November 4, 2012

Thomas returns as Buckeyes' leader

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Follow Noon | Givler | Axelrod | Birmingham

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- A primetime tipoff aboard an aircraft carrier to open the college basketball season? These are the type of moments Deshaun Thomas dreamed of when he decided to return to Ohio State for his junior season.

The Buckeyes' returning leader in scoring and rebounds was close to bolting for the NBA last April- real close, in fact- but opted to return to Columbus for at least one more season in an effort to fine tune his game and improve his draft stock. Thomas' talents have already been recognized by several college basketball analysts, and are a big reason why he finds himself on most preseason All-American teams.

"I was close. I was pretty close," Thomas said, recalling his decision to pass on entering the NBA Draft. "You had to think back and see what you need to work on and what they have you placed at in the draft. I made that decision on my own."

A 6-foot-7 forward who can play inside the post or outside the 3-point line, Thomas' talents are apparent. The Indiana native averaged 15.9 points per game on 52 percent shooting in his sophomore season. He really made a name for himself in the NCAA Tournament, averaging 19.2 points per game on the Buckeyes' run to the Final Four.

Yet Thomas' production wasn't enough to guarantee that he'd be picked in the first round of last June's draft. With the draft possessing one of the deeper pools of talent in recent memory, the feedback that the then sophomore got from NBA scouts was that he could get picked anywhere from the late-first to mid-second round.

That wasn't good enough for the ever confident Thomas, who sees himself as a clear first round talent and believes that he can improve on the aspects of his game that could make him such.

"I worked really hard on that this summer," Thomas said. "Handling the ball, showing them that I can pull up off the dribble, taking it to the hole and stuff like that."

After going from being an X-factor- who maybe shot just a little too much- in his freshman season, to a breakout sidekick and star alongside classmate Jared Sullinger, Thomas has made the natural progression that he was expected to make in his college career and now finds himself as the focal point of the OSU offense. That's just fine with Thomas, who's never been shy about his love of scoring.

"Scoring is fun," Thomas said with a smile. "I just do what I can do. I don't change nothing about me on the court."

Indiana's third all-time leading scorer in high school basketball also claims that he's matured as both a player and a person since last season ended, putting in the word to evolve his all-around game and leadership skills. But with neither Sullinger or William Buford playing next to him for the first time in his career, Thomas knows that there's going to be times where OSU coach Thad Matta calls on him to take games into his own hands.

"Everybody say, 'You gotta be more of a team player,' I was like, 'I will,'" the 2012 second-team All-Big Ten selection said. "But if Coach need me to knock down a shot that we need, as a leader out there, I will. I will score the ball in the right spots when they need me. I can do both. I can be a team player, I can be a leader out there."

The evolution of Thomas has been welcomed by Matta, who knew that the Bishop Luers high school product had the chance to be something special when he landed a commitment from the five-star prospect in the summer of 2007.

"When we recruited Deshaun we knew what we were getting," Matta said. "The biggest thing I am proud of with him is just what he's done in terms of expanding his vision for the game of basketball and having a better understanding of all the little things he can do to effect the game."

Thomas looked comfortable in his unofficial debut in his new role, scoring 25 points in the Buckeyes' 83-71 exhibition win over Walsh. The junior forward, however, made it clear that his goals for the season are bigger than just improving his individual stats and draft stock.

"Didn't nobody make that decision for me and I decided to come back to school, focus on my degree, to get better," Thomas said. "I'm just trying to get a national championship and win the Big Ten."

Thomas' officially road to those goals starts this friday in Charleston, S.C., where the Buckeyes will meet Marquette in the Carrier Classic. But before Thomas can think about a league scoring title or adding a third Big Ten title to his resume, he must first get over a fear that could dampen his time in the spotlight.

"I've never played on water before. That's kind of scary," the preseason All-American and All-Big Ten selection said. "Hopefully there's no wind- then I won't shoot no jumpers. I'll have to take it inside."


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