August 16, 2008

Go Away Chris Thomas

I really tried to bite my tongue and let this recent SB Tribune article (published 8/3, but it's already archived - lame) pass without making a big deal about it. But the more it kicked around in my head, the more upset it made me. Tom Noie, the Tribune's outstanding ND hoops beat writer, caught up with Chris Thomas four years after graduating to reflect upon his years under the Dome. Since then, he's been patchworking a decent pro career across Europe. Good for him, I suppose. Maybe the distance has allowed him an opportunity to reflect on his roller coaster ND career. But reading some of Thomas' quotes, it still seems like the irked star with a chip on his shoulder talking.

On how his basketball life became too stressful at school: "I was sort of the star off the court, too. All the time I've got to be the star, I never had time to rest. I never shared the spotlight."

On how his game has evolved since college: "I'm definitely not the scorer I used to be. When I was here, I could do a couple guys' roles just by taking a lot of shots and demanding the ball."

These two quotes are emblematic of exactly what you don't want, and can't have, from your point guard. He was wired wrong, expecting things to be given to him just because he had some skills - a high school mentality that he never grew out of. But my favorite quote:

On if the game ever lost its fun while at Notre Dame: "I think I lost the ability to show my love, for sure, because of the injuries and dealing with the added pressure to play well...When I was the one that everyone else looked to, I was injured. I wasn't able to work on my game because I was doing rehab."

Way to throw out the injured card for why you couldn't be a team leader. Guys get injured. It's part of the game. It's how you deal with it and encourage and inspire your teammates despite injuries that make teams stronger. None of this was in CT's playbook.

The former Mr. Basketball of Indiana registered Notre Dame's first triple-double in his very first collegiate game (vs. New Hampshire, but impressive regardless). Playing with a veteran cast of teammates in Ryan Humphrey, Matt Carroll, David Graves and Harold Swanagan, Thomas was the young Energizer bunny that made the team go. Recall this team pressed Duke to the limit in their foiled Sweet 16 bid of 2002. When Carroll and Thomas came back the next year with new star freshman Torin Francis, the team scaled new heights, beating Illinois, with Deron Williams, Dee Brown and Brian Cook, to advance to the Sweet 16. Thomas looked like he was putting things together, spreading things around to everyone around him while making things difficult for the opposing defense.

With Carroll's graduation, Thomas assumed alpha dog status his junior season and the power trip went to his head. Instead of continuing his development as a playmaker, he decided that the offense needed his scoring more than his penetration and creativity. His assists per game went from 7.6 and 6.9 respectively his first two seasons to a pedestrian 4.7 his junior year. Talk about regression. Field Goal, Free Throw and 3-Point percentages all dropped precipitously between sophomore and junior years. But the numbers only told half the story. Thomas never cared much about defense, but was helped greatly his first couple years by the interior presence of Humphrey and Swanagan. Once they were gone, his defensive woes were magnified. Any, and I can't emphasize any enough, point guard could drive around him at will or post him up without a problem. I'm sure the opposing coach's scouting report prepped his point guard by telling him he'd score a season high that night. Sure, Thomas holds the career mark for steals, but that was more a case of him gambling on passes than staying in front of his man and making life difficult. As many times as he got a steal, he ended up leaving his man wide open in the lane with his teammates left to clean up his mess. It made a sane fan want to pull their hair out.

Thomas' legacy looks great at face value with glitzy records and career marks. Yet below the surface reveals a tarnished career to people who watched the player and his teams compete. In my eyes, he will forever be the poster child of spoiled players who think they're bigger than the team. It's no coincidence his last game ended ignominiously losing to Holy Cross in front of a sparsely filled Joyce Center crowd. Thomas' assertion that he deserved better from the people in South Bend summed up his sorry, selfish career, reflecting more the fans' apathy toward Thomas and the cancer he had spread through the team. Somehow, he got it in his head that he wasn't going to acquiesce to anything Coach Brey asked of him. It was going to be Thomas' way or no way at all.

In his final two years, you could read the emotions of the players before they started the game. The fun had been sapped from the game. Thomas ignored his role as a team leader and his responsibility to make everyone around him better. That's what point guards do. If you take a look at the best PGs in the NBA right now (Nash, Paul, Williams, Kidd) their teams thrive when they involve the entire team and play with passion. Thomas thrived on shooting and getting his own stats - never the right mixture for a winning team.

For what a point guard is supposed to do for his team, look no further than below. Tory Jackson has come out trying to prove himself from day one. He plays with heart and emotion, involves his teammates, penetrates and keeps defenses guessing, creates easy baskets, delivers clutch baskets and plays suffocating defense. Nothing from that sentence can be found in Chris Thomas' illustrious player bio.

In this case, #2 is head and shoulders better than #1. And that's why we can be excited for the future of ND basketball. Good luck, Chris, in Europe. Please stay.


Jeremy said...

Well put James. Unfortunately, I would not be able to write an article about Thomas without giving myself a seizure, or I would draft a more lengthy, venom-laced response.

I'll leave it at this - that first picture is very fitting, as it represents the position Thomas took just about every time he played against a quality PG who actually knew how to play the position, including, but not limited to, Brandin Knight.

Mike said...

It's such a refreshing change to watch a team that passes the basketball so well, as opposed to a team where the point guard stands around for 30 seconds and then jacks up a contested shot.

Doug said...
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Doug said...

Indeed. Good post Jimbo. I agree wholeheartedly with your thoughts on the point guard position and the night and day effect of Tory Jackson vs. Chris Thomas. Chris Thomas has all the career stats, but his legacy with people who followed ND will always be one of disappointment and selfishness. Chris Thomas forgot what made him successful, and I don't think there was anything more frustrating than seeing him come down the court and chuck up a contested three (even if he was ice cold at the time).

He was the ultimate college basketball "Ewing Theory" candidate because everyone thought our program was dead when he graduated. It turned out that even though he was the marquee name, he was really the problem with those 03-04 and 04-05 teams.

While I do not miss Chris Thomas and all the baggage that he brought with him, I do have many fond memories of his freshmen and sophomore years. The 2003 Sweet 16 team would not have been as successful without Chris Thomas, so I have some mixed emotions about him.

He ultimately did more damage to the program than help, so I do understand the anger toward Chris Thomas.

ND basketball under Brey thrives under the principle of the team being greater than the individual, and I look forward to two more years of Tory and many more years of team basketball instead of the star system.

Doug said...
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