Thames eyes immediate Wazzu impact

WASHINGTON STATE'S POINT guard in waiting can't wait to get to Pullman. Xavier Thames, the nation's 19th-ranked senior point guard, is enjoying a banner season at Pleasant Grove High outside Sacramento. That bodes well for his chances of making an immediate impact at WSU, since starting PG Taylor Rochestie is a senior, and no current players have established themselves as Rochestie's replacement.

"I'm going to work my butt off to try to get a starting job next year, not come in and just get some good minutes," Xavier Thames says.

"They (WSU coaches) told me I can come in and get some good minutes, contribute a lot," Thames said. "They said I've got to work for the starting job, but that's what I'm going to go ahead and try to do."

The 6-foot-3, 175-pound Thames averages 21.1 points, 3.5 assists and 2.6 steals per game for 19-5 Pleasant Grove, a Division II school. gives Thames three stars out of five on its recruiting scale.

"His basketball IQ is off the charts for a high school kid," Pleasant Grove coach John DePonte said. "He's been around the game so much and played in a lot of AAU traveling tournaments and things like that...He's seen a lot of the talent around the country. He's a good one, he's a real good one."

DEPONTE SAYS THAMES is not a finished product, and Thames is quick to agree. Thames is a strong defender, but DePonte says he tends to wander from his man at times, and his outside shot is inconsistent. DePonte also says Thames needs to add a few pounds of muscle and become more vocal on the court. Mind you, DePonte says he has to look hard to find fault with Thames.

"He's a good kid... He makes me look good," DePonte said. "..He's a fierce competitor, which to me is a dying breed among athletes. He definitely hates to lose...He'll do everything possible to help his team win, whether it's getting a big rebound, trying to get a steal, try to make shots. He does not shy away from those big shots in the big games and the big moments."

DePonte says Thames plays with some small-college prospects at Pleasant Grove, but Thames scored 24 of the Eagles' 49 points last Wednesday against powerful Folsom. Thames held rival point guard Tony Johnson (headed to Lafayette, a small Division I school in Pennsylvania) to 12 points, but Johnson made a key steal off Thames in the final minute of Folsom's 52-49 victory.

"It was a great high school basketball game," DePonte said.

Thames frequently scores on floaters in the lane, but those shots figure to be harder to come by in college for a player his size. Fortunately for Thames, he's an accomplished defender, and that is always a welcome commodity with Tony Bennett at Washington State.

"I can play defense," Thames said. "Coach Bennett likes that. "I'm going to come in and try to play some defense and also get involved in the offense and try to make plays for everyone."

"He can 'read' very well on defense," DePonte said. "He can see the whole play and he knows who's going to get the ball where. He's just a very good anticipator."

ONE THING Cougar fans can anticipate seeing out of Thames is his unique ability to strip the ball from opponents.

"He will grab it with two hands and rip it out from you so quick that you don't even have a chance to struggle back," DePonte said. "A lot of people don't go after the ball as ferociously as he does...And he's not swiping at it; he just grabs it and rips it out so quickly. I haven't seen hardly anybody able to do that. He doesn't tie it up and get a jump ball; he will rip it from you.

"It's very fascinating to watch. It's like he puts his entire power with his legs (into it); he'll pivot with his hips and his hands, everything, and he'll put it into getting that ball from you, and then he's going the other way. The referees don't even have time to call a 'reach' foul or anything because he's already dribbling the other way."

On offense, Deponte describes Thames as a "pass-first guy," though the coach doesn't always like where those passes wind up.

"Definitely one of his weaknesses is making sure he gets the ball in the right people's hands," DePonte said. "I shouldn't say weakness; it's an area of improvement that is needed."

WITH PLANS TO enroll early at Washington State, Thames hopes to show improvement on and off the basketball court this summer while taking classes at WSU and engaging in voluntary workouts with the Cougars. A casual acquaintance of fellow Elk Grove resident Kevin Frank (a WSU football player who attended Elk Grove High), Thames plans to major in education with an eye on coaching and teaching in high school when he's done playing.

"I like working with kids," Thames said.

That could come in handy next season, when the Cougars will again be loaded with young players. Thames said he catches Cougar games on television whenever possible, and DePonte said he's confident Thames will be starring on TV in the near future.

"He's very skilled in a lot of areas," DePonte said. "He's as close to a complete basketball player at the high school level that I've seen in quite some time with the psychological strength -- he doesn't get rattled -- and the physical ability. He's got good leaping ability."

Thames' other suitors included Oregon State, Colorado and Iowa State. He's traveled to Pullman three times and came away impressed. "It's a great town, a college town," Thames said. "I really enjoyed it out there when I went out there on my visit before signing...All the coaching staff was great to me and all the guys on the team. One of the main reasons I chose Washington State is because of the coaching staff.

"They're good people. It's like my family when I get out there. They're honest about everything. That's what I like."

That's just one more reason why WSU coaches like Thames. Honestly.

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