SEATTLE — Isaiah Thomas’ goals are simple.
Washington’s freshman guard just wants to bring Husky basketball back to national prominence. You know, nothing big.
But setting big goals, and living up to them, is nothing new for Washington’s undersized guard who will play his first college game Saturday night when Washington heads south to play the University of Portland.
Thomas is a 5-foot, 8-inch dynamo who doesn’t shy away from the Nate Robinson comparisons — he’s wearing Robinson’s No. 2 this season. He is the biggest name in Washington’s four-player 2008 recruiting class, and the Tacoma native has no problem with the fact that Husky fans have such high hopes for him.
“I’m comfortable with it,” he said. “It comes along with what I do. I like pressure. I like the big stage.”
Thomas says this while surrounded by a dozen reporters and a TV camera, but if all the media attention phases the freshman, he certainly doesn’t show it. He’ll occasionally flash a smile, but otherwise Thomas maintains his cool and rarely changes the tone of his sleepy voice.
He’s cool and confident, but Thomas also has a swagger reminiscent of some former Huskies.
“The first thing I want to do is get this program back on its feet and get as many wins as possible and get back to the NCAA tournament,” Thomas said. “Try to win a Pac-10 tournament then get to the NCAA tournament. I’m just trying to do anything possible to get back there. Coach Romar and coach Dollar, they said ‘Lead this team. We haven’t had anybody like you since Nate (Robinson) and Will (Conroy) and all of them.’ I bring a different kind of attitude to it to where we’re going to win games, we’re going to be better and nobody can mess with us.”
And it’s no coincidence that Thomas shares some traits with Conroy and Robinson. During the summer, he worked out regularly with Conroy, Brandon Roy, and former Rainier Beach High School star and current New York Knick Jamal Crawford. Robinson also would join in on occasion, but spent less of his offseason in Seattle.
What was the message the former Huskies and Crawford passed on to Thomas? Get the Huskies back to the tournament.
“B-Roy and Will always talk to me about that,” he said. “The biggest thing they want me to do is bring a winner’s mentality in here and lead these guys.”
In Washington’s lone exhibition game, Thomas showed he is ready to step into the spotlight and excel, scoring 27 points in 19 minutes. Washington coach Lorenzo Romar isn’t worried that the hype and high expectations will be a problem for Thomas.
“I don’t think expectations with him bother him at all, I think he welcomes those,” Romar said.
Romar pointed out that Thomas and Robinson are not the same type of player. Thomas is more polished and skilled at this point of his career, while Robinson thrived thanks to athleticism, will and emotion. Still, they do have one particular trait in common that should help Thomas, Romar added.
“They are totally different players, but one of the few things they have in common is that the bigger the stage, the more expectations, the more excited they get,” Romar said. “Nate was like that and Isaiah is like that.”
When the Huskies open their season Saturday, it marks the start of a Washington career Thomas and Husky fans hoped would start a year ago. Thomas was a standout at Curtis High School in University Place, averaging 26.2 points per game as a freshman and 31.2 as a junior. During the 2006 Class 4A state tournament, Thomas set eight tournament scoring records, including marks for points in a game (51) single tournament (162) and career (241). Later that spring, he committed to Washington, and everyone assumed he would be a Husky after another year at Curtis.
But as his senior season approached, it became evident that Thomas was going to struggle to qualify academically for Washington, so he transferred to South Kent, a prep school in Connecticut. It took him two years there to get himself academically eligible, and at times he was tempted to pack his bags and come home.
“Especially being away from family and friends, there were times I was so depressed I wanted to give up,” he said. “But always having my father and my mother in my ear, they always told me ‘Keep at it. This was just a little bump in the road and you’ll get over it.’ I’ve gotten over it so far.”
And while he didn’t always enjoy his time away from home, Thomas said it matured him, made him a better person and a better student. He says that, while he thinks he could have handled the college game last season, he’s not sure he would have been ready for the academic rigors of college.
“He just seems more mature, a little more grown up,” said senior forward Jon Brockman, who played against Thomas in the 2005 state tournament, and with him on an AAU team. “It really shows on and off the court. He takes care of his business. Different things are important to him now that I don’t think were as important before he went to prep school.”
Starting Saturday, a more mature but still confident Thomas is ready to start living up to the hype, and he’s not at all bothered by the sky-high expectations.
“Obviously I’m doing something good to have all them expectations,” he said. “It doesn’t bother me at all. I’d rather have pressure and expectations than low expectations. We’re looking to have one of the best seasons in coach Romar’s era.”
Herald Writer John Boyle: firstname.lastname@example.org. For more on UW sports, check out the Huskies blog at heraldnet.com /huskiesblog