In his first on-court action since his suspension, Tyrus Thomas played just four minutes Sunday night against the Pistons. He didn't do much on the court, save a horrendous bounce pass to no one that went directly out of bounds. It was the type of mental hiccup that has infuriated Scott Skiles and Jim Boylan.
Yet, fans also saw the opposite side of the coin when Tyrus received a pass outside the three point line, just past the 11 minute mark of the second quarter. Facing up against his defender, Thomas did a between-the-legs-crossover, followed by a spin-o-rama before getting fouled as he barely missed a layup.
It was a display of the other-worldly athleticism GM John Paxson saw when he drafted Thomas, and was a play maybe only two or three other power forwards in the entire league could make.
To evaluate the young forward I thought it appropriate to take a look back into days gone by, to see what might appear on the yet unwritten pages of the book on Tyrus' NBA career.
Coming to LSU as an unheralded recruit on nobody's top 100 list, Thomas remained in obscurity his first year at school. A neck injury forced him to be a medical redshirt, and he only appeared in one preseason game. The next year he was a reserve for his first 11 games, but his time on the bench didn't last long.
After grabbing the starting spot at power forward, next to Glen "Big Baby" Davis, Thomas burst onto the national scene with authority. By January he was on NBA scout's radars, and Bulls GM John Paxson flew out to see him play against the Connecticut Huskies team that featured four future NBA first-round picks.
Matched up against a strong Huskies frontcourt of Hilton Armstrong and Josh Boone, Tyrus dominated in the nationally televised game. He scored 15 points, grabbed 13 rebounds and got an astounding 7 blocks, etching himself into the memories of college fans nationwide.
Not the least of which was Paxson, who said recalling the game:
"Every scout who left that game in Connecticut saw the same things I did. It's simple: His potential is the highest of any of the players out there."
It was a remarkable year for such an unknown entity, and Tyrus finished the year averaging 12.3 PPG, 9.2 RPG and 3.1 blocks per contest. He was the 2006 SEC Freshman of the Year, the 2006 SEC co-Defensive Player of the Year and was named to the Freshman All-America Team by Collegeinsider.com.
In true warrior form, Thomas played best with the most on the line, leading LSU on a surprising run all the way to their first Final Four since 1986. He was named the 2006 NCAA Atlanta Region Most Outstanding Player after a pair of all-world performances against Duke and Texas.
Against the Longhorns he was matched up against the player he was later traded for and to whom he will be eternally compared: LaMarcus Aldrdige. That night Thomas was by far the better player, holding LaMarcus to just 2-14 shooting, and putting up 21 points, 13 rebounds and 3 blocks himself.
Not too soon afterwards, a player most experts probably never thought would play in the NBA heading into the year was the fourth overall pick of the Draft. Traded immediately to the Bulls, GM John Paxson was effusive in his praise of the young forward:
"When you are drafting No. 2, with a clear shot at far and away the best talent in the Draft, you don't pass on him. Not now and not ever."
His rookie year he didn't put up crazy numbers as he did at LSU, but after a slow start played his way into a spot in the rotation for a playoff team, despite only being 20 years old. His best regular season game came Jan. 31 against Cleveland, scoring 27 points on Steve Kerr-esque 9 for 11 shooting. His dominance was not limited to the offensive end, however; he also snagged three steals and blocked three shots.
In the playoffs, he played in all ten of the Bulls games, and was used as a defensive specialist against the dominating Detroit big men. He finished the year voted as a member of the All-Rookie Second Team.
What will probably be most remembered from his rookie year is something he did off-the-court, though. It didn't involve late night partying, drugs, or abusing women, just speaking a little too honestly with the media. A reporter queried him about being selected to the upcoming Slam Dunk competition in Vegas, and Tyrus bluntly replied:
"I'm just into the free money. That's it. I'll just do whatever when I get out there."
That comment earned him a $10,000 fine, a public tongue lashing from Paxson and derision and disgust from sportswriters across the nation. Personally, I thought the comment was not only funny, but also had a valuable honesty rarely seen from athletes.
