Feb. 13, 2014
By Bob Thomas, Seminoles.com
As a perceptive freshman, Florida State's Aaron Thomas understood very early on last season that the quickest way to get into coach Leonard Hamilton's playing rotation would be excelling at the defensive end of the floor.
Seizing the opportunity, the 6-foot-5 Cincinnati, Ohio native, who arrived in Tallahassee with a reputation as a scorer, became a trusted perimeter defender. The experience - he played in all 34 games and made 12 starts, including the final 11 games - was both invaluable and eye-opening.
In the process of learning how to shut down opponents, Thomas also discovered that the easy drives to the hoop and soaring dunks which made him a consensus top 100 player over his well-traveled prep career, weren't so easy to come by at the Division I level. Despite averaging better than 18 minutes a game, Thomas managed only 6.0 points per game.
"Last year, changing from high school to college, there were some obstacles I had to face about showing that I can step in and make plays," Thomas confessed. "I was doing a good job with defense. People outside didn't really know I could score. My teammates did and my coaches did. They told me if I just gained confidence that I would be able perform with my skills.
"I think I did a good job of that, as far as sticking with my confidence and putting in the offseason work. It's starting to show and catch peoples' eyes, not just paying attention that I could just play defense. People are actually starting to see that I can produce on the offensive end."
Uh, yes they are.
Entering Saturday's pivotal ACC game at Wake Forest (8:00 p.m., Regional Sports Networks), there is little doubt that Thomas has caught the eye of Demon Deacons' coach Jeff Bzdelik. You see Thomas not only leads the Seminoles in scoring (13.3 ppg), he ranks 19th in the ACC, a standing that jumps to 16th with his scoring average climbing to 13.7 points in conference play.
It would be easy to dismiss Thomas' progression as the result of added minutes in the absence of graduated guard and scoring leader Michael Snaer. That, however, would be a disservice to Thomas, who has worked tirelessly to improve his offensive game without compromising his defensive reputation.
While Thomas remains a lock-down defender - he is fifth in the ACC with 1.6 steals per game - he has completely transformed his offensive game. Consider these facts:
The rangy shooting guard has improved his field goal percentage from 40.8 percent to 46.9 in one year, thanks large to becoming a better-prepared catch-and-shoot guard;
A year ago his 3-point marksmanship was a liability (22.0 percent). Now, the only thing separating him from leading the ACC in 3-point field goal percentage (47.4) is two more made 3-pointers to his season total of 27;
As good as he has been from beyond the arc overall, Thomas is even better in league play, converting 21 of 42 (50.0) attempts through 12 ACC games;
After converting just 70 percent of his free throws a year ago, Thomas ranks fifth in the ACC from the line (84.2), which improves to 90.2 percent and ranks second in conference games;
Last season Thomas recorded six double-figure scoring games (two in ACC play). He has tripled that total to 18 through 24 games, including each of the last five and 10 of the last 11.
Those figures are byproducts putting in the necessary work over the summer.
"Aaron is a very unique and special type of player in that he has such a drive and competitive spirit that allows him to put his whole heart and soul into everything he does," Hamilton said. "The interesting thing about Aaron is he's only scratched the surface of his potential. That's kind of the way this whole sophomore class is. I see him being so passionate about being a good teammate. He wants to defend. He wants to rebound. He wants to give effort. He's not all about scoring. He's a great teammate.
"He has all the mental and emotional tools that will allow him to utilize his athletic potential, and you know that at some point in time he's going to reach his potential because of his passion and his attitude."
Thomas has benefited greatly from being in the same system for a second consecutive season. After playing his final three seasons of prep ball at three different schools - Aiken and Withrow high schools in Cincinnati and a year at Brewster Academy in New Hampshire - before arriving in Tallahassee, he has a better understanding of what is expected of him.
"That (continuity) has helped me become a lot better basketball player," Thomas said. "After last year, I talked to my coaches and teammates because I'm one of those who wants to know what I need to improve on; to be able to be that guy that the coach has confidence will produce.
"I made those small adjustments, getting my jump shot right. It has been a good transition. Coach Hamilton is one of those guys that as long as you play (defense) the offense will take care of itself. I think I did a good job of showing him that I could come in and play D at the college level, and once I showed him my defensive skills, he started believing in me and my hard work started showing at the offensive end. Now he, my other coaches and my teammates have confidence in me."
There were moments last season when Thomas flashed the potential which led Hamilton to sign him. He was most productive over a three-game stretch when he backed up a 15-point performance against Maine with back-to-back 17-point outings against Louisiana Monroe and Charlotte, earning ACC Rookie of the Week honors in late-December. Unfortunately, he managed just two double-figure scoring efforts over the final 23 games.
