MANHATTAN — Think Thomas Gipson is big compared to most college basketball players? You should have seen him in high school.
Gipson, a 6-foot-7, 268-pounder who looks more like a defensive end than a forward, was about the same size back then. He even had the same thick beard. He looked so much bigger and older than everyone else that his mother had to bring his birth certificate to games — someone always wanted proof that he wasn’t trying to cheat the system.
“I’m supposed to be out there looking young and I’ve got this beard,” Gipson said. “I’m out there looking like I’m 30. My mom always wanted me to cut it off, but I kept it. It was intimidating.”
Maybe it was too intimidating. Looking back, it may have prevented him from truly mastering his basketball craft. Gipson has always been a back-to-the-basket player. So when he caught the ball in the low post, he overpowered high school competition. He tried to do the same as a college freshman, but struggled against physical opponents.
It wasn’t until Bruce Weber took over at K-State that he embraced other skills. He has tried to score with finesse and a mid-range jumper, as well as with power. Though he struggled with the new approach early, he made significant progress during Big 12 games. The sophomore has averaged 10.7 points and 4.9 rebounds over his last 12 games, becoming a vital inside presence.
He has come off the bench in 11 of K-State’s past 12 games, but his role could increase in the postseason with starting forward Jordan Henriquez battling a back injury.
“He is starting to learn angles,” Weber said. “His biggest jump is that he is posting deep. Now he is getting people deep where he can use either hand with his hooks, and he is also going slow on his post moves. When he struggles, he goes fast. When he takes his time, now you can really use your body. He’s a weapon. People don’t like guarding that.”
Gipson has come a long way in the past year.
Weber’s first impression of Gipson wasn’t positive. He remembers thinking Gipson “needed to lose weight so he could keep up with the game.” But they worked on that together. Gipson has lost close to 10 pounds and expanded his skill set.
“It’s a lot better than last year, when I was tired all the time, not wanting to do anything,” Gipson said. “I am more into it. I watch film and it shows. My endurance is up and I’ve lost weight. I still need to get slimmer. I want to get down to 260 or even 255. But I know I can do it. My eating habits are better. ”
ESPN college basketball analyst Fran Fraschilla, who works Big 12 games, has also noticed a change.
Frashcilla used to watch him play in high school, but he was never impressed.
“He was an underachiever and out of shape,” Fraschilla said. “He never dominated games like a great prospect. He seemed like a really nice kid and he played for a very good high school program, but there was a reason nobody in Texas recruited him.
“I see him now, and he is in better shape than ever. He has an old-school game. He’s a below-the-rim post player. So much of his success is based on craftiness right now. He is off to a far better start to his career than I expected. He turned out to be a steal.”
Gipson intends to add a 15-foot jumper to his game and become a more inside-out player over the summer. Increasing his stamina to where he can play 30 minutes each game would also be nice.
He wants to start intimidating opponents with dunks and double-doubles instead of his girth and beard. He’s on the right path. K-State is 10-2 since he started his resurgence.
A deep postseason run may keep strangers from encouraging him to give up basketball for football, a sport he never played at an organized level.
“Someone is always telling me I would make a lot of money playing football, just hitting people or catching a ball,” Gipson said. “People asked me about football every day in high school. I would be walking down the hall and they would ask, ‘Yo, Gip, when you going to put the pads on?’ I just laughed at them and ignored them.
“If I don’t make it in my basketball career maybe I will give football a try. If the opportunity presents itself, I will go to a NFL training camp or something like that. But my love for basketball is greater than my love for football. I want to stick to this and become as good as I possibly can.”