Thomas smiles at promising basketball future

Todd Zolecki

As the Gophers men’s basketball team slowly emerged from its locker room Monday and spilled out onto Williams Arena’s court one by one, John Thomas took a seat in the first row of chairs.
He spoke with the media, something he’s done countless times during his four-year career. It’s natural for the senior by now, perhaps even easier than knocking down a 15-foot jump shot.
Thomas, relaxed and confident, smiled while he spoke.
Those who know Thomas would say that’s typical of him. His personality looms larger than his 6-foot-9, 275-pound body. Over the years, he has asserted himself as the team’s emotional leader and clubhouse comedian.
Unfortunately, he did it while student coach and former player Hosea Crittenden looked on. Thomas was in trouble and Crittenden saw a golden opportunity. He seized it and ridiculed his good friend.
“Don’t laugh, acting like you’re all cute,” he said.
Thomas shook his head. He could only laugh. “I hate you,” he replied, with an even bigger smile.
As Minnesota prepares for its exhibition opener tonight against the Lithuanian National team, Thomas hopes his final season will be full of smiles — and the type of year which could propel him into the NBA.
Gophers coach Clem Haskins thinks Thomas has that potential. This summer, Thomas was invited to Colorado to try out for the USA Basketball Under-22 team, which played the Olympic Dream Team.
But a week before tryouts, Thomas re-injured his back which kept him out of most of last year’s first round NIT game against St. Louis. He played in Colorado but his back hindered his performance.
“It’s not making an excuse, but I always wondered to myself how I would have done if my back was better,” he said.
It wasn’t a wasted trip. The experience showed him where he is, and how far he needs to go to play with the game’s elite.
“I’d be very surprised if he’s not on an NBA roster next year,” Haskins said.
That seemed like a long shot when Thomas was a freshman. He had raw talent and needed a lot of work. But four years and 89 games later, he’s a much different player.
After the select team tryouts, he worked to improve all aspects of his game. Sophomore forward Courtney James, a bookend to Thomas in height and strength, said Thomas’ shooting — especially those 15-footers — are much better.
Thomas hasn’t made a public declaration that his offensive game is better. He’s taking the reserved approach.
“I’ve improved,” he said. “I can’t gauge myself until the season starts. If I’m going out there and I’m scoring 30 or 20 points, then I’m like, `Yeah, I’m a lot better player.’ I guess I’ll just have to wait and see midway through the Big Ten season.”
A stellar season for Thomas could mean a banner year for Minnesota. The Gophers seem to go as the co-captain does. His teammates look to him to get them fired up.
He doesn’t disappoint. He’s the one usually pumping his arms, playing up to the crowd and bumping chests with another teammate.
“That’s my nature, to be emotional,” he said. “If I’m able to, that’s fine. I don’t have a problem with that. I guess I try to be a leader, in a sense, because I am the oldest. Well, I’m not the oldest actually; I’m one of the younger ones, but I’m one of the (veterans).”
Thomas, who turned 21 last month, is younger than seniors Bobby Jackson and Trevor Winter and junior Sam Jacobson, but is the team’s most experienced player. No Gopher has seen action in more games than Thomas.
In his last game, a NIT second round loss to Tulane, Thomas set career highs with 17 points and 17 rebounds. And with productive offseason one-on-one workouts with assistant coach Larry Davis, along with the select team experience, the boisterous big man is excited.
Thomas will have no problem bringing his excitement onto the court.
“I’m going to be serious when it’s time to be serious, but people tend to forget that this is a game and games are meant to be fun,” he said. “So I’ll try and have fun, try to remain my same physical self, but at the same time keep that smile on my face.”