Such great Heights

This story appeared in the Minnesota edition of the December ESPN RISE Magazine.

When Willie Braziel took over as the Columbia Heights (Columbia Heights, Minn.) boys' basketball coach in the spring of 2007, he quickly tried to get up to speed on what kind of shape the program was in. He started by watching game tape from the previous season but couldn't glean much from that, so he decided to hold an open gym for players who'd be returning the next year.

As those players trickled into the gym, Braziel couldn't help but notice a lanky freshman who walked in and drained a long 3-pointer while still wearing his backpack. He got the ball back and swished it again from the same distance. Then he did it a third time.

Braziel had seen enough.

"I stopped the gym and I said, 'Hold on, who are you?'" Braziel recalls. "He said with a smile, 'I'm Jacob Thomas.'"

Braziel didn't remember seeing Thomas on any of the game tapes. He soon learned that was because Thomas had spent most of his freshman season on JV and saw only two games of late-season varsity action. Despite his shooting ability, Thomas had been told he wasn't ready to join a varsity squad that struggled through a 4-21 season.

"It really helped motivate me to work harder," says Thomas of the varsity snub. "It hurt to sit and watch them lose so much."

Throughout his freshman year, Thomas had doubts about his future at Columbia Heights and was seriously considering transferring. But he had a change of heart when Braziel was hired. In Braziel, Thomas had a coach who thought he had the talent to be an elite player and certainly belonged on varsity.

Now a senior, it's clear Thomas made the right decision by staying at Columbia Heights. He has developed into the state's top recruit and is one of the country's most explosive scorers. The 6-foot-3, 187-pound shooting guard is rated the nation's No. 89 player in the ESPNU 100 and has committed to Long Beach State.

"He just needed someone to believe in him," says Braziel.

Thomas immediately impressed as a sophomore starter, dropping 35 points in an opening-night win over Oh Day Aki. He went on to score 30-plus points five more times that season -- including a 42-point performance against Chisago Lakes Area -- and was held to single digits only twice in 27 games. He finished the year averaging 21.8 points and 5.7 rebounds per game and drained 75 3-pointers for the Hylanders, who improved their record to 13-14 and lost in the first round of the Section 3AAA playoffs.

Not bad for his first full varsity season. But Thomas was far from a finished product. Braziel admits the offense that season revolved around getting Thomas the ball and letting him loose to shoot at will. Thomas still needed to get stronger and improve his ball-handling to deal with all the defensive attention he was attracting. And he had to get better defensively.

Thankfully for Braziel and the Hylanders, Thomas wasn't satisfied just putting up dazzling point totals. A month after the season was over he started lifting twice a week with assistant coach Dedrick Jenkins. He also began working on fundamentals a few times a week with his father, Richard. Along with Thomas shooting 1,000 jumpers during each session, they focused on improving his footwork so he could become a lockdown defender rather than a defensive liability.

"We just went to work," says Richard.

The result was a far more efficient junior year for Thomas. Despite facing double- and triple-teams as well as box-and-one defenses, he upped his scoring average to 22.7 points per game and connected on 92 3-pointers. His newfound strength allowed him to drive strong to the hole, which in turn forced defenders to give him more space on the perimeter. And Thomas is usually money once he gets it going from long distance. His ability to shoot the rock has drawn comparisons to former Davidson superstar and current Golden State Warriors rookie Stephen Curry.

"He has the best jump shot I've ever seen," says Jenkins, who's also an assistant coach with Thomas' AAU squad, the Howard Pulley Panthers. "His jumper is just pure. If he misses, I get mad. That's how good a shooter he is."

"He'll shoot it the exact same way, (whether he's) off-balance [or has] a hand in his face," adds Braziel. "A lot of colleges look for a shooter's ability to do that. He can extend to NBA range easy with accuracy."

Defensively, Thomas contributed 1.5 steals per game as a junior and began guarding the opposing team's top offensive threat. Meanwhile, the Hylanders went 18-11 and advanced to the Section 3AAA finals.

This year, Thomas is aiming to take Columbia Heights to the state tournament, a feat the team hasn't achieved since 1930.
"It motivates me a lot because I want my team to be remembered as the best Heights ever had," he says.

As for his college commitment, Thomas may have raised a few eyebrows with his pick of mid-major Long Beach State, but the 49ers were the first school to give him a formal scholarship offer.

"Before, I didn't have any colleges looking at me," says Thomas. "I said I needed one school to believe in me so I could prove everybody wrong. I'm glad somebody believed in me."

Sound familiar?