R-E-S-P-E-C-T: Houston Isn’t Very Good, But TaShawn Thomas Sure IsPosted by mlemaire on November 26th, 2013
Last night’s 10-point loss to Stanford may have exposed Houston’s fast start as a byproduct of some soft scheduling, but those expecting last night’s game to expose junior forward TaShawn Thomas‘s gaudy statistics as a byproduct of the same scheduling received a rude surprise. Thomas entered last’s night game averaging 16.8 points, 11.6 rebounds, and 4.6 blocks per game. Those are impressive numbers no matter the competition, but because Houston’s schedule had thus far featured such college basketball luminaries as Howard and UT-Pan American, most expected Thomas to regress against some improved competition.
Then the Cougars squared off with a Cardinal team that featured a lot of size and athleticism on Monday and all Thomas did was shoot better than 57 percent from the floor on his way to 22 points, 14 rebounds, five steals, and three blocks in losing effort. Stanford’s strength is its frontcourt and between Stefan Nastic, Dwight Powell, and Josh Huestis, the Cardinal seemingly had more than enough size and talent to control the paint and the glass. Instead it was Thomas who controlled the paint and the glass all by himself. The Cardinal frontcourt got its buckets, but Thomas almost kept the Cougars in the game on his own by grabbing seven offensive rebounds and repeatedly getting to the free throw line in the second half. He was so obviously the best interior player in the game that when Nastic went to the bench with four fouls in the middle of the second half, ESPN’s announcers openly wondered how the Cardinal would get rebounds even though it still had two players on the floor — Powell and Grant Verhoeven — larger than Thomas.
Thomas should be accustomed to underestimation by now because it’s not like his ability sprouted up overnight. He has arguably been the team’s best player since he set foot on campus. As a freshman he shot better than 57 percent from the field while averaging 10.7 points, 8.2 rebounds, and 2.1 blocks in just 28 minutes per game. He was even better as a sophomore when he averaged 16.9 points, 9.8 rebounds, and 1.7 blocks per game while still shooting better than 55 percent from the field. Those are the type of numbers that get you national attention if you are playing in a big-time conference and get you readily dismissed as a product of your environment if you play in Conference USA. AAC coaches showed him a slight modicum of respect when they named him to the preseason all-conference second team behind Chane Behanan but he has already made them look foolish by showing up practically everywhere among the conference’s statistical leaders.
It is an extremely small sample size, but Thomas is currently fifth in the conference in points per game, first in rebounds per game (by a wide margin), fifth in field-goal percentage (despite having attempted more than double the number of field goals of the four players ahead of him and at least 15 more field goals than anyone else on the list), first in blocks per game, and even 12th in steals per game. But his statistics only tell part of the story. If there was one play from last night that perfectly encapsulated Thomas’ ability it was the one in the second half when he blocked a shot, corralled the loose ball, pushed the ball up the floor and distributed the perfect no-look dish to a teammate who promptly missed the layup. One could argue that Thomas should have taken the ball to the hole himself, and it would be a fair criticism, but the play was evidence of his versatile all-around game on display at both ends of the court.
Thomas is listed at 6’8″, 215 pounds, but there is no way that a man that well-built is only 215 pounds and even his height is deceiving because of his tremendous wingspan. It sounds cliche to say he has a nose for the ball, and it probably is, but he was seemingly in contention for every rebound, and he surprised the Cardinal with a number of offensive rebounds and quick putbacks. When he caught the ball inside 15 feet, Stanford had little chance of stopping him as his great hands, quick feet and polished post moves made him effective with his back to the basket; and his athleticism and versatility allowed him to face the basket and either blow past his defender and/or draw the foul. Defensively, he is a still work in progress (like most of the Cougars), but his athleticism allows him to guard other versatile players like Powell on the perimeter while his length makes him a better rim protector than most power forwards at his size. Even his most glaring weakness — free throw shooting — looks like a correctable part of his game. Yes, he was awful (6-of-13) from the charity stripe (airballing one attempt), and has never been particularly good in his career, but when his form looks good and the results can be improved.
For most, the main story out of last night’s game was that Stanford showed some resiliency in a come-from-behind win as it tries to get back to the NCAA Tournament after a long absence. But for those of us only concerned with the AAC implications of the game, the main story was that TaShawn Thomas is not a fluke and that he is going to be a serious problem for teams in a conference without a lot of quality big men.