2018 NBA Draft

Khyri Thomas' defensive ability helping help climb up draft boards

Creighton guard praised for maximizing role as two-way player on college level

Chris Dortch

Recruited as a defender, Creighton’s Khyri Thomas lived up to that billing and more. Two years ago, the combo guard was the Big East co-defensive player of the year. In 2017-18, he won the honor outright. That means something, because the award is voted on by league’s coaches, the ones who watch countless hours of film.

Thomas is such an impactful defender, that aspect of his game almost overshadows the fact he’s every bit as good on the other end of the floor.

Statistics, both advanced and conventional, tell the tale.

His effective field-goal percentage, which takes into account 2- and 3-point shots, was 62.9, 38th in the country. And his true shooting percentage, which adds the third component of free-throw shooting, was 65.0, 39th in the country.

In his final season, Thomas was fourth in the Big East in field-goal percentage (.538), 11th in 3-point percentage (.411) and also shot nearly 80 percent from the free-throw line. A player shoots that well, there’s little doubt he possesses great, or at least repeatable, mechanics, and Thomas does. But equally important was his shot selection.

“I can probably count on one hand the number of questionable shots he took the whole year,” Creighton coach Greg McDermott says. “At times, I wish he would have taken a couple more chances. He had the ability to make guarded shots. But to his credit, he played within our system. If one of his teammates had a great shot, he’d turn down a good shot to make sure they were able to get that better opportunity.”

Thomas’ ability to get the ball in the basket wasn’t a secret by any means, but it might have been overshadowed a bit, especially on a team that included guard Marcus Foster, who averaged 19.8 points (to Thomas’ 15.8), finished fifth in the Big East in scoring and was second in shot attempts among the league’s top 30 scorers.

“I think his defense got everybody’s attention,” McDermott says. “But once you start to dig into the numbers a little and watch a little bit of film, you begin to see how he’s getting his points and how efficient he is. I think that’s part of the reason he’s a hot name in the draft right now.”

Creighton assistant coach Preston Murphy agrees.

“When you play for coach McDermott, he gives you a lot of freedom,” Murphy says. “He doesn’t put restraints on you. Normally a player of Khryi’s caliber, coach gives him the freedom to shoot the basketball. But his [prudent] shot selection, his ability to find teammates, that mindset is very unique in this day and age.”

I think his defense got everybody’s attention. But once you start to dig into the numbers a little and watch a little bit of film, you begin to see how he’s getting his points and how efficient he is. I think that’s part of the reason he’s a hot name in the draft right now.

Creighton coach Greg McDermott on Thomas

Scouts might nitpick Thomas because of his size—6-2.5 without shoes—but his near 6-11 wingspan is a great equalizer on defense. So is his anticipation.

“Those are some of the things he has that you can’t teach,” Murphy says. “He’s got really quick hands. He can beat guys to spots while making split-second decisions. He’s tremendous at it.”

There are numbers to prove that, too. Several of the Big East’s leading scorers didn’t have a lot of fun when they played Creighton, because, whether they were a point guard or a power forward, they were defended by Thomas and held below their season scoring averages.

“Against a Villanova, you could put him on [national player of the year point guard] Jalen Brunson or [Julius Erving Award winner small forward] Mikal Bridges, who’s 6-8, or anybody in between,” McDermott said. “He would chase [St. John’s guard] Shamorie Ponds, who had the ball in his hands all the time, or guard [Butler’s] Kelan martin or [Xavier’s] Trevon Bluiett, who they’d run off a million screens.

“Besides having the versatility to defend several positions, Khyri’s got the versatility to defend a lot of different actions. Sometimes, it’s as simple as keeping the ball in front of you. Other times, it’s being there on the catch, or dealing with a lot of screening action. That takes vision, and it takes anticipation, and Khryi prepared himself for all of it by watching tons of film. The more you know what’s possibly coming, the better you’re prepared for it.”

Another thing Thomas is prepared for is how he’ll be utilized at the next level. As well as he shoots, he’s not likely to be a team’s No. 1 scoring option. He’ll serve a utility function, playing more than one position, and, especially, guarding more than one. That’s why Thomas’ name has turned up as a first round pick in numerous mock drafts.

“Most kids don’t understand that most guys that go into the NBA are going to be role players,” Murphy said. “That’s not Khyri. He’s played a role at Creighton ever since he’s been here. It started with defense. He understands the concept of team and has a great understanding of who he is and what his role is. That’s what makes him very attractive to the NBA.”

Chris Dortch is the editor of the Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook. You can email him here, follow him on Twitter and listen to the Blue Ribbon College Basketball Hour.

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