Now, admittedly, an honest shooter will confess feeling any and every shot he takes is a ‘good' shot. And Thomas is one candid kid on this subject. As hardwood wisdom goes, shooters never saw an open look they didn't believe was theirs for the taking. It's the making which has been an issue for rookie Thomas as his 33% overall accuracy this season, and 26% at the arc, reminds.
Yet all who watch Thomas taking his attempts agree that everything looks soooo good off the hand…until it clanks off the iron. Coach Rick Ray is among the admirers of everything except the outcome too, and knows he has something special to work with in this Jim Hill High alumnus. It comes down to making the taking and that means practice. And practice, and even more practice.
Happily Thomas doesn't mind working overtime at all, even if it means the late shift. The really late shift. When he says overnight, he means it. "Like, 1:00 to 2:00," as in a.m. "In the middle of the night. So anyone driving past the Mize Pavilion now knows why the lights are burning so late. It's Thomas honing his craft. Nor, he said, is he alone most nights.
"Nah, I've got a couple of teammates. I'm not going to do that (practice solo), I'm going to get some teammates with me." Even if it means rousting comrades and classmates to come along to the gym when they like most college youngsters would rather be stockpiling Zs instead of shooting 3s.
Then again if other Dogs study recent stat-sheets they might be motivated to follow suit. In the last three games Thomas is 11-of-25 overall and showing real progress. But it's at the arc where he is finding, or re-gaining, the range. He is 6-of-12 on trey-tries, by infinitely-far the best stretch of his first season.
In the process Thomas is now up to 10.3 points for the season, third-best on the squad.
"He is shooting better," Ray said. "But it is a direct result of him coming in and getting some shots up on his own. I tell our guys it's not hard to figure out. When you get some shots up on your own you are going to shoot the ball better."
In Thomas' mind ‘some' shots add up to around 200 per-trip to the gym. Given how often the freshman fires in practice already, not to mention games, one wonders if he needs to ice down the elbow after his overtime shift. What it really reflects is just how seriously Thomas now takes the responsibility of putting his obvious talents into action. And production.
Plus, and this is another key to progress, Thomas has adjusted his on-your-own script. "I'm working on my mid-range," he said. "I'm not really working on my threes, I'm really working on my mid-range, trying to get it right."
Setting aside jokes that he need not work on threes anyway as enough are lofted already…Thomas touches on an aspect of his game that should transform him from a typical gunner to an all-around threat. From a distance he doesn't look 6-5…well, unless one is placing the ruler on top of his vertical-game haircut that gives a distinct Grace Jones (look it up) appearance on court. But Thomas' size is legit, as is his reach, and he has solid strength as well which will only increase in college.
So Ray is pushing the promising rookie to develop a better-rounded offensive game. Rather than always settling for the long shot, Thomas is told to dribble, drive, get a step on defenders, brave the lane and create an open look closer to the goal. Ray said the attitude is already there with the outside shooting, even after his freshman struggles. "I don't know if anything much gets to Fred! He's a confident shooter and he thinks every shot he takes is going to go in. You like that." Of course everyone likes it better if the shot does go in.
So the counter-intuitive way to open (really open, as Ray reminds how Thomas still tends to take guarded threes he believes are open) up the arc is show defenders an inside threat. Thus all this recent work on the mid-range and pull-up stuff. Through four conference games Thomas has made the six treys, but nine other two-pointers. Besides, attacking defenses can draw fouls, and at Tennessee he was 4-of-5 at the line for free points.
"Plus he's a good passer too," said Ray, though the assist/turnover rate is still on the negative side. The same electric energy that makes Thomas so much fun to watch can carry the kid away at times, which is one reason the coach likes Thomas better off the bench here in early SEC season than starting. "He just gets to playing basketball sometimes," Ray said. Not a bad thing, as long as kept in context.
And Thomas does have the skills to make plays on the other half of the court. His steals are down lately after picking five balls against South Carolina, but then stats aren't a reliable guide to defensive presence. Thomas can disrupt things for sure, and help cohorts like Craig Sword get the steals. Nor does Thomas foul a whole lot doing his thing. If only some teammates, particularly in the post, could say the same.
But opponents know where Mississippi State is vulnerable and take the ball right at Gavin Ware every chance possible. Ware is learning to play with fouls as freshmen should but it's another work-in-progress. Forward Colin Borchert, signed to work the perimeter, now finds himself a power forward and even emergency center at times. The Bulldogs can make this work OK enough against a lot of SEC foes as long as everyone is available.
"I feel like we're playing some great defense but a couple of guys are fouling too quick," Thomas said. "We get in foul trouble and it brings the intensity down. We stop fouling, we're in pretty good shape."
Ditto for limiting the giveaways, something the entire team struggles with. And now State is scheduled to face an Arkansas team which relies on frantic defense. The Bulldogs didn't handle a similar test well last week when Alabama forced or encouraged 21 turnovers. But at least what the Dogs see Wednesday won't be a surprise in this regard. The goal, Thomas said, is not let the tempo and intensity get the best of them this time.
"We've just got to be calm. That's basically it. We've got to be calm and take care of the ball." Easier said than done for a bunch of young pups who themselves still have some freshman fire, but they do know the plan. They also know that avoiding a tempo-approach helps a roster with limited legs last longer. Maybe even last through a still-long season?
"I do be tired," Thomas said. "But I just know I have to play through it. I know everyone else is tired, we've got to continue to play through it."
Interestingly, that tiredness has taught Thomas something about the college game many freshmen take years to learn. That the game, isn't. Or is not so much any more.
"Yes, coming to practice every day, we really get one day off. In high school we practiced but not as much or like this. I treat it like a job."
True, a job. But one worth working at even if it means working late-night hours and taking more shots. And more and more shots.