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Dedan Thomas Jr. chose UNLV over chasing NIL money. Here’s why

Updated June 24, 2024 - 12:58 pm

Legacy is important to him. To eventually depart the program known as one of the greats to have played basketball at UNLV. To have made his own mark. To have not existed in anyone’s shadow.

Dedan Thomas Jr. is off to one heck of a start.

One of the finest freshmen to wear a uniform for the Rebels is now focused on his second season. On improving that which produced such a memorable beginning to his collegiate career. On becoming even better. Faster. Stronger. More apt to handle the physicality of such a level.

The point guard has dreams.

“It’s very important to be my own person and player,” Thomas said recently. “I always tell people who think that I came here just because of my dad that it was my decision. I love it here. I love being around these people. It’s cool my dad went here and has his legacy, but I want to build my own.”

Dedan Thomas Sr. played at UNLV from 1991 to 1994, a stint that included being part of Jerry Tarkanian’s final Rebels team. He ranks fifth in career assists with 549 and eighth in career steals with 151.

And some three decades later, his son is carving out his own journey in the same No. 11 that his father once wore.

“He wants to make his own way,” Dedan Sr. said. “He doesn’t want anything given to him. He doesn’t want it to be easy. It’s very important to him to create his (own legacy). I also think it’s important he does that.”

The 6-foot-1-inch Thomas Jr. reclassified out of Liberty High and arrived to college a year early. You wouldn’t have known it from his play. He led the Rebels in minutes per game (34.9), scoring (13.6) and assists (5.1) last season. This, despite playing the entire season with nagging injuries that never allowed him to be 100 percent.

He swiftly moved into the conversation as one of program’s all-time best freshmen. A list that includes names such as Stacey Augmon and Anthony Bennett and Kaspars Kambala and Wink Adams and Brandon McCoy and Sidney Green and Mark Dickel and Rashad Vaughn.

And so the focus now switches to an impending sophomore season and how Thomas matures as a player and leader. How much more vocal he can become. How well he must play to help direct the Rebels to their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2013.

“When I talked to him a bunch throughout the recruiting process, it was important to him to have that legacy and be remembered,” UNLV coach Kevin Kruger said. “I think that’s something still in his brain. He loves UNLV. He has loved it since he was born. I think he wants to go down in history with all those UNLV legends.”

Which means, of course, Thomas has to stick around.

So far, so good.

Portal madness

The transfer portal seemingly grows by the minute, thousands of names jumping into the pool when the window for such movement is open.

And it’s often predicated, for the best of the best, on how much name, image and likeness dollars are being floated as offers to change schools.

New Mexico’s JT Toppin, who shared Mountain West Freshman of the Year honors with Thomas, departed Albuquerque for Texas Tech of the Big 12. Great Osobor, the league’s Player of the Year, left Utah State for Washington and — according to documents reviewed by ESPN — a $2 million NIL agreement.

Don’t think for a second Thomas wasn’t chased with certain enticements this offseason, ones that undoubtedly would have been more lucrative than his NIL deal with UNLV.

But no matter what he might have made on — yes — the proverbial open market, he remained committed to the Rebels. He thought about the portal. He just never pursued it.

“I think of things one year at a time, but it would be really hard to leave,” he said. “This is the best place for me, this situation. I never had any doubts about staying. Just a special feeling here. The atmosphere, the fans, my coaches and teammates, all the good people I have around me.

“It wasn’t all that difficult a decision. I want to be here. I want to be a Rebel. I’m glad I’m here.”

So is Kruger.

He said worry didn’t often creep into his mind when it came to Thomas possibly venturing elsewhere, but you know there were nervous moments as the spring wore on and more and more top names entered the portal.

How couldn’t there be?

“We just always talked to (Thomas),” said Kruger, who transferred from Arizona State to UNLV in 2006 to play for his father, Lon. “It’s unfortunate the way college basketball is. People talking all the time about NIL. Even before NIL, there were always rumors about such and such might want to do this or go there.

