Could Thomas Crack the Roster?

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Q. I noticed that the Pacers have Chris Thomas on their summer league roster. Since I wasn't too impressed with the play of our point guards last year (especially when Jamaal Tinsley was hurt), what is the chance that he might make the roster for this coming year? I have to believe that with his passing ability and quickness, he might benefit the Pacers, who already have (Stephen) Jackson, (Jermaine) O'Neal, and (Ron) Artest as scoring threats. Why not take a chance on a younger guy who has proven he can be a playmaker and even score himself (over 2,000 points and 800 assists)? (From Nick in Mishawaka, Ind.)

A. Given the Pacers have three veteran point guards under contract (Tinsley, Anthony Johnson and Eddie Gill), you'd think it would be extremely difficult for an undrafted rookie to crack that roster at the position. But Thomas just might be an exception. For one thing, the Pacers showed quite a bit of interest when inviting him to their summer camp, which indicates at least a strong curiosity about his potential to help the team. For another, Thomas is an extremely accomplished college player, a four-year starter of prolific productivity, and it's rare to find someone with his resume available after the draft.

The Pacers coaches like his proven abilities to shoot, make plays and keep constant pressure on the defense. Only two other players in NCAA history racked up 2,000 points and 800 assists (Gary Payton and Sherman Douglas), and he was a career .363 shooter from the 3-point line. What they'll need to see from Thomas is the ability to bring the ball up against high-pressure defenses, and then get a team into its offense quickly and efficiently. They'll also be watching him on defense quite a bit to see if he can use his quickness to be more disruptive, particularly in the passing lanes.

Thomas impressed the Pacers by reporting immediately, arriving at Conseco Fieldhouse within two days of the draft, to begin working out on his own with the coaches. If he can use that time to reinforce his strengths while mitigating his perceived weaknesses, it will have been time well spent. By most accounts, Thomas is a player with NBA ability. Whether that translates into a job with the Pacers remains to be seen, but he just might have more of a chance than most might think.

Thomas Fighting to Keep NBA Dream Alive
By Conrad Brunner | July 12, 2005

For the first time in his basketball career, Chris Thomas is fighting for a job.
It's a new challenge for a player who has been among the elite at each of his previous levels, but his response has been encouraging to the Pacers. Among the 20 players on the rookie and free agent minicamp roster this week, the former Pike High School and Notre Dame standout has made a strong early impression.

"We know he's an excellent shooter," said Coach Rick Carlisle. "We know he can score. We know he can make plays. We're looking for his ability to be able to run a team at the NBA level. That includes decision-making on offense and getting guys the ball in positions where they can do things with it and, defensively, being able to get up 94 feet and disrupt.

"That's going to be the key for him to have an opportunity to make our team, how much of an impact he can have defensively with his quickness because we know, offensively, he's a very accomplished player in many ways."

Thomas finished his career as one of the most accomplished players in all of college basketball. He posted career averages of 17.1 points, 6.5 assists, 4.1 rebounds and 1.9 steals at Notre Dame. He is one of just three players in NCAA history to total at least 2,000 points and 800 assists (joining Gary Payton of Oregon State and Sherman Douglas of Syracuse). He started all 128 games of his career with the Irish, and only Austin Carr and Adrian Dantley scored more points for Notre Dame than his 2,195.

Despite it all, Thomas didn't hear his name called on draft night. Though not entirely unexpected his senior season was the least productive of his career the slight has helped motivate Thomas, while also serving to his benefit. As an undrafted player, he was able to select which opportunity best suited him, rather than being bound to a team through the draft. A native of Indianapolis who has followed the Pacers closely for years, Thomas responded almost immediately when the Pacers expressed interest.

"It was a no-brainer for me to come here," Thomas said. "I worked out the second day after the draft and I've been here ever since. Maybe going undrafted was a blessing in disguise. The Pacers have been watching me since Isiah Thomas was the coach and I was in high school, so I think they've always liked some things about my game. They just want to see that first-hand.

"It's a great opportunity. Everybody's pushing for me and it's great to see the level of interest in the coaching staff and the scouts. I'm in here every day. They see I love to work hard and am doing whatever it takes."

A prolific offensive player at Notre Dame, Thomas must demonstrate other skills to make the jump to the NBA as a point guard.

"If he can run a team and get the ball to spots and get a team into the offense, he'll have a chance to be in this league," said assistant Dan Burke, who along with Chuck Person is coaching the summer league team. "We like guys that can shoot, of course. Right now, what we want to see from him is to get up, pressure the opponents' point guard, turn him a couple times. We also want to see if he's able to bring up the ball against pressure, get us organized and get us into our offense in a timely manner."

After practicing in Conseco Fieldhouse through Thursday, the Pacers will take a team to Minneapolis for five summer league games in five nights beginning Friday. Veterans Ron Artest, Jonathan Bender and David Harrison are all expected to play in varying quantities.

With three veteran point guards (Jamaal Tinsley, Anthony Johnson and Eddie Gill) on a roster that already includes 14 players under contract for 2005-06, Thomas knows he's facing an uphill battle to make it with the Pacers.

He likens it to his freshman year at Notre Dame. Coming off a prolific Pike High School career that included two Class 4A state championships and the 2001 Indiana Mr. Basketball award, Thomas felt like he was starting from scratch when he reached college.

"I had something to prove, just that I belonged there," he said. "It's the same situation. The coaches have told me, 'Chris, you're going to play in this league. You've just got to be patient, stick to your strengths and play with a lot of confidence.' That kind of feedback makes you want to work harder because they see the talent in you."

It should be noted that Thomas has risen to similar challenges when moving up to higher levels. As a high school freshman, he led Pike to the 1998 state title. In his first college game, he posted the first triple-double in Notre Dame history (24 points, 11 rebounds, 11 assists) and went on to be named the national Freshman of the Year by two publications.

This is a guy, then, who knows what it takes to make the next step. He'll need to apply all of that knowledge to separate himself from the pack of players scratching and clawing to get into the NBA by any means necessary.

"It's like all-out war out there," he said. "People are trying to fight for a job and fight for their dreams."