BY Bob Sherwin 11:33PM 01/16/2011

Thomas points toward an elite class

Recent distribution elevates his stock

Washington point guard Isaiah Thomas had 27 points and 13 assists against Cal. (Drew McKenzie/Sportspress Northwest file)

When Isaiah Thomas was named to the original 70-candidate list for the prestigious Bob Cousy Award, it didn’t seem feasible.

The Cousy Award honors the nation’s top point guard. At that time, Abdul Gaddy was the Huskies’ point guard. Thomas, who can play point, was really the team’s shooting guard.

Periodically, the Cousy list was reduced to 50 then 30. Now it’s 20. Thomas made each cut.

But things have changed and so has Thomas. Over the past couple weeks – particularly Sunday night against Cal – Thomas has shown he deserves to make the next Cousy cut.

Thomas brought out his playmaking skills after Gaddy tore the ACL in his left knee Jan. 3 and was lost for the season. Over the past five games, Thomas distributed nine, nine, eight, seven, then a career-high 13 assists against Cal on Sunday night in helping the Huskies win four of those games.

Washington coach Lorenzo Romar believes Thomas’ effort against the Bears was “the best performance he has had as a Husky.”

He scored a season-high 27 points, three short of his career high. His 13 assists breaks his career best of nine – accomplished twice in the past two weeks. It also was his first double-double.

In addition, the 5-foot-9 Thomas took over the defensive assignment on Bears’ 6-4 guard Allen Crabbe, who had 10 points six minutes in. With Thomas hanging on him, Crabbe scored just six more points, and the Huskies coasted to a 92-71 victory.

“Once I started pushing it, it kind of got easier and open,” Thomas said. “They had to collapse and I would kick it. If they didn’t collapse, I’d go to the hole.”

Before the Gaddy injury, this team was on its way. Gaddy had a way of calming a high-strung, fast-pace offense. Gaddy’s injury was the worst possible scenario. But his absence forced Thomas to rethink his role.

He has a reputation as a score-first guy. That’s probably a misnomer because Sunday night the junior entered the school’s top 10 list for career assists. He’s been a distributor, it just hasn’t been as noticeable. He’s the Pac-10′s leader in assists at 5.4 per game.

“That’s big,” he said, “because what I get knocked for year in and year out is they say I don’t make my teammates better. But there is so much talent on this team that I’m going to look so much better when I get others involved. I’m just making the right plays.”

Washington is fortunate to have point guards who are of the quality of Gaddy and Thomas. The transition from one to the other has been near seamless. The team had one blip, the 58-56 loss to Stanford Thursday. Thomas had an OK game, 14 points, seven assists, but the team shot a season-low 36 percent.

While the team denies it, that loss can be laid at the feet of the unnamed Husky currently under Seattle Police investigation for sexual assault. The Huskies’ focus was scattered. They missed 13 of their final 17 shots and blew an 11-point lead down the stretch. That’s quite uncharacteristic for a team with this experience. Something else was in their heads.

But with the three-day sorting out period between games, focus returned. Thomas made sure of it.

“I put my foot down and I get on dudes even when we’re up and celebrating,” Thomas said. “I put my foot down and tell the team we got to focus and play hard every play.”

Romar said the Stanford loss was ”one of those nights when we just don’t have it…I’d love to be undefeated, but at the same time, I think us coming back and playing like we did tonight shows our resolve and shows our focus. I think we were as workmanlike, businesslike as we’ve been all year.”

Thomas was the CEO.

But as Thomas moves up to an enhanced role, it also has created gaps behind him. Senior guard Venoy Overton was tried at the second guard the first three games after Gaddy’s injury, but came off the bench against the Bears. Scott Suggs, at 6-6, started in place of the 6-foot Overton to force the Bears to make a defensive decision. It made Cal coach Mike Montgomery switch hard-nosed Jorge Gutierrez off Thomas and over to Suggs.

Overton is not having a stellar senior season. Injuries have slowed him, but he also doesn’t seem to have the same defensive tenacity as in the past. He played only four minutes in the first half and had no points and no rebounds. He finished with three points and one assist in 13 minutes.

Romar is mixing players to get the best matchups but he’s also auditioning guys such as Suggs, Terrence Ross and C.J. Wilcox for the second guard spot. Suggs made his first career start and played 24 minutes. Ross played 17 minutes. Wilcox, coming back from a staph infection in his right hip, played just six minutes.

Those three are all at least five inches taller than Overton and better shooters. They just don’t have the experience. As the season evolves, Romar has to find out how well each handles the ball since Overton is best suited coming off the bench.

The second guard spot is open – although it seems Thomas is handling both at the moment – but the rotation is shrinking. Wilcox is trying to reclaim his spot in what is now an eight-man rotation.

It’s still a team in transition, trying to overcome Gaddy’s absence and a troubled teammate. Now comes the team’s biggest test, Arizona (15-3, 4-1) Thursday at home. It’s for Pac-10 control.

“It’s a big one,” Thomas said. “We’ll be ready though.”

There’s a good chance he’ll make sure the other dudes are ready as well.


YourThoughts

  • JD

    Like the article. Thomas has surprised me with his play however it is essential that his gameplay evolve to this point. He’s gonna hit some ugly rough patches where we’ll question his resolve, but this is where it gets interesting and fun for us fans.
    On Overton… I disagree more to the point of when he’s down on the block on help defense, he loses instinct. His on ball defense is even more controlled, he’s still taking chances, which we want. One pass away he’s brilliant at getting off screens, but when the ball is skipped is when his spidey senses should kick in and they haven’t… yet.