“Some people just need things to talk about and worry about. But with (Thomas’) family here and the year he just had and the excitement going into next year, from a basketball standpoint it was a good decision to come back and see if he can build on what he’s already built.”

Thomas, his father said, was raised to look a person in the eye and shake hands and mean what you say. He understands as well as anyone else how other programs would love to have Dedan Jr., how college basketball in 2024 is different from when he played in the 1990s. Understands how tempting such offers might be.

“He’s smart,” Dedan Sr. said. “He gets it. He’s kind of a throwback. He’s always been taught to finish what you start. He understands there is unfinished business. He just wants to take this program to a higher level and leave it better than when he got there.

“I applaud him for that. He could have taken the easy road out and went somewhere offering a bunch of money and being on national television every week. I’m proud of him.”

Let’s get physical

It’s the one area Thomas Jr. mentions time and again, the one part of college basketball that surprised him the most: The physicality of it all.

How every team had good players. How a common theme defensively was to try to knock him off the ball and impede his progress.

How he needs to fix that by becoming stronger.

So he is focusing most on his core and lower half, hoping that strengthening both will allow him to better combat the rigors of an entire season.

He is still recovering from wrist surgery as summer practices began June 10.

“I’ve watched games back and see a lot of times where I was just pushed off balance trying to get by guys, just getting pushed around,” Thomas said. “The speed of the game was more than I thought. Just how talented everyone is. The competition was definitely at a high level.”

But it didn’t stop him from leading the Rebels, from being a focal point on a team with veteran players. It didn’t stop him from being the No. 1 concern of an opponent’s scout.

“He just plays with such great pace,” San Diego State coach Brian Dutcher said after the Aztecs eliminated UNLV in the conference tournament. “There’s coaching, where you can get a guy better, and then there’s just a kid who plays with great instincts. He knows when to go fast and when to go slow.

“He hasn’t even tapped into a 3-point shot, which he can make. When he starts shooting that with confidence … I mean, he was unstoppable. We tried doubling him, we switched on him, switched sides on him, and he still got to his spot.”

It’s all part of the process, of getting better, of building that legacy.

Of leading the Rebels to a place they so desperately want to visit again.

NCAAs or bust

Kruger talks openly about it. Thomas says it’s the team’s top goal entering next season. It has been more than a minute since the Rebels experienced the NCAA Tournament, since they did more during March Madness than sit at home and watch.

“It’s very important for us to get there,” Thomas said. “It has been a long time since UNLV made it. It has been a goal of mine since I was a little kid watching college basketball. Always a dream of mine.”

There is no better time than March to grow one’s standing as a player. To put oneself and team on the national map of recognition.

“Part of the reason at UNLV we remember guys and legends of the program are those postseason successes and NCAA Tournament runs,” Kruger said. “That’s all a part of it. Of pretty much everywhere. (Thomas) is on the right track. This team is on the right track. It’s setting up to be a really fun summer and really fun fall.”

Dedan Sr. says it’s what separates the good from the great. That point guards, like quarterbacks, are judged on just one factor: wins and losses.

That his son knows this.

“It’s your legacy,” Dedan Sr. said. “You have to win. The numbers are fine, but when you win, everyone goes. The whole team. But when you just get numbers, what about your legacy in that program and where you stand when it’s all said and done and they talk about the great players and point guards who came through UNLV?

“That’s definitely a big deal. He wants to do that … really badly. He’s not the most athletic. He’s not the biggest guy. But he’s tough as nails and smart and is going to outthink you. I’ve seen it since he was 8, 9, 10 years old. It’s still kind of surreal. I’m now happy other people are able to see what he can do, what he has done all his life.”

Dedan Thomas Jr. is beginning to create his own legacy.

To make his own mark.

He’s off to one heck of a start.

Contact Ed Graney at egraney@reviewjournal.com. Follow @edgraney on X.

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