6.3 assists per game ranks him 11th in the nation. On the flip side, he’s averaging just 2.1 turnovers per game and a minuscule 3.5 turnovers per 100 possessions.
Doing that at his age, against a Mountain West conference that’s as good as it has ever been, is a testament to Thomas’ mental acuity and natural talent.
“This is probably the most physical conference in the country,” Thomas said. “This is a tough conference, more than people give it credit for. … We’ve got to prepare mentally for each game. Physically too.”
Thomas continues to produce like a metronome. He went into Tuesday’s game against Fresno State averaging 11.8 points and 6.3 assists on the season, and put up 12 points and six assists in the victory.
With 10 games left in the regular season and UNLV jostling for position in the Mountain West standings, Thomas is primed for a strong finish to his first campaign — with no wall in sight.
“I’m always ready for more. I’m always ready to play, always ready for a challenge,” Thomas said. “During this part of the season, I feel great. Ready for the next one.”