March 31, 2011
By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE - I.T.'s gone.
Huskies' dynamic junior guard Isaiah Thomas made it clear Thursday that his announcement he is entering the NBA draft is not a test-the-waters move exploring where he might be selected this summer. Though he has yet to hire an agent, he emphasized he is forgoing his senior season, leaving him poised to become the latest NBA player produced during coach Lorenzo Romar's remarkable, nine-year tenure at UW.
Thomas said it wasn't about him or his family needing money immediately. It wasn't that he was tired of college basketball following three consecutive appearances in the NCAA tournament and two straight Pac-10 tournament titles.
"Leaving the University of Washington is the hardest thing I've ever done in my life," Thomas said. "It's been the best three years of my life, the last three playing for Coach Romar and my teammates and just having so many successful seasons, I mean, going as far as we did."
Ultimately, it came down to a 23-year-old deciding to accelerate the realization of his lifelong dream while at the top of his game.
"Yes, it is a goodbye," the two-time All-Pac-10 guard and Associated Press' honorable mention for All-America this season said over the telephone about an hour after his surprising announcement he was leaving UW a year early. "Sorry to say, but I feel like this is the right time to make this decision."
Technically, he could still return because he has yet to hire an agent. Practically, he's not coming back. Romar and Thomas understand that agent issue to be a mere formality.
"I'm just not going to hire an agent as of right now, not until I feel I really need to," Thomas said.
Thomas, the Most Outstanding Player at this month's Pac-10 tournament that Washington won for the second consecutive season, would join Romar's recent legacy of Huskies being drafted into the NBA. The list includes Quincy Pondexter (2010, in the first round by Oklahoma City), Jon Brockman (2009, second round by Portland), Spencer Hawes (2007, first round by Sacramento), Brandon Roy (2006, first round by Minnesota), Bobby Jones (2006, second round by Minnesota) and Nate Robinson (2005, first round by Phoenix).
Thomas would be the third early draftee, after Robinson, an idol and mentor of Thomas', and Hawes.
"Absolutely, no question about it, when someone signs with us we have a good understanding if they have the potential to leave early. And we try to recruit (in subsequent years) that way," Romar said by phone Thursday night from the Final Four in Houston.
Romar and the Huskies even front load class schedules for players they believe may be headed to the NBA early, beginning in the summer before their UW freshman seasons. That is how Thomas has just over two academic quarters to complete before he graduates.
"I can't condemn him," Romar said. "I don't see this as a slap in the face either way. They made this rule (to declare early) to do this very thing. He can go attain his goal to play in the NBA. I'm excited for him.
"This will be the ultimate experience for him."
Romar has been guiding Thomas and helping him gather NBA opinions on him since the Huskies lost to North Carolina 86-83 in the third round of the NCAA tournament on March 20. That game, season -- and now career -- ended with Thomas missing a rushed fallaway shot from the corner at the buzzer.
Romar, a former NBA guard in the 1980s, said the people he has talked to in the league in the past week made it "a general consensus" he would be drafted. Thomas says NBA people have told him he will be selected from the middle of the first round to early in the second round on June 23 - but that no matter what he hears between now and then he is not coming back to Washington.
"I feel like with the guards coming out this year I feel I can really go high in this draft," Thomas said. "I feel like I can showcase my talents. I don't feel like this is a real strong draft class with the point guards this year, and I'm just very confident in myself and in this decision. I feel like it's the right thing for me and my family.
"There is never going to be any regrets. I am going to get my degree from the University of Washington. That's the biggest thing for me and my family, other than making this jump to the NBA."
The league's `testing-the-waters' rule for underclassmen exploring their draft status asks players who have yet to hire an agent to prepare for the draft on weekends -- but to remain enrolled in school and attending classes during each week until the school term ends. For UW, that is in June.
"I didn't feel like testing the waters gives you enough time to really focus in on doing the best possible job you can do (training and preparing for the draft)," Thomas said. "Making this decision ... I wanted to take it on with a full head of steam, to have my focus on the task that was at hand. That was making my dream come true and playing basketball in the NBA. So I am going to take my focus and do whatever it takes to get there ... to be really dialed in and have no distractions."
Thomas has dreamed of this opportunity since before he became a record-breaking scorer at Curtis High School outside his native Tacoma, Wash. Ever since he spent two years homesick at faraway, rural South Kent prep school in Connecticut. Ever since he scored 27 points on 9-of-12 shooting in his first exhibition game at UW, announcing himself as a scorer who defies his 5-9 size - and the many who have told him his entire life that he is too small.
"I'm very confident in myself. I know what I can do," he said, with typical bravado that he's backed up for almost a decade now. "I can surprise a lot of people.
"They said I was too small to play in high school. Before I got to college, they said I would never do what I've done in college these past three years. So that's not an issue to me. And I feel like the NBA is going back to smaller guards, that it's about getting into the paint and dribble driving.
"I'm just very confident in myself."
Thomas was a midseason candidate for national player of the year, then took his career to another level when he moved to point guard full time following the loss of teammate Abdul Gaddy to a season-ending knee injury. He averaged 16.8 points and 6.1 assists per game for the Huskies in 2010-11, led the Pac-10 in assists, ranked fourth in scoring, eighth in steals (1.3 per game) and eighth in three-point makes per game (1.7). His 213 assists were second most in ever at UW in a single season.
He played 123½ of a possible 125 minutes in the Pac-10 tournament, rallying Washington past Washington State in its opening game and then playing all 45 minutes and swishing the winning shot at the overtime buzzer to beat Arizona for the conference championship. Thomas joined Arizona's Sean Elliott as the only two-time winner of the Pac-10 tournament's Most Outstanding Player award.
NBA rules state that June 13 is the final day players, if they have not hired an agent by then, can pull their names from the draft and still retain their collegiate eligibility. But new NCAA bylaw 18.104.22.168.1.1 states a men's basketball player can retain that eligibility if he officially requests to the NBA by May 8 that his name be withdrawn for the league's draft list.
Thomas made it clear he is not going to do that. Asked if there were any conditions that could lead him back to UW for a fourth season, he said flatly, "No.
"I plan on getting drafted," Thomas said. "I won't hear that (I'm not getting drafted)."
Thomas ended his junior season ranked sixth all-time at UW in points (1,721), third in assists (415), third in made 3-pointers (164) and eighth in steals (122).
"I mean, what a career," Romar said.
The Huskies are loaded at guard for next season, with top national recruit Tony Wroten Jr. of Seattle ready to join Gaddy - who is progressing in his knee rehabilitation - plus returning bigger shooters Terrence Ross, C.J. Wilcox and Scott Suggs.
Thomas' choice leaves UW with two scholarships available for next season. Romar intends to fill both in the late signing period next month. The Huskies are reserving at least one of those for a big man. Romar said Thomas' departure also makes it more likely recently signed recruit Andrew Andrews will join the team next season. Previously, the point guard from Portland, Ore., seemed headed to prep school for a year because of the Huskies' logjam at guard.
"You are losing a lot," Romar said of Thomas' exit, which comes on top of the graduations of second-leading scorer Matthew Bryan-Amaning plus defensive stoppers Justin Holiday and Venoy Overton. "But what it does is allow guys who are very talented, who are coming back next year, a chance to step up."