Tyrus Thomas | Fit to Be Tyed

Tyrus Thomas
Thomas posted impressive numbers of 16.2 points, 7.0 rebounds and 1.4 blocks while playing with the Bulls summer league squad in July.
Fit to Be Tyed

Tyrus Thomas brings an unyielding work ethic to the Bulls

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By Brett Ballantini | Posted September 7, 2006

What do you get when you combine the leaping ability of Shawn Marion, the soft touch of Tracy McGrady, and a combination of size and speed that makes entire NBA Draft rooms drool with anticipation?

You might say you have a superhero on your hands. But don’t take it from me. Take a peek at the NBA Draft promos that ran on ESPN: While a more modest talent like Duke’s J.J. Redick said he was auditioning to play “Mr. Clutch,” Tyrus Thomas, the Bulls’ top first-round pick, had a slightly more lofty aim: “Superman.”

Under normal circumstances, Miami Heat center Shaquille O’Neal, he of the “Man of Steel” and Superman logo tattoos, might object to a young kid being so bold. But Thomas is a fellow LSU Tiger, and that has to count for something.

“He came up quick, didn’t he,” the newly minted NBA champ said at the start of Miami’s title run in Chicago. “Yeah, he did [LSU] real proud in the Tournament. He’s going to accomplish some things in this league.”

While the analysis sounded great at the time, it’s a safe bet that six months earlier, Big Daddy Shaq probably had no clue who Thomas was—or at least how good he could be. Perhaps the most amazing aspect of Thomas’s ascension to the NBA is that in a world where the scrutiny of basketball prospects has gone worldwide and into greater depth than ever, this teenage forward shot from being a stealth-cloaked Louisianan a year ago to No. 2 glad-hander on the NBA Draft dais. Thomas’ meteoric rise is not unlike that of his idol, McGrady—and no, the similarity of Thomas’s “T-Time” to McGrady’s “T-Mac” nickname is not a coincidence.

McGrady, recall, was a skinny Florida teen who jumped from high school unknown to summer camp standout to lottery pick in the space of months. Thomas was an even bigger surprise, as an unknown until midway through last season, first exploding onto college basketball’s biggest stage, then crashing the NBA lottery party like John Belushi in a toga.

While he dreamed of playing in the NBA growing up in Baton Rouge, Thomas didn’t participate in organized basketball until his junior year at McKinley High. He wasn’t a high school All-American. He wasn’t a top-100 prospect nationally. He didn’t even make the cut for Louisiana’s All-State corps. As for an NBA future, Thomas might as well have been playing in Bangladesh or Barbados, he was so far off the league’s radar.

A neck injury forced Thomas to redshirt at LSU for his true freshman year in 2004.05. That layoff earned him no additional accolades, and, entering 2005-06, Thomas hardly was mentioned in all but the most detailed Tigers season previews. However, his coach at LSU, John Brady, soon knew that he had a superstar on his hands.

Tyrus Thomas
After announcing his intention to jump to the NBA, Thomas immediately shot up the charts as one of the most desirable picks in the NBA Draft.

(Terrence Vaccaro/NBAE/Getty Images)

“He never stopped working,” Brady says. “He’s young, so his leadership skills aren’t there yet, but his personality is so true, so encouraging, that he’s definitely the kind of player whose devotion and effort rub off on teammates.”

Thomas played in 32 games last season, starting in only his last 21. He compiled 12.3 ppg and 9.2 rpg averages, as well as a school all-time fourth-best 99 blocks (the three totals ahead of Thomas belong to the original Man of Steel, Shaquille O’Neal) en route to SEC Freshman of the Year and co-Defensive Player of the Year accolades.

And the young gun with the Gumby arms saved his best for last, with a dominant NCAA Tournament performance, leading the Tigers to an improbable Final Four appearance—an explosion that was to NBA brain trusts as a dog whistle is to a schnauzer. With nine points, 13 rebounds, and five blocks versus Duke in the Sweet 16 and 21 points, 13 rebounds, and three blocks in an Elite Eight upset over Texas—helping hold highly touted post man LaMarcus Aldridge to two-of-14 shooting—Thomas was named the Atlanta Region’s Most Outstanding Player. Just four years after playing his first organized basketball, with only a few dozen games at the collegiate level under his belt, Thomas felt that it was T-Time in the NBA.

Although it was largely the three weeks of the NCAA Tournament that determined his fate, Thomas insists that he is neither an improbable nor an overnight sensation.

