Easy to See Why Fans are Doubting Thomas

By Don Wade

His Twitter handle is @AllDayThomas. Yet after the first nine games of this Tigers basketball season, Adonis Thomas is the first to admit his play has not lived up to that reputation.

He has been Half-Day Adonis, neither scoring nor rebounding like a 6-7, 240-pound projected NBA lottery pick should.

“I take blame for part of (the Louisville game),” said Thomas, who had but 4 points and 4 rebounds and failed to reach the free-throw line in 33 minutes. “Because offensively and defensively I was in and out of plays. I wasn’t there every possession.”

The obvious and increasingly frustrating question: How come?

One popular theory is that Thomas, who missed 16 games last year as a freshman because of an ankle injury, is afraid of getting hurt again; the injury is what has made him tentative. But Thomas is not saying that and teammates say that in practice he plays with fire.

“In practice, an error’s not going to cost you a game. You’re more free,” offered senior D.J. Stephens. “When it comes to game time, there’s more pressure.”

True, but that’s the case for everyone. Coach Josh Pastner says the constant message to Thomas is to be “aggressive” and not “passive” and the coach continues to encourage the player everyone assumed would be the Tigers’ best this season after Thomas put in extra work over the summer.

“He’s earned the right to have a great year,” Pastner said, adding later, “It’s strictly mental. It’s not physical. … I’m not beating him down because he’s probably getting beat down enough just being in the city. Part of it is his confidence. I want to keep things positive, but be very direct and honest. He just needs to get his mojo back.”

There is much truth in what Pastner says. But there is also truth in this: Thomas is caught, mentally, emotionally and physically, between the present and the future. It’s evident in his numbers: 10.1 points (fourth on the team) and 3.8 rebounds (sixth on the team).

In the current college basketball/NBA climate, there is an unreasonable expectation to come out early and be a lottery pick. Word filters down to players such as Thomas about what the NBA people want to see. In his case, more of a perimeter game that would prove he could succeed as a small forward in the pros. But at the college level, Thomas needs to use his physical advantage to dominate inferior athletes. That means going to the rim, posting up, imposing his will all over the court.

“Coach is counting on me and this team is counting on me to make plays,” Thomas said.

So why isn’t it translating? How can he not grab even one rebound in 39 minutes against Samford? Why keep jacking up 3’s when he’s only 4-for-24 (17 percent) on the season? These are the things that make NBA scouts doubting Thomases.

I asked the Grizzlies’ Rudy Gay if he could understand Thomas’s dilemma, being caught between trying to prove what he can do at the next level while trying to play naturally at the college level. Gay played two years at Connecticut before coming out and being a lottery pick. His numbers were solid but not spectacular (15.2 points and 6.4 rebounds as a sophomore). Yet his total game was impressive enough to be one of four finalists for the 2006 Naismith National Player of the Year Award.

“I kind of felt the same way,” Gay said of being trapped between the college and pro worlds. “You just have to play basketball, do what your coaches want you to do. He’ll be here; he’s got league talent.”

So just play, Adonis. You’ve got all day.

Don Wade’s column appears weekly in The Daily News and The Memphis News. He and Jon Albright host the “Jon & Don Show” on Sports 56 AM and 87.7 FM from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays.