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March 30, 2006

LSU's Thomas jumps into the spotlight

He's a 6-foot-9 jumping jack and a future NBA lottery pick who can impact a game without even scoring a point.

So why didn't more colleges pursue Tyrus Thomas when they had the chance?

The redshirt freshman forward's rapid emergence has proved recruiting is an inexact science. Instead of having his pick of annual Final Four contenders, Thomas chose Louisiana State over such middle-of-the-road programs as Miami, Virginia Tech, Western Kentucky and North Texas.

"He really definitely truly fell under the radar," Rivals.com national basketball analyst Justin Young said.

Blame it on his proximity to the LSU campus, his slender physique or the quality of his high school program. Whatever the reason, Thomas didn't get much attention during the recruiting process.

His 6-foot-8, 175-pound frame even made him the subject of ridicule among some fans who hadn't seen him play yet. A growth spurt in high school made Thomas taller than his classmates, but the rest of his body hadn't adjusted.

Here's a sample of postings on one message board after Thomas verbally committed to LSU.

I didn't know that Manute Bol's son was available.

If he gets rich in the NBA, he can wear his Rolex around his waist.

The last thing we need is another stiff that can't play sitting on the end of the bench, taking up a (scholarship). We've already got too many of those.

Perhaps those fans would have reacted differently if they actually had seen one of Thomas' games. Thomas averaged 16 points, 12 rebounds and an eye-popping six blocks per game his senior year at McKinley High School in Baton Rouge, La.

"He's like a cat," McKinley coach Chauncey Moore said. "A lot of things everybody is looking at now are the same things I saw as his high school coach. He could block shots. He was quick. He had all those things.

"The things he's doing right now don't surprise me. The only thing that's changed is he's a little bit heavier."

He's actually a lot heavier.

When Thomas sat out last season with a neck injury, he turned the weight room into a second home. He now weighs 215 pounds and has added enough muscle to avoid getting pushed around in the paint.

"He added the 'freshman 15' in a good way," Young said, "and it was more like the freshman 30."

But his weight wasn't the only thing that turned off college recruiters.

McKinley struggled for much of Thomas' high-school career. Moore said McKinley won about 20 games combined in the three seasons before he took over the program during Thomas' senior year.

Thomas also didn't make much of a name for himself on the AAU circuit.

"He really didn't play with a high-powered AAU team," Young said. "(Future LSU teammates) Glen Davis' and Garrett Temple's team won the Kingwood Tournament when they were rising seniors after their junior year. Thomas wasn't a part of those teams. He played with a good team, but not a high-profile team."

Thomas earned a little attention with his performance in some AAU tournaments the summer before his senior year. He then enjoyed a stellar senior season and helped Moore turn McKinley into a winning program.

"He was being recruited," Moore said, "but not by the larger schools."

The larger schools may have shied away because they figured Thomas would sign with LSU as soon as Tigers coach John Brady offered him a scholarship.

It's a logical assumption.

LSU's roster includes five players from Baton Rouge high schools: Thomas, Davis, Temple, junior forward Darnell Lazare and sophomore guard David Fleshman. Senior guard Darrel Mitchell and freshman forward Tasmin Mitchell went to high school less than 50 miles away from the LSU campus.

Thomas said he has known Temple since they were 4 years old and that he met Davis about five years later.

After growing up together, why wouldn't they want to be college teammates?

"It's good to have local guys playing at the college level together," Thomas said. "It draws a great fan base, and it (makes) great camaraderie with the team we have. I'm just happy to be playing."

Thomas arrived at LSU as one of the lesser-known players in a highly touted recruiting class that featured Davis as the prize catch. Only now are these two hometown kids finally mentioned as equals.

"He was always a good athlete," Young said, "but I don't think even John Brady knew he'd be the type of guy who could take over a game against Duke the way he did and become a top-five draft pick."

For more coverage of LSU's trip to the Final Four, check out Tigerbait.com.



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