“I honestly don’t think I hit fast,” he says. “To the media and the fans I may have, but anyone close to me knows I spent two years [at LSU] working hard. I’ve always known I was capable of [being an NBA lottery pick]. I was in the gym every night and most mornings, doing drills, shooting and rebounding all by myself. I did the work to prove that I could be [a lottery pick].”

For a Bulls team that’s made two consecutive playoff appearances and looks to step up from there in the 2006.07 season, there’s an expectation that a more ready-made player might be a better fit, even from a Draft slot as high as No. 2, in the bastion of picks made on “potential.”

“A lot of chatter out there was about picking an ‘NBA-ready’ guy,” Bulls GM John Paxson says. “At another time, in another place, maybe that’s a consideration. But when you are drafting No. 2, with a clear shot at far and away the best talent in the Draft, you don’t pass on him. Not now and not ever.”

Paxson wistfully recalls a first glimpse of Thomas before an LSU road game, noting a confident “bounce” in Thomas’s step during warm-ups before he ravaged the 2nd-ranked Connecticut Huskies to the tune of 15 points, 13 rebounds and seven blocks.

“There were a lot of good choices out there on the board,” Paxson says. “Tyrus is the best athlete of them all, and [will be] the best we’ve had in a Bulls uniform for a long, long time. Every scout who left that game in Connecticut saw the same things I did. It’s simple: His potential is the highest of any of the players out there.”

Tyrus Thomas
Like any visitor at the Bulls workout facility, Thomas was in awe when he first arrived at the Berto Center. “Of course I was a Bulls fan growing up," he says. "Who wasn’t?”

If Bulls brass has no doubts about Thomas’s talent level, surely there’s some question about his position. He’s oft-compared to elite NBA wingmen like McGrady and Marion, but played the post in a conservative LSU offense last season. No worries, says the youngster; what he learned as a Tiger will only make him stronger—and into a unique inside-outside tool.

“I never played the post before I got to LSU,” he says. “Coach wanted me to play deep, so that’s what I did. I have a lot more outside game than you saw from me in college. I don’t just run the floor well ‘for a big man.’ I’m not just a ‘freakish’ athlete who runs around and waves his arms. I’m going to get right in there and play small or big, whatever I’m asked to do.”

One scout for a Western Conference team rumored to be trying to trade up into the high lottery with the sole hope of selecting Thomas sees a Marion-type player who has the ability to play even bigger than the Phoenix Suns’ defensive stalwart: “Particularly as a shot-blocker, [Thomas is] off the charts. He jumps quickly to get blocks, like Kenyon Martin did in college. But Tyrus also jumps high and doesn’t come down. That’s the combination that makes an All-Defensive player. One defensive skill set is great; multiple skills make you memorable.”

Playing somewhat out of position in college—low block versus on the wing—makes it easy to assume that Thomas’ offensive game is underdeveloped. He may be more advanced on defense at this stage in his career, but don’t discount his ability to put the ball in the hole.

“Offensively, he’s a bit of an X factor, because you don’t know how good he’s going to get. We mostly saw tips and dunks at LSU,” says one Central Division scout. “But Tyrus has a soft shot, and if he puts in the work, he’ll be a dual threat for sure.”

It’s merely a coincidence, but after declaring for the Draft and inking an agent, Thomas began his NBA preparation at the hands of family friend and LSU alum Randy Livingston, whose most recent NBA experience came in the stretch run of 2005.06—with the Bulls.

While by far the most frequent comparison made to Thomas among NBA personnel is Marion, Livingston puts a twist on all the compliments by seeing a lot of Utah Jazz forward Andrei Kirilenko in his young protégé.

“He may not get you 20 points per game,” Livingston says, “but he’s going to fill the score sheet. He can pass, block, board. He’s young and sometimes raw, but already there’s very little he can’t do on the floor.”

To Thomas, the compliments—particularly the all-too-convenient connection made between him and ex-Tiger Stromile Swift, another 6’9” forward who left LSU after one standout season—don’t add up to much.

“I try not to compare myself to anyone,” he says. “I don’t want to mold myself after any one player. I just want to be the best I can be. My best is my best—I don’t worry too much about all the comparisons.”

Tyrus Thomas
As a 19-year old redshirt freshman at LSU, Tyrus Thomas averaged 12.3 points, 9.2 rebounds and 3.1 blocked shots a game.

(Jennifer Pottheiser/NBAE/Getty Images)

Nobody would deny that a teenager with 32 college games under his belt, for all his talent, is still raw. And it’s the “raw” part of the equation that gives pause to All-Rookie expectations. Undoubtedly, Chicago’s Paxson-Skiles brain trust already has anticipated the trap of setting unrealistically high goals.

