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Graney: UNLV star has ‘no second thoughts’ about arriving early

What some tend to forget: Dedan Thomas Jr. reclassified to arrive at UNLV a year early.

He could have played a final season of basketball at Liberty High. Could have tried leading the Patriots to a state title for the second time in three years.

“He could be preparing for his prom in a month or two — whenever prom is, because I forget — and is instead out here running our team,” UNLV coach Kevin Kruger said.

Running it while proving his potential is limitless.

Thomas was sure the college game beckoned now and is a central reason UNLV has won eight of its past nine games. It’s more than in the thick of things for a regular-season Mountain West championship.

The Rebels — who meet San Jose State on Saturday night at the Thomas & Mack Center — are tied for fourth in the conference entering Friday. It’s as tight a race as the league has known.

Thomas’ skill is unquestioned, his talent far beyond just 18 years of age.

But one thing folks wondered about was how Thomas — so young when arriving — would handle the physicality of Division I basketball. How he might react to bigger, stronger defenders.

He is listed at 6 feet, 1 inch, and 170 pounds.

It has been a work in progress.

Taking on veterans

He was thrown to the proverbial fire to begin conference play. Thomas was immediately matched up against the likes of Lamont Butler and Darrion Trammell of San Diego State, of Jaelen House and Donovan Dent of New Mexico, of Darius Brown of Utah State, of Isaiah Stevens of Colorado State and so on.

The Mountain West always has older, more physical guards. Thomas, however, has learned over time how to combat such things. How to use his pace and change of speed to deal with what can be all sorts of bumps and pushes and reaches.

“He has done an unbelievable job, and he’s still growing,” Kruger said. “His last-day picture compared to his first-day picture are going to be drastically different. It’s something all freshmen deal with, and he has dealt with it very well.”

There have been good games and bad, highs and lows, times he resembles that freshman and others when he appears much older. But, and this is incredibly important, Thomas never seems to waver much emotionally, which is perhaps the most valuable asset of any point guard.

Kruger also played the position in college — “(Thomas) was better at 14 than I ever was,” he said — and has discovered a common ground with his young star. Nobody wanted to win more than Kevin Kruger. It drove him. It’s how he was raised. Thomas, too.

“It’s good to see he has figured out the college game,” Liberty coach Kevin Soares said. “He’s still learning on the job, but you can tell he’s getting more and more comfortable. He was a typical teenager, but you could have an adult conversation with him. His IQ was always ready for this.

“I believe the sky is the limit for him. He knows there are deficiencies in his game and he still has work to do. He’ll obviously do that and get better and better as he gets older and his body matures. I see him getting a ton better these next few years.”

Chasing freshman honors

The averages — a team-high 12.9 points and 5.4 assists, plus 3.0 rebounds — put Thomas alongside New Mexico forward JT Toppin in the running for conference Freshman of the Year. Toppin averages 12.4 points while leading the Lobos in rebounds and blocks.

Both are deserving, while owning completely different games and responsibilities.

One chose to reclassify and show up to college early.

“I’m very confident in the decision I made,” Thomas said. “I’ve had no second thoughts. I feel I’ve done a pretty good job with the (physicality) part. Getting more confident and comfortable with the ball in my hands.”

And what about that prom he could be preparing for in a few months?

“That’s crazy to think about,” he said. “Just to think about it is weird.”

Yeah. Some tend to forget.

Ed Graney, a Sigma Delta Chi Award winner for sports column writing, can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com. He can be heard on “The Press Box,” ESPN Radio 100.9 FM and 1100 AM, from 7 to 10 a.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on X.

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