Austin Toros forward Lance Thomas has a knack for giving 100 percent of his
“All my teammates laugh at me because I’m sitting there with my little Kindle,” Thomas said. “I love it, I’ve been breezing through books. When we’re in the airport, sometimes I don’t even hear them say we’re boarding, I’m so glued to my book.”
When Thomas is on the basketball court, he has a similar level of focus. His goal with the Toros is to improve and make an NBA team. NBA scouts have noticed his attitude and talent. Head coach Brad Jones said Thomas is always one of the first players scouts ask about.
“They say he catches their eye right away with the way he’s committed to both ends of the floor and the way he works,” Jones said.
Thomas is hoping it is finally his time to shine after a college career defined by sacrifice.
He was a McDonald’s All-American coming out of Newark St. Benedict’s Prep in New Jersey where he led his team to two state titles.
His transition to playing college basketball at Duke was not what he expected initially. As a freshman, he was able to start for the Blue Devils, but was asked to play defense and rebound by Coach Mike Krzyzewski and not worry so much about scoring points.
“That’s all he wanted me to do,” Thomas said. “I was like, ‘that’s all I have to do to get on the floor?’ I did everything he asked me to and played some good minutes my freshman year.”
He stayed on the floor, starting all four years. His role would not change much though. Defense and hustle were what Krzyzewski wanted from Thomas, so that’s what he gave him.
Thomas accepted his role and developed into the guy who would lead his team by example, always hustling, always giving it his all defensively. No longer was he concerned about how many points he scored, Thomas did what his coach told him to do to help the team win.
“I was guarding guys like Stephen Curry, Ty Lawson, all the way to (Tyler) Hansborough and Dexter Pittman,” Thomas said. “It didn’t really matter who the other person was, coach knew I could play (defense) on them. He knew I would put us in a position to help the team win, so that’s what I did all four years.”
Thomas’ highest scoring average came in his junior year, when he averaged 5.3
However, his team respected Thomas so much that he was named a co-team captain his senior year, along with Jon Sheyer. That season culminated in a 61-59 victory over Butler for the NCAA Championship.
“I didn’t really get a chance to showcase a lot of what I had at Duke,” Thomas said. “When I was a freshman, it was frustrating, but looking at the bigger picture, we accomplished something bigger than myself, so my whole ego and all of that, I had to throw our the door.”
Thomas reached the pinnacle of college athletics. He loved his time at Duke and wouldn’t trade his national championship for anything, he said. However, now those four years were over and his childhood dream was to play in the NBA. It would be an uphill battle for Thomas as he was not high on the radar for NBA scouts. He went undrafted.
“They were saying that I need to be more of an offensive player, that I need to develop more skills,” Thomas said. “They were right. A lot of them didn’t even think I have the skills that I have now.”
The Toros picked him up in the D-League draft. He came in with a determined attitude to get better offensively and impress scouts.
“He was an energy guy on a very stacked Duke team,” Jones said. “Here he has been able to grow as an individual both offensively and defensively.”
Jones said Thomas is the Toros most consistent performer. His offensive game has started blossoming. For the season, Thomas is second on the team in scoring and rebounding, averaging 13.1 points and 5.6 rebounds.
Most NBA teams look to the D-League to fill the eleventh, twelfth or thirteenth spots on their roster and therefore are not looking for the flashy scorer, but the hard worker who can contribute in multiple ways, Jones said.
“I think Lance has put himself on the map as a maybe for pro guys,” Jones said. “That shows you how far he’s come, because before he was probably a no since he didn’t get drafted.”
Thomas has worked a lot on his outside jump shot. He is shooting 53 percent from the field on the season and is a capable scorer from inside and outside. One year from now, Thomas sees himself helping an NBA team.
“Playing in the NBA has been a dream of mine and at times it seemed a little distant, especially when I was in college and all these guys were putting up big points and getting all this attention,” Thomas said. “Here I was, doing what I needed to do to make my team win, but I’m not getting NBA looks. Now that I’m here and I’m actually competing against high caliber guys, I feel I am holding my own if not more than that.”
Jones said if he had to choose team captains, they would be Thomas and Carldell “Squeaky” Johnson, who has been with the Toros for four years. Johnson sees the leadership qualities that Thomas brings to the table.
“Lance is the type of guy that lets his play shows for itself,” Johnson said. “He plays hard on and off the court and he’s the right type of guy to lead the team. I’m not surprised he has come in as a rookie and been a leader because he’s a guy that comes from a great winning program and a great background.”
Thomas recently finished reading The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand. The story follows an individualist who toils in obscurity as an architect.
The Duke graduate seems to have applied a lesson from that book to basketball. He has never been an individualist on the court, and that attitude might just free him from obscurity in the near future.