“We won’t ask too much of Tyrus too soon,” Skiles insists. “We want him to work hard, play hard and use his energy to help our team. I would never want to limit a guy like Tyrus, but let’s just say I’m going to be patient with him as long as he’s working hard.”

Clearly, Thomas and his new coach will be quickly and steadfastly bonded by their similar devotions: “Randy told me about Scott Skiles, that he’s a good guy who loves hard work. He’s going to push you hard—he has high expectations—but I’m not afraid of anyone pushing me to my limit. What appeals to me most about coming to Chicago is how hard they work. That fits exactly with who I am. It’s the right atmosphere. Coach is intense; he’ll push you hard. I’m ready for that.”

He may be young, but Thomas is wise beyond his years when it comes to deflating hype. He knows words like athleticism, potential, freakish and length are mostly made-up terms often shouted out to fill air time in Draft coverage.

“The word ‘potential’ doesn’t mean much to me,” he says. “You have to maximize your skills and ability. Potential is just a smokescreen. You have to prove you’re real in order to earn all the praise.

“A lot of players have potential. Any average Joe has the potential to be a good ballplayer if he puts in the work. A guy like John Stockton wasn’t the most athletic guy in the league, but he’ll be remembered as one of the best point guards ever because he worked. Potential doesn’t mean much unless you’re willing to put in the effort.”

You don’t expect a 19-year-old to sound so grounded, but Thomas is serious about making an impact with the Bulls and in the NBA.

“[The Draft process] is a lot to get your arms around, and I was just trying to take it one day at a time,” Thomas says with a chuckle and a shake of the head. “You can’t get a big head or lose sight of your goals. I’m just keeping my head down, working hard and moving forward.”

Expectations may be high, but Brady doesn’t have any worries about the maturity level of the teenager who has left the Tigers’ den: “Tyrus is a can’t-miss player in my eyes, and the Bulls are a perfect fit for him. It’s a young team that plays together, and that speaks a lot to how well John Paxson and Scott Skiles have constructed that team. Scott demands a lot from his players, but he makes those demands in a respectful way that’s easy to respond to. That’s a perfect fit for Tyrus.”

While it’s nearly impossible to read a story written about the Bulls in the Paxson-Skiles era that doesn’t bombard you with the notion of hard work, should it really be any other way? As such, Thomas is an almost impossibly perfect fit for the vision of the club’s administrative dynamic duo. In fact, Thomas’ thoughts on honing his game—mind you, this coming from a newly-minted millionaire teenager—almost read as if they were typed up weeks ago on Bulls letterhead.

“I’m always ready to work,” Thomas says. “If I have a bad shooting night, you better believe I’m going to be in the gym early the next morning to shoot. If I have a lot of turnovers, I’ll be in there working on my ball-handling.

Tyrus Thomas
“The word ‘potential’ doesn’t mean much to me,” Thomas says. “You have to maximize your skills and ability. Potential is just a smokescreen. You have to prove you’re real in order to earn all the praise."

“Until you make every shot one season, you will always need to keep practicing your shot. Until you have a turnover-free season, you’ll have to keep working on your ball-handling and passing. Until you hold your opponents scoreless one season, there’s always something you’ll need to improve defensively. That’s just common sense to me.”

As you can see, when it comes to demands, Paxson and Skiles can spout and sputter until they are blue in the face, but no one will raise the bar any higher than Thomas already has, as perhaps the hardest-working Draft pick in NBA history. And to his credit, Thomas was all of four years old when Paxson shot the Bulls to their first title in Game 5 of the NBA Finals, yet he’s deeply studied the methods of those Championship teams.

“Of course I was a Bulls fan growing up. Who wasn’t?” Thomas says. “It’s a great honor to be here. I grew up watching John Paxson playing alongside Michael Jordan. And of all the things I learned from Michael Jordan, the biggest was to never stop working. Even late in his career, the greatest player in basketball history was still finding ways to improve his game. That taught me to never stop working and improving.”

Like any visitor at the Bulls workout facility, Thomas was in awe when he first arrived at the Berto Center for his pre-Draft workout, saying, “The first day I came here I just stood for five minutes, looking around. I’ve never been amazed like that, anywhere, before.”

Bulls fans may be spoiled to an extent, being familiar with the amazing. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t hungry for more. Their new Exhibit A in the hall of highlight reel plays is this young workaholic from Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Hey Chicago, it’s now your T-Time.