Those days are like a fading memory for anyone who has seen Thomas this season. He has eclipsed his freshman season high of 17 points six times, highlighted by a career-high 26 in a win over touted Charlotte, and 24 against Virginia Tech just a little over a week ago. In those two games alone, Thomas combined to convert 9 of 13 3-point attempts, matching his freshman season total for 3-point shots made.
"Everything he does he has more confidence in," said fellow Seminole sophomore guard Montay Brandon, who regularly defends Thomas in practice. "We see him do things on the court that everyone knew he was capable of doing - even last year - but he just didn't have the confidence to do it
"He is great at slashing to the basket, and he knows how to move his body in ways to always get to the basket, even though the defense knows exactly what he's going to do. With the added element of his jump shot getting better, makes everything better."
Thomas attributes much of his success to regaining his confidence; something he had plenty of while averaging better than 20 points a game over the three-year stretch prior to his arrival at FSU.
"I've looked back on my freshman year and wondered, `Why didn't I do this when I first got here?' he said. "I think it was just my confidence. Coming in as a freshman I was thinking too much and worrying that if I messed up I might get subbed out or I might not get the ball again. Now I'm comfortable, I'm happy and I just think my hard work is paying off."
His coaches and teammates aren't the only ones who have noticed the change.
Miami coach Jim Larranaga was quite wary of Thomas' ability entering Monday night's game.
"Here was our defensive strategy," Larranaga said. "We were hoping that Ian Miller wouldn't play and we were going to put the box-and-one, with one guy chasing Aaron Thomas, saying, `Don't let this guy beat us.' He's just a very good all-around player. He's shooting the ball great from 3 (point range) - like over 50 percent in conference play - and he's got size, athletic ability and they do great job of finding him. I think he's an all-conference caliber type of player."
A scoring point guard in high school, Thomas has had to adapt to playing without the basketball in his hands at all times. That is one area where his game has improved dramatically from a year ago, in large part due to a greater understanding of the game.
"That has been a huge difference," said Thomas. "There are more adjustments than I thought. When you're in high school and you're good, you go and dominate the game. One thing you have to learn when you get to college is that it's all about adjustments. You can't just hoop and play, especially in the ACC. You've got - not just individuals - but teams that are really good at making adjustments against your offense. I think I make a lot of plays where I see it before it happens."
One of those plays came against Miami, when Thomas caught the eye of sophomore point guard Devon Bookert, who was sizing up the defense from beyond the 3-point arc on the right side of the floor.
"You see the defense paying attention to the perimeter guys and not covering the back side," Thomas said. "I'll tell my teammates, `Watch the back side because they're not paying attention.'"
As Bookert dribbled, Thomas made a strong move along the baseline and to the rim on the back side of Miami's match-up zone defense, depositing the lob pass through the basket with a thundering dunk for two of his 16 points on the night.
"I've got some abilities that other guys don't have," Thomas said. "Not to put myself on a pedestal, but I think I can make adjustment to defenders."
Hamilton marvels not only at his rising stars' skill set, but his efficiency. Even though his scoring average continues to climb, Thomas is averaging just over nine field goal attempts per game.
"Aaron is not a guy who takes a whole lot of shots," Hamilton said. "He's been very efficient. He's a good teammate, he's coachable and he's unselfish. He's a team guy. It's almost like, `Coach, tell me what you need me to do.' He is not overly concerned about anything other than winning."
Throughout much of the season, Thomas was coming off the bench with Miller, providing the `Noles with a 1-2 backcourt reserve scoring punch that was clearly one of the most potent in college basketball. He has also excelled in four games as a starter - including each of the last three games - averaging 19.25 points an outing.
Never one to dish out unwarranted praise, Hamilton realizes that Thomas has the requisite size and skill set to be one of the finest guards he has coached with the Seminoles.
"He has the size and all of the physical attributes to play basketball at the next level for an extended period of time," Hamilton said. "The best thing about Aaron is he realizes that he's still developing and he's hungry to be successful, but he's not obsessed with what he's trying to get to. He has an understanding that, `I have to work hard and I'm in the process to get where I want to go.'"
"I just want to be consistent, remain a team player and not fall into my stats," said Thomas, whose continued production - at both ends of the floor - are critical to the Seminoles' postseason aspirations. "As long as my teammates believe in me, my coaches believe in me, I'm going to continue to do what I'm supposed to do.
"There's more season ahead, and now that I'm catching peoples' eyes, I need to remain more consistent and more focused."
The Seminoles are counting on it.