Selfish play could be exactly what OSU needs from Deshaun Thomas
You cannot be a scorer if you think like a philanthropist. You might say all the right things, about sharing and patience and letting the game come to you. Deep down, all you really want is the damned ball. Conscience and humility are for point guards.
Which is why we're worried about Deshaun Thomas.
(Well, OK, maybe you're not worried. You root for North Carolina. You've got your own problems. Ohio State fans are worried, OK? Work with me here.)
The last time we focused on Thomas, he did not disappoint. This was in New Orleans last April, a few days before Ohio State would play Kansas in a national semifinal. Thomas had played well during the NCAA tournament. Don't think he didn't notice.
"Kansas better know where I am at all times.'' Thomas allowed. "Once I hit the first couple, it's gonna be a long night.'' In a moment of deep introspection, Thomas offered, "Dang, I love to shoot.''
What actually occurred was, Ohio State blew a nine-point halftime lead and lost by two. Thomas collected his third foul early in the second half. He made just 3 of 14 shots. It was a long night, all right.
So what about now? Five months removed, what of "The Deshaun Show'', as ESPN called it?
"I'm going to attack the basket,'' Thomas says. "I know all eyes are going to be on me. I'm more confident than ever.''
So far, so good.
"I'm working on getting teammates involved.''
"I'm not going to force anything this year. I'm playing within the system.''
That's when I stopped our conversation and asked whoever I was talking to to get Deshaun Thomas back on the line. Because this guy wasn't Deshaun Thomas.
"Seriously,'' he said. "It's all learning and growing up. It's not all about me. It's everybody's team.''
Thomas said he was going to pass the ball this year. That's interesting, because last year, as a sophomore, he averaged 0.9 assists a game. As a freshman, Thomas played 518 minutes, and had 17 assists. That is remarkable.
Things have changed in Columbus, though. Jared Sullinger left for the NBA. Four-year starter William Buford is gone. They were the latest in coach Thad Matta's posse of stars to depart. Matta is among the best in the country at replacing excellence with excellence. He's also very persuasive when it comes to convincing his holdovers that they need to change for the good of the team.
Thomas averaged 15 points a game last season, as a complementary player. He could freelance some, because the 6-foot-9 Sullinger had his back, on the low block, and point guard Aaron Craft was good at getting him shots. Craft's still around, and he will still get Thomas the ball. But without Sullinger, everyone needs to pull a little more weight. For Thomas, that translates to being a better all-around player.
"I've learned what's a good shot and what's a bad shot,'' Thomas says.
If that's not entirely fact, Craft will do his best to lower the friction level. He and Thomas are good friends, having roomed together last year and lived next door to each other in the freshman dorm the year before that. If Thomas is the showman, the 6-2 Craft is the guy offstage, running the sound and the lights. He has a conscience.
Craft figures the Buckeyes, who have won three consecutive Big Ten titles, will need awhile to figure themselves out. "We don't have that one big guy down on the post,'' he says. "We can't replace (Sullinger and Buford) with one person.''
A favorite story about Craft concerns the one grade he got his entire life that was not an A. It was a B-plus, in a freshman Chemistry class. It still bugs him. It really does. "It's a humbling thing. A sad day in the Craft household,'' Craft says. "It reminded me that not all is going to be handed to me.''
That left Craft's GPA at 3.87, "which is ridiculous, because it needs to be rounded up,'' he says.
Craft will graduate in two years with a degree in exercise science. He wants to go to medical school. Craft was a first-team Academic All-America last year. He averaged twice as many assists as turnovers. He was a first-team All-Big Ten defender. Craft is the yin to Thomas' yang. Seeming opposites, interconnected, each capable of making the other look good, both crucial to Ohio State's success.
Beyond that, Craft believes he would devastate his 6-7 teammate in a game of one-on-one.
"Absolutely,'' Craft says. "I've been working all summer on getting my shot. I can see him making a few, here and there.''
Matta believes that Thomas' size and range of offensive skills make him the prototypical college player, replacing the point guard as the most important player on the floor. "Look at college basketball now. It has shifted to skilled'' power forwards," says Matta. "Guys who can stretch a defense. He posts up, he finds seams. He's a prolific rebounder on the offensive end.''
That's all well and good to Craft. "I'm strong enough to body him up so he couldn't get to the basket easily," he said. "He'd get frustrated. I'd use my outside skills, then drive past him.''
The Buckeyes do not have Sullinger on the marquee this year. As usual, Matta has enough fingers in the dike. Sophomore Amir Williams played well in the NCAA tournament last spring. LaQuinton Ross will come off the bench. And Lenzelle Smith Jr. started every game last year.
It will be Thomas and Craft's team, though. Craft comes by his humility naturally. It's appropriate and helpful, him being a point guard and all. But Thomas' newfound modesty is troubling.
"I'll be all over the place,'' Thomas promises.
"Every good player likes the eyes on him. I embrace it.''
Ohio State wants the Deshaun Show. Ohio State needs the Deshaun Show. A scorer with a conscience is a rooster in the dark. I give him a chance to take back some of that modesty.
"Is there ever a time you don't want the ball?'' I say.
Thomas doesn't hesitate.
"Yeah,'' he said. "When I'm on the bench.''
That's more like it.