Deshaun Thomas' transformation
Sophomore's productivity keys Buckeyes' Final Four run.
He wanted to defend himself, to offer up some sort of explanation or at the very least a rationalization, but with his Ohio State teammates cracking up beside him on the dais, all Deshaun Thomas could do was smile, hang his head and shrug his shoulders.
With his trademark dimples deepening as his smile widened, the sophomore finally gave in to the question about his high school reputation as an unabashed scorer first, do-everything-else-second kind of player.
"What can I say?" Thomas said. "I love to score. I'm sorry. I love to score."
No one in Columbus is seeking his penitence, not right now anyway. In four NCAA tournament games, Thomas is averaging 21.8 points and leading the Buckeyes in scoring.
Which isn't exactly a surprise for a kid who managed to score 3,018 points at Bishop Luers, a high school more widely known for its football prowess in hoops-mad Indiana, and graduate as Indiana's Mr. Basketball as well as the state's third all-time leading scorer, one free throw behind Marion Pierce (3,019) and within range of Damon Bailey (3,134).
There is, however, a difference between scoring wildly and scoring smartly. This season, Thomas has found the fine line between the two.
He is now every bit as productive as he is prolific, timing his arrival as a more complete player perfectly for the Buckeyes, who will face Kansas in the Final Four on Saturday in New Orleans.
"He came in with the mentality of being a scorer and in the two years since he's been in here, we've talked to him a lot about the idea that there's so many ways he can affect our team in a positive way," coach Thad Matta said. "I think back to last year defensively, he was trying too hard, but he had to think everything through. Now he's just playing and reacting."
Thomas remembers the moment he knew he had some sort of a gift for basketball. He was in a gym in Fort Wayne, where he grew up, probably in the fourth grade at the time.
"I was taking all these shots," Thomas said, still marveling years later, "and they were all going in."
They kept going in, too, Thomas' career unfurling like a personal game of H-O-R-S-E.
By middle school, Thomas was a terror, eating up teams and spitting them out. He swears he put up a triple-double of 44, 33 and 11 blocks in one junior high game and as a freshman dropped 52 -- "We were playing a little team, too," Thomas grinned.
That grin, equal parts innocent and impish, is what takes the edge off what otherwise might sound like arrogance from Thomas. He is confident but also thoroughly without guile, a sort of happy goofball who still texts his high school assistant coach's mother regularly to make sure she's doing all right.
But Thomas was raised on the basketball court to be anything but wildly innocent. It is not that he wanted to be selfish but rather, he had to be.
Bishop Luers holds the Indiana record for the most appearances in a football state championship (14) and has come away with the crown 10 of those times. Most of the guys filling out the basketball roster are pigskin prodigies biding their time between seasons, future Division I defensive backs -- not necessarily hoops studs.
Thomas was the exception, a veritable star from the get-go who needed to have the ball in his hands if the Knights were going to have any sort of success.
When he's hot, you've got to give him the ball because if you do, you know it's going to go in. When he has the hot hand, I don't even look. I just go back on defense because I know it's going in.” -- Jared Sullinger on teammate Deshaun Thomas
Bishop Luers has won exactly two basketball state titles in its history. Both were with Thomas on the roster. That's not a coincidence.
"We were a football school that got a terrific basketball player," said Mitch Sturm, the Luers assistant. "We did what we had to do. We had to rely on him to score and I think because of that, he got a bad rap sometimes."
Sturm recalls a picture that sort of summed up Thomas' high school career. It was from a state championship game and Thomas is down in the post. Four players from the other team circle him.
"They were playing one guy on our other four, so out of the timeout [head coach James Blackmon] said, 'We gotta establish something,'" Sturm said. "We threw the ball up and let Deshaun go and get it. He jumped over everybody and made the jumper. Basically we were saying, 'Go ahead and put five guys on him.'"
The transition from all offense to part of a team that included established scorers like Jon Diebler, William Buford and David Lighty, not to mention the low-post phenomenon that is Jared Sullinger, wasn't easy for Thomas.
Accustomed to a solo act, he didn't do well in a band. Never before required to discern between a good shot and a bad one, he figured they were all OK.
Passing was optional.
In his entire freshman season, Thomas dished out a mere 17 assists across 37 games.
"It's taken a lot of maturity because it was hard," Thomas conceded. "It's hard to know what to do and to understand that you just have to be patient and it will come to you. I had to grow up a lot. I've had to learn how to turn down a good shot and wait for a great shot for someone else."
The light bulb went off for Thomas, not coincidentally, about the same time that the Buckeyes started to find their way out of the doldrums this season. He certainly wasn't the lone problem child in the locker room, but he was part of the team-wide chemistry experiment gone awry.
No one will say exactly what the problem was -- there is talk about finger pointing and unwillingness to shoulder blame -- but the message between the lines is that there were too many people looking out for themselves instead of each other.
"We were always on the same page, but we weren't looking for each other as much as we are now," Jared Sullinger said. "When he's hot, you've got to give him the ball because if you do, you know it's going to go in. When he has the hot hand, I don't even look. I just go back on defense because I know it's going in."
Now coexisting and copacetic, Sullinger and Thomas are forming a relentless tandem. In four NCAA tournament games, the two have 159 of the Buckeyes' 307 points and 67 of the team's 141 rebounds.
And Thomas, the kid who never saw a pass he wouldn't ignore, is dazzling his coach with his playmaking for others.
"Against Gonzaga last week, he had the hot hand and caught it in the corner," Matta said. "He had a good shot, but he kicked it to Will for a wide-open shot. I kind of said to myself, He's arrived. He understands."
Make no mistake, Thomas' first love remains the sound of the swish the ball makes when it slinks through a basket.
Old habits can be broken, but they don't necessarily die altogether.
"I'm a scorer," Thomas said. "That's what I do."
He does it very well, too, but now he's more productive than prolific.
Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Dana on Twitter: @dgoneil1.
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