MANHATTAN — At the conclusion of his first practice with the Kansas State basketball team, Jevon Thomas dropped to the floor and gasped for air.
“He almost passed out,” K-State coach Bruce Weber said of his freshman point guard. “He was lying on the floor, saying his body was cramping.”
Hard to believe that was less than two weeks ago.
Thomas, who wasn’t allowed to practice or play with the Wildcats until the conclusion of the fall semester because of NCAA eligibility rules, has barely hiccuped since. He has come off the bench in three straight games and found a way to contribute in all three. He had two points and four assists in his debut against Tulane, he sent out six assists against George Washington and he was at his best against Oklahoma State, finishing with eight points and five assists.
Perhaps best of all, those stats came while he played stifling defense and lost two turnovers.
“For as much as he has been playing, at the intensity level he plays at, he is in great shape,” senior guard Will Spradling said. “I have never seen anyone jump in with that intensity level for that many minutes and do such a good job.”
Few saw this coming. Though K-State coaches have praised Thomas since he arrived on campus last year, there was no telling how much he would be able to do after sitting out for a semester. Heck, he is still learning how to attack zone defenses, and he gets confused on certain defensive assignments.
But his skills, particularly speed and defensive aggression, have helped the No. 25 Wildcats develop into ranked team they are today.
“He is so good at getting in the paint,” Weber said. “He has great quickness and great explosiveness. He can get in the lane and then he feeds people. That really, really helps us and eases the pressure on Will Spradling and Shane Southwell. He is getting a feel for it. The thing he needs is to find a rhythm. That will probably take the longest. But people do not want to bring the ball up against him. That has taken our defense to another level.”
Thomas focused on defense when he officially joined the team. He wanted to become a key role player by the start of Big 12 play, and he thinks he has succeeded in that department.
“One of my biggest goals was to come in and defend and just harass other point guards,” Thomas said. “That was my first goal. From there, just go and try to make more plays. Scoring was my last goal.”
He could improve in that area. His shot, particularly from the free-throw line, has looked shaky.
Still, his presence has also allowed Spradling to spend more time at shooting guard, his natural position, and taken pressure off every guard on the lineup. Foul trouble and fatigue is a lesser concern than it was two weeks ago.
“We are a whole different team with him,” junior Nino Williams said. “(His first practice) was a lot of energy and a lot of talking and a lot of competing. I think he brings a lot to our team.”
K-State hopes he continues to bring something extra to the court at 7 p.m. Tuesday against TCU in Fort Worth.
Weber has shown concern over this game for days, labeling it every bit as important as the conference opener against Oklahoma State or K-State’s upcoming Saturday trip to Kansas. The Wildcats haven’t played a true road game this season, so this will be a new experience.
Thomas isn’t worried, though. New experiences haven’t affected him since that first practice.
“The speed was so much faster than high school,” Thomas said. “No matter how much conditioning I did it couldn’t simulate a real college basketball game. But, with the type of body that I have, I am in shape now.”