CHICAGO — When decision time came for Deshaun Thomas last spring, he handled it much in the same way he’d handled his decision to attend Ohio State.
He trusted himself to know what was best.
Though he’s been known to use third-person — during last year’s NCAA Tournament, he said he knew Deshaun was special in fourth grade — Thomas wasn’t saying that selfishly. Early in a high school career that saw him become Indiana’s third-leading all-time scorer, he’d picked Thad Matta’s Ohio State program and stuck with it.
After helping the Buckeyes to the Final Four last spring, Thomas flirted with the NBA. He thought about it and came “very close” to leaving, but ultimately decided to return to Ohio State for his junior season.
“It was a decision to stay humble and get better at what I’m doing,” Thomas said. “I still have goals to take care of. That’s trying to get a Big Ten championship, then a national championship, then the sky’s the limit for me.”
Without saying it directly, you sense his plan. One more year. One great one.
His return for the 2012-2013 season is a big reason Ohio State is No. 4 in the preseason top 25 and why many think this could be the best season of Big Ten basketball in some time. Thomas and teammate and classmate Aaron Craft were voted to the All-Big Ten Preseason Team at the league’s annual media day festivities Thursday.
Thomas came to Chicago as a changed man — and not just leaner, more confident or as a known commodity after averaging 15.9 points per game last season and posting 31 and 24-point games in the NCAA Tournament. He sees the individual opportunity ahead with the Buckeyes having lost 32 points per game from the departures of Jared Sullinger and William Buford, but he also sees the chance to be a more complete and reliable player, one who can score in a variety of ways.
“I’m best running that wing, creating off the bounce,” Thomas said. “But ain’t nothing wrong with getting an easy bucket down low sometimes. There’s a lot to my game, and it’s not about me. A rebound and a putback at the right moment, that helps the team. Being able to step out and stretch the defense, that helps too.”
As a freshman, Thomas was the seventh man in what was essentially a six-and-a-half man rotation for the Buckeyes, who entered the 2011 NCAA Tournament as the top overall seed. He played his best basketball in the back half of last season, developing a confidence and a sense of urgency that made the Buckeyes a very tough cover in a late push that saw them end up sharing the Big Ten title and winning the East Regional.
Last October, Matta said Thomas had learned the meaning of the word “pass” between his freshman and sophomore seasons and said that marked progress. He was only partially joking.
“His evolution as a college basketball player has been a phenomenal thing to watch,” Ohio State coach Thad Matta said. “To his credit, he’s put himself in the position he’s in with hard work. He’s starting to get an understanding of the little things it takes to be great.
“I couldn’t be more pleased with his attitude and how he’s accepted his leadership role.”
Thomas said his focus last summer was on eating well and working to be a reliable scorer both inside and out. This year’s Ohio State team should be deep and athletic, but it remains to be seen how teams will defend Thomas and where Ohio State will turn to complement his scoring. He said he spent “late nights” in the gym at Ohio State and attended a Nike camp in June and the Adidas Nations event later in the summer.
Asked how he performed there, Thomas couldn’t hide a smile.
“Everybody loved me,” he said.
Thomas said he has no regrets now about putting the NBA on hold. He’s confident he talked to the right people — and in the end, trusted himself.
“We talked about it, but I think he had in his mind what he wanted to do,” Matta said. “I wanted what was right for him. I don’t think Deshaun wants to get to the NBA just to say he could get there. I think he wants to stay a while and make a difference.