Andrew Holleran / Photo editor
When the 2012-13 season was still in its infancy, Ohio State men’s basketball coach Thad Matta reflected on a piece of advice he received from Hall of Fame football coach Lou Holtz. “Don’t ever stay for more than seven years at a place,” Holtz told Matta, “because the longer you stay, the more you fall in love with it, but the more they fall out of love with you.”
It was a story that Matta told in jest. He obviously did not take the advice, and all of the signs indicate he will roam the sidelines for his 10th season with the Buckeyes next fall. But there is still an element of truth in Matta’s tale. The longer you succeed at a place, the more people expect from you, and the harder it is to meet those lofty expectations. Perhaps Matta’s newest former player, forward Deshaun Thomas, was thinking along those lines when he decided to forgo his senior year and declare for the NBA Draft on Friday.
When word broke that Thomas would not return for a final season with the Buckeyes, few were surprised. Some thought he would declare for the draft last year, or even the year before that. But most Buckeye fans likely still kept their fingers crossed, hoping that Thomas would be intrigued with the prospect of making one last run at a national championship. And on the surface, there were enough reasons for Thomas to return that even the most pessimistic Buckeye supporters could reasonably hold on to an ounce of hope.
Aside from Thomas, OSU will essentially be returning all of the integral pieces from a team that got as close as three points away from the Final Four. Rising juniors LaQuinton Ross and Sam Thompson proved they could be legitimate scoring options in March, options the Buckeyes lacked for most of the regular season. With more support from his teammates, Thomas likely would have received less defensive attention and could have had an even better season next year for the Scarlet and Gray.
But for Thomas, departing for the NBA was, in some ways, a now-or-never decision. For that reason, Holtz’s advice to Matta is better suited for a player like Thomas: the longer you stay, the more they will fall out of love with you.
In this case, though, the primary people who could have fallen out of love with Thomas are pro-basketball executives and scouts. As an NBA prospect, the biggest knocks against Thomas are his lack of size and his lack of athleticism for a defined position. At 6-foot-7, he isn’t large enough to bang around with power forwards, yet he is not athletic enough to defend elite wing players such as LeBron James and Kevin Durant.
Barring unforeseen changes, Thomas isn’t going to grow, and he will not be making drastic improvements in athleticism. Scouts seem to have honed in on these shortcomings – NBADraft.net lists Thomas as the first pick of the second round in its mock draft, updated on April 4.
And who knows how many more of Thomas’ weaknesses would have come to light had he spent another year in Columbus under an intense microscope.
Take Jared Sullinger, one of Thomas’ former teammates, for example. As a freshman at OSU, Sullinger dominated the Big Ten, and many believed he would be a top-five pick in the NBA draft if he chose to go that route. Instead, Sullinger returned for his sophomore season, and almost immediately, critics emerged. Scouts began to point out that Sullinger relied on his size to score in college, but didn’t have ideal size for an NBA big man.
The Boston Celtics eventually took Sullinger with the 21st pick in the 2012 NBA Draft. Granted, part of his plummet could be attributed to various concerns which emerged last summer over injuries, but his return to college basketball seems to have be just as big of a factor.
How Thomas will fare at the next level remains to be seen. He might lack NBA size and athleticism, but he has never struggled to accomplish the sport’s most important task – putting the ball in the basket. Last season he scored 733 points, third most in program history. In high school he accumulated 3,018 points, third-best in Indiana high school basketball history.
James Blackmon, who coached Thomas at Bishop Luers High School, has an optimistic outlook on his former stars’ impending professional career.
“I think he’s going to be a better pro (than he was in college),” Blackmon said. “I don’t really think Deshaun has been given the opportunity to show how well he can put the ball on the floor and create for others.”
It could prove difficult for Thomas to meet his former coaches’ expectations. If he is selected in the second round, he will not be guaranteed money or a spot on the team that drafts him. Of the second round picks that do survive in the NBA, most do so as men who float from team to team, serving as role players off the bench. Such a role would be considerably less glamorous than the one Thomas would experience as a senior star for the Buckeyes.
But Thomas just needs one team to fall in love with him for him to be selected as a first-round pick. It might in fact prove better for him to try to impress just one team in the coming months at various combines and workouts, instead of returning for a final year of scrutiny at OSU that would include the risk of the NBA falling out of love with him any more.