Thomas patiently playing his way to the top

It was the winter of 2007 and Lorenzo Romar went to Connecticut to see two of his prospects play; Matthew Bryan-Amaning and Isaiah Thomas. Thomas had transfered late to South Kent from Curtis High School in University Place, and was behind from the start. He hadn't practiced with the team and they had already played in games. They had their team in place.

They certainly weren't going to let this west-coast interloper in their midst. And it showed.

"The game was on the line and I noticed that they didn't know what he was about yet, because they were freezing him out," Romar said of the game. "He did average 40 in the state tournament when he was (at Curtis) and he scored 51 in a game, and he goes there and they aren't giving him the ball. By the end of the year he was averaging 30 and he was the MVP of that team.

What he's doing now is what he does. If he weren't trying to play point guard and was just picking his spots, he'd average more than he does."

What Thomas is doing now is nothing short of remarkable. In a league where the only freshmen getting any national acclaim have been UCLA's Jrue Holiday and USC's Demar Derozan, 'Zeke' has quietly outplayed both of them. He's tied for the league lead in scoring; he's fifth in steals and seventh in 3-point field goals made. He's helped lead the Huskies to first place in the Pac-10, as well as top-30 marks nationally in scoring and scoring margin, which means he's doing his job on both ends of the floor.

"I've talked to him on the side about how he's improved," Romar said of Thomas' defense. "Defense isn't something that he was as interested in, and he knew. To his credit he's come to me at times and has asked about how his defense is. He's got a lot of pride. He wants to be the best, so he's taken it upon himself to become a better defender. He's not there yet in terms of the finished product, but he's made strides from where he was before he got here."

"I put a lot into it (defense), especially this summer," Thomas added. "In college it's something you've gotta do. In high school I usually took breaks off on the defensive end. I've worked so hard on it, and I'm still getting better each and every practice and each and every day. I just have a mindset that my guy is not going to score. Coach Romar puts that in my head."

But more than anything, Thomas has patiently played his way into a critical role on a Washington team that has won 13 of its last 14 games, the one loss being a three-overtime heartbreaker at home to California. He hasn't forced things during this recent stretch; he's let the game, and his opportunities, come to him - while at the same time providing for his teammates and doing the little things to win.

"Everyone is loving their roles they've been assigned to," senior guard Justin Dentmon said. "The way coach rotates the guards has been good because it's been able to give us a blow and also keeping us on the floor at the same time. We've got the right pieces. The puzzle is complete. Now we just have to perform when the spotlight is on us."

The guard rotation of Thomas, Dentmon and Venoy Overton has come along beautifully, propelled by the assertiveness of the true frosh. The stats certainly bear it out; in 2008 Washington attempted 688 free throws in 33 games. This season, the Huskies have tried 528 times in 19 games, an average of 28 free throws a game. Extrapolated out, that means UW could end up attempting 924 free throws, breaking the school record by five tries.

"That's the plan; for us to attack and play inside-out and be aggressive that way," Romar said. "If you look at our stats, how many foul shots has Isaiah Thomas taken? He wasn't here last year. If you look at our guards last year and the difference, I would bet you he (Thomas) has taken more foul shots than the rest combined. But that was the one thing I didn't see as much when we recruited him. But once he got here and we started practicing I thought he would get to the line a lot. He makes a difference with how many times he gets to the line. That helps us."

Not only are the Huskies getting to the line at a prolific pace; they are also holding folks back to minimal gains at the line. So far in seven league games, UW has taken 211 shots from the free throw line, their opponents 130 times. That's an average of 30 to 19. Ironially enough, that 11-point gap matches the Huskies' league-leading scoring margin.

So essentially, Washington is playing their opponents straight-up, but are winning games with their aggressiveness and ability to knock down the freebies. It's quite a change from last year, when they shot their free throws at a clip of less than 59 percent. So far this year? They are over 15 points higher (.744), helped by the fact that Dentmon has hit his last 21-straight from the stripe.

"I'm going to keep shooting the same way," Dentmon said, ignoring the fact that he's working on a pretty nice streak, but nowhere near the 42-straight he hit in high school. "I just think about making the free throw. My Mom, she watches the game. She knows how I take free throws. So when I miss she knows I'm upset because of my facial expression. I think of it like a free layup that I'm going to try and take and make."

Dentmon isn't the only one that thinks of free throws as easy pickings. "I've emphasized it this season, because those are extra points, easy points," said Thomas. "In the NBA, in college, all the best guards get to the line. If they are having an off game, they get easy points by getting to the free throw line. I really got in the weight room this summer just to get ready for the contact and emphasize getting better at it."

The biggest jump Thomas has made since the beginning of the season has been his ability to let the game come to him. At the beginning of the season, he hit for 27 in an exhibition win over Western Washington. "The Western Washington game, it was weird," he admitted. "Things were so open it was like, 'Dang! Is it always going to be like this?' It definitely wasn't."

The Huskies fell hard at Portland in their opener, but in hindsight it might have been the best thing that happened to Thomas. "He learned a lot from that (Portland) game," Romar said. "It was just good college defense. He is such a smart player, he began adjusting right there. It took him a while to pick his spots. When we played USC and they played triangle-and-two or box-and-one, he may have forced it. But he just waited and he was patient. He has seen that in his career before. That is what's impressed me about him. Once he started adjusting...if there were any reservations, at Washington State...first game...on the road...against a very good defensive team...he assisted or scored on 15 of our first 17 points. He kept us in the game. That erased any doubts."

Thomas has had good role models; he talks with former Huskies like Brandon Roy and Will Conroy on a daily basis and others, like Nate Robinson, at least a couple of times a week. "He's always in my ear about doing the things you can control; don't worry about missing shots or turnovers," Thomas said of Robinson, the former two-sport star from Rainier Beach. "Just play hard, play smart and play to win. I talk to Will and Brandon every day. Will is like a big brother to me. He's always on me about the things I don't do right to correct them. Just having that attitude that no one can mess with us, we're coming in here 100 percent for 40 minutes...that's wore off on my teammates. We're doing a great job of that."

It's a way of playing that has become infectious, in large part because the seniors on the team have seen it up close and personal. "It's an attitude where we won't back down from anybody," Thomas said. "We're going to go after teams and be the fierce competitor that I thought was missing the last two years...just having that attitude that nobody can stop us and we're going to come in and get this win no matter if it's home or away. Hopefully I brought a little of the swagger back. Coming into this season, coach said that you are a freshman but the guys look up to you. I took that to heart. They do look up to me, not like being a vocal leader, but the little things like working hard and getting my teammates off...like a guy like Darnell (Gant). He doesn't score all that much, but just getting him a couple points here and there makes things so much better and makes him so much happier."

The Huskies plan on taking that swagger with them on the road when they play Arizona Thursday and Arizona State on Saturday. "We can't be satisfied," Dentmon said. "We still need to go to Arizona and play our butts off. We expect to have a bullseye on our back, just like there was a bullseye on UCLA's back being tied with us. We expect that, so we have to go in like there isn't. We have to go in like there's a bullseye on their back and we're trying to go after them."

"This team has a hunger to get better," said Brockman, matter-of-factly. And as long as Thomas is feeding the beast, taking what's given and getting to the line, the Huskies have a great chance to keep their train-a-rollin' all the way down the tracks to a Pac-10 title.


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