MANHATTAN — A public preseason scrimmage is often the worst time to evaluate college basketball players. Defense is forbidden, style points matter most and acrobatic dunks occur so frequently that they seem scripted. But those disclaimers don’t apply to Thomas Gipson.
When the junior forward threw down athletic dunks at Kansas State’s basketball kickoff celebration, everyone in attendance took notice.
“I dunk a lot more than I used to,” Gipson said. “I remember my freshman year, I couldn’t even get off the ground. I feel really good about dunking and everything. That is part of the game. I am glad I can do it now.”
At 6-foot-7, Gipson has always technically been able to dunk. But he has often settled for layups when he has been unguarded near the basket and he has never — ever — dunked over a defender in a live college game. As an underclassmen, he was strictly a below-the-basket player who looked like he belonged on the football field.
That should change this year. Gipson, who previously hovered close to 300 pounds, is now at 265. In his own words, he can “jump higher, move faster, be quicker and lighter on my feet. I have enough endurance to run up and down the floor.”
He is also now capable of dunking — with authority. He rattled the backboard several times during his public debut in late October, and his teammates insist those athletic plays weren’t a result of lackadaisical defense.
“He is dunking on people,” senior Shane Southwell said. “I have counted about six times in practice when I’m like, ‘Wow, Thomas would not have done that at any other point in his career.’”
Of course, K-State coach Bruce Weber is hoping Gipson’s new body will allow him to do more than dunk.
Gipson will serve as the Wildcats’ primary inside player this season. Without shot-blocker Jordan Henriquez, he will be asked to play more minutes and become a complete player. K-State will go with a small lineup, but the Wildcats will have to go even smaller when Gipson is on the bench. His main backup, sophomore D.J. Johnson, is unproven. His second backup, Jack Karapetyan, is an unheralded freshman.
He can’t ask for breaks this season.
“Can he play 24-28 minutes every game consistently?” Weber said. “That is the big question. That will be a big key.”
Avoiding fouls will also be crucial.
“The biggest thing is he fouls a lot when he’s heavy,” associate head coach Chris Lowery said. “Him being in great shape helps everyone, because he is going to have to play a lot of minutes. We don’t have much depth at his position.”
For those reasons, it was easy for Gipson to stay motivated while he dieted during the offseason. He wanted to do more, and losing weight was a necessity.
More than anything, though, it could extend his basketball career.
“I have been trying to lose weight for the past few years, but I didn’t have that extra motivation,” Gipson said. “When I went home over the summer, I was talking with my dad and he was telling me, ‘It’s about that time that you lose weight and get ready and get serious about this.’ He said I can’t do anything professionally at this weight.
“I’m not talking about the NBA, I’m talking about overseas or anywhere. Nobody wants to sign a 285-pound guy who can hardly move.”
That is the player he used to be.
A few preseason dunks proved he is new man.
“He is totally different,” Southwell said. “He is a lot better now than he was last year and I thought he was a good player last year. I think, honestly, Thomas can be the best low-post scorer in America. I really mean that. He can score in a number of ways. He can score face up. He can score in the post. He is still probably the strongest person in the Big 12, but now he is faster. That’s a dangerous combination.”