I mean, I guess some guys do participate in the dunk contest exclusively for the love of basketball and treat it as seriously as they would any real game, but most don't. Most also would never be honest with the media, but that's something Tyrus will learn going forward.
Reporters will only use your words to their advantage Tyrus, regardless of what they know you meant or were trying to say.
This cockiness reminds me of another Chicago celebrity, Kanye West. In the last, largely spoken word track of his debut album "College Dropout" Mr. West has some lines which I feel are particularly appropriate to the young man from Baton Rogue,
"Now I could let these dream killers kill my self-esteem
or use my arrogance as the steam to power my dreams
I use it as my gas, so they say that I'm gassed
But without it I'd be last, so I ought to laugh"
Indeed, for a kid who entered high school as a 5' 10" guard, and got cut from his freshman team, without a certain amount of arrogance he'd of never developed into an NBA lottery pick. Certainly no one was out there telling Tyrus that he had a chance back then.
His early failure is reminiscent of a former Bull, Michael Jordan, who also got cut his freshman year of high school. Also like his Airness, Tyrus got to where he is today thanks to a tireless work ethic. His coach at LSU, John Brady thought as much of the young man, saying:
"He never stopped working... He's young, so his leadership skills aren't there yet, but his personality is so true, so encouraging, that he's definitely the kind of player whose devotion and effort rub off on teammates."
That work continued into this past off-season, where just because he didn't choose to work out at the Berto Center, didn't mean he was just sitting back sipping cocktails every afternoon. At the '07 summer league where he dominated, he told one reporter that he'd been working "seven days a week so far this offseason, often staying in the gym until he makes 700 jump shots a day."
Now clearly, as his college coach said, those leadership skills are not quite there yet, as his whole skipping practice episode proves. But it's been a really frustrating year for him.
After winning a spot in the starting lineup coming out of camp, Tyrus didn't dominate but certainly played well relative to his disappointing teammates in the midst of the their horrendous start. Through the first six games, he averaged 9.3 points, 7 rebounds, 1.7 blocks and a steal per game.
Those aren't All-Star numbers by any means, but they are excellent signs of progress for a player so young. Nevertheless, Skiles effectively chose to blame Tyrus for the team's failure, as Thomas was the only starter Skiles benched in a doomed effort to shake things up.
I'm certainly not going to say Tyrus isn't overly sensitive, but he has not been the same since the demotion. He was a ghost for most of the year, until regaining his starting spot against the Nuggets following the trade, and played excellent in the team's best game of the season by far, putting up a double-double with 18 points and 11 rebounds, complemented by 2 steals and 3 blocks.
Yet despite finally once again showing signs of life and proving he was good enough to be an NBA starter, Boylan gave away his starting spot to Drew Gooden. More than that, he effectively pulled Tyrus from the rotation, and only played him eight minutes in the blow out win over the Grizzlies. That was the last game before the incident.
The suspension was fair given Thomas' behavior, but management and the coaches should not use this as an excuse to move Thomas this summer. His best days are unquestionably ahead of him, and there is very little Tyrus can not do on a basketball court.
Defensively he's got the talent to be one of the best at his position, and given his clearly demonstrated work ethic, his offensive production will soon catch up.
Yes, he is immature and far too sensitive, but how many young people aren't? With time and a little faith from the Bulls brass Tyrus will grow out of these character faults and evolve into the player Paxson thought he could become when he drafted him.
Whether it is in a Bulls uniform or not, by the end of his career, no one will think the Bulls lost on that draft day deal.
Then again, he could go down as a draft day flop similar to fellow LSU alum, Stromile Swift. It depends on which Tyrus he chooses to be, the one who skips practices, or the one who worked his way up from nothing to college stardom.
The potential is there, but as Thomas himself said shortly after the draft:
"You have to maximize your skills and ability. Potential is just a smokescreen. You have to prove you're real in order to earn all the praise."
To finish in truly unoriginal fashion, I will end with a cliche. Mr. Thomas, you have shown you can talk the talk... now, can you walk the walk?
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