BOULDER – As a sub-6-foot sixth-grader, Dustin Thomas was just another kid on the court looking for his points. Given the obstacles presented by large, tatted guys with scary grins and scarier wingspans, taking it inside didn’t seem to offer much of a future in terms of points or self-preservation.
So young Dustin stepped back and began shooting.
“I’ve been shooting forever,” Thomas told me Monday morning. “I haven’t always had hops or anything; I didn’t used to have any hops at all. I had to find a way to score, so I’ve been shooting since I was in the sixth grade.”
Roughly seven years later, he’s still stepping back, shooting the basketball and knocking down his shots at a pretty impressive rate. But now he’s more than that undersized catch-and-shoot kid who once avoided the rough stuff in the paint like he did steamed broccoli.
Thomas is all grown up; he’s 6-7 and 220 pounds and feeling fairly fearless about taking it inside. The hops have developed nicely, too. “I’ve been working on my legs a lot and I’m a lot more athletic now,” he said. Chances to score, both inside and beyond the arc, and do so much more are rapidly approaching – and Thomas can’t wait.
He’s about to begin his freshmen season on a Colorado men’s basketball team that is expecting more of itself than any Buffs team in recent years. And that’s the forecast among outsiders, too.
In what probably was a puzzling exchange that now makes him chuckle, Thomas, of Texarkana, Texas, once was told by Pleasant Grove High School’s football coach that football had put Texarkana on the map and that should be Thomas’ sport of choice.
Luckily, Thomas stepped back from that conversation and kept shooting. When he finished his senior season at Pleasant Grove, he had hit 48 percent of his three-point attempts and was ranked as Texas’ eighth-best prospect. Pleasant Grove’s strategy in its 29-2 championship season (3A Region II District 15) in his final year was a motion offense with Thomas taking the last touch.
“Three-point range is pretty easy for him,” Pleasant Grove coach Billy Brewer said, obviously glad his sharpshooter didn’t wind up as a tight end or wideout. “He can do whatever he wants to do, so we tried to get the ball in his hands.”
It hasn’t gone exactly like that since his summer arrival in Boulder, but the ascent to this level has gone exceedingly well. As Tad Boyle plots for the Buffs’ season-opener on Friday, Nov. 8 against Baylor in Dallas, Thomas is in the thick of that plot. Boyle said he’s “getting close” to identifying his starters and the Nos. 6-10 players he hopes to use in a nine- or ten-man rotation.
And as for Thomas’ role, said Boyle, “He’s there . . . mentally, physically, maturity-wise he’s there. Without a doubt he’s our most consistent freshman, day-in and day-out in understanding what we want. And he can rebound the ball. He’s done it consistently in scrimmages.
“Freshmen fade in and out. They have good days and bad days. That’s where Dustin’s consistency comes in. It’s a special freshman that has it, and most of them don’t – that day-to-day, possession-by-possession focus.”
As a rule, freshmen who shoot as accurately at Thomas usually arrive on college campuses with eyes only for trey-mania. If that was Thomas’ only offering, he wouldn’t be anywhere near Boyle’s conversation about being among the Buffs’ top six, seven or eight players. Boyle’s mantra is “defend and rebound” and this season he’s looking for someone/everyone to replace board-master Andre Roberson.
Thomas is certainly aware of the void to be filled. He termed himself “a decent rebounder” in high school, but added with a grin, “I was pretty much the biggest thing around in my little town.” When he got to Boulder to begin working the boards, that wasn’t the case.
Still, “I didn’t come in here nervous; I came in pretty confident,” he said. “Big players or not, I knew I was going to come in here and fight for rebounds and fight on defense and give it my all. (Boyle) has definitely been telling me I need to get in there and rebound because we need to pick up the slack from ‘Dre.’
“I knew I had to work on my rebounding and my defense and I think I’m getting better every day. By the time the season gets here I’ll be able to contribute. I’m not scared of anybody. I’m going to get in there and block out and fight for the rebound.”
Thus far, he’s done that and his teammates have noticed. “I saw that part of his game in scrimmages and practices,” sophomore post Josh Scott said. “He can box out; he’s a strong kid. He’s going to be helping us out down there.”
For a freshman to do all the above is rare, but Boyle said he believed Thomas “was capable of it, but you never know what they’re going to do and really dial into when they’re here. So many freshmen get caught up in their jump shot . . . but I’m trying to relay to every single one of them – not just Dustin, but Jaron (Hopkins), ‘Fletch’ (Tre’Shaun Fletcher), George (King) – that they have to defend and rebound to help this team. They’re all talented offensively; that part’s going to come – I don’t worry about that. Take care of the ball on offense, defend and rebound on defense and you’ll help this team. And you’ll find yourself in the rotation.”
Boyle likes to tell the story of telephoning Thomas during the recruitment process and on nearly every call reaching Thomas as he was either going to or returning from the gym. Freshmen classes and academic requirements aside, the lure of the gym and after-hours shooting hasn’t diminished for Thomas.
He said campus life hasn’t presented any insurmountable hurdles, with budgeting his time to allow him to “get back in the gym at night” maybe the most common obstacle. “Really, I’m just kind of living life.”
“He’s going to do great things because he works really hard,” Scott said of Thomas. “You can generally tell who’s going to be great; kids that stay after (practice) you know that things are going to work out for them.”
Scott also called Thomas “super-skilled. It’s real obvious that he can shoot the ball. But I think he’s got a really high basketball IQ and out of all our freshmen he’s picked it up the quickest and is the most consistent.”
If Thomas’ first season plays out as expected, Boyle and his staff apparently uncovered a gem. Thomas only had a handful of college suitors – Oklahoma and CU being the most ardent – and last week CBS Sports’ Jon Rothstein included Thomas in his Top 20 Under-The-Radar Freshmen, citing Thomas’ three-point accuracy and Boyle’s belief that Thomas will step into a prominent rebounding role.
When Boyle announced his 2013 freshman class, he made specific mention of the class’ collective athleticism and his plan to employ it in ratcheting up the pressure on opponents. He said that will come, maybe later than sooner, but it will come.
“Until you get your half-court defense set, until you get your half-court offense set, until you know your out-of-bounds plays, it’s tough to kind of extend into that,” Boyle said. “And a lot of it will depend on who we’re playing, where we’re playing them. You press more at home than on the road. But when this group of freshmen figure it out defensively they can be as good as any group we’ve had here. It’s just the experience factor. You can’t fast forward that; I wish you could.”
Whenever that time comes, Thomas said bring it: “I’m ready. We run a lot and I feel like I’m in perfect shape. I’m ready to run and that’s what we’re going to do to teams -- run up and down and try to tire them out. Their shots may fall in the first half, but they’re not going to fall later. We’re going to wear them out. I’m ready for it; it’s going to be fun basketball.”
Yet there’s also enough first-year guy in Thomas (and just the right amount of maturity) for him to concede, “I don’t really know what to expect right now.” Boyle and his staff enter the picture at this point and have done everything with the exception of providing game experience, which has to happen when it happens. That will be soon, but none too soon enough for Thomas.
He can still step back and shoot the three, he can take it inside, and he’s learning what it means to rebound and play ‘D.’ “I’m really ready for the first game and ready to play ball,” he said.