“I knew from the time I was little I could be a good basketball player,” Thomas said.
What he never envisioned, however, was how far reaching that belief ended up being.
In nine years of basketball at Norwalk and Georgia State University, the fewest wins by a team Thomas played for was 15 in his freshman year of high school. At every turn, there was team and individual success for the 2014 NHS graduate.
“I never really thought it would be like this,” Thomas said on Tuesday — four days after his career at Georgia State ended in an NCAA Tournament loss vs. Houston. “I have three championship rings in college and one state title ring from high school. Never did I ever think I’d be this successful in basketball.
“The winning culture around me has been kind of unbelievable,” he added. “Every year it felt like there was some type of historic success involved, and it’s still kind of unreal to think about how fortunate I’ve been.”
A double-digit scorer and the 14th all-time leading scorer in GSU history, Thomas was limited to five points in the final game of his career last Friday, a 84-55 loss to the Cougars (33-3).
As the final minutes ticked off the clock on his career with the Panthers, Thomas refused to let the reality sink in.
“We knew the game was over, but was I just trying to enjoy the moment for what it was,” he said. “When Houston went on that big run in the second half, you kind of knew the moment was coming. But I was talking to one of our coaches on the bench, and he encouraged me to just try and enjoy the moment. It didn’t hit me until I got home on Saturday that basketball was over.”
Friday’s loss was the second consecutive year the Panthers (24-10) reached the NCAA Tournament, as they won back-to-back Sun Belt Conference tournament championships. The Panthers won the regular season SBC title this season, and in 2015 as well during Thomas’ tenure at the school.
GSU reached the NCAA Tournament during the 2014-15 season, when Thomas sat out as a redshirt. That team stunned Baylor on a last-second shot as a No. 14 seed.
Last season, the Panthers fell to Cincinnati as a No. 15 seed, and were again a 14 seed last week against the Cougars.
With three NCAA appearances in the last five years, Thomas and the Panthers put together an impressive run. Three SEC schools in the Sweet 16 this weekend, Auburn, LSU and Tennessee — along with Houston — cannot claim three NCAA Tournament trips in the same span.
In the 2016-17 season when Thomas was a redshirt sophomore, the Panthers also qualified for the CollegeInsider.com Tournament (CIT). That gave them three straight postseason appearances, and four in five years.
“We always had good talent, but I think our class and the seniors from last year just really got on the same page,” Thomas said. “We had a couple of down years, but we felt like the group we had last year and this year — it could be our turn to do big things.
“We loved the way Coach (Ron) Hunter let us go and play out there,” he added. “The recruiting was great. Everyone worked hard going into my junior year, then it was just a winning culture that was created.”
Thomas, who was discovered on the recruiting trail by GSU at an AAU event in Kentucky, nearly didn’t have the NCAA farewell he and his teammates were shooting for this season.
The Panthers started strong, but ran into a rough patch in late January and into February. They lost four league games in a six-game stretch — and needed to win each of their last three Sun Belt games to earn one of the top two seeds in the conference tournament.
“We wanted that double-bye,” Thomas said. “We really just buckled down. But it was the defensive end that really got us going. Our offense, it really wasn’t working for a stretch, and defense is our key. I feel like we just give it our all, and it was our defense that got us five straight wins and back to the (NCAA) tournament.”
The Panthers beat Texas-Arlington for a third time this season in the SBC title game on March 17, pulling away early in the second half of a 73-64 win at Lakefront Arena in New Orleans. Thomas scored 11 points and grabbed four rebounds in the win. Already the team’s leading free-throw shooter, he was also 6-of-7 at the foul line in the victory.
In the SBC semifinal 59-46 win over Texas State, Thomas became the new program record holder in career games at GSU. He played in 132 career games for the Panthers. He also ended with 1,160 career points at Georgia State, good for 14th all-time in program history.
For his part, Thomas averaged 11.5 points and 4.4 rebounds per game in 32 starts this season. He led the team in free-throw percentage (79 percent) on 57-of-72 attempts.
He and his classmates are also leaving the program with the successful Hunter, who earlier this week announced he was leaving GSU to become the head coach at Tulane.
“He’s had a great run of success here,” Thomas said of his coach. “But for him to leave with us, it puts a stamp on everything. It’s the end of the Ron Hunter era. Coach Hunter haas been a big part of my life. Playing basketball for him made me look at it a completely different way.”
At Norwalk, Thomas was the first All-Ohio first team selection in program history. He is the all-time leading scorer for points in a season (561) and second in career points (1,352). He’s also second in career tournament points (250), fifth in career rebounds (576) and sixth in single-season rebounds (269).
Thomas helped the Truckers to the best four-year stretch by any team in Norwalk history. They won 57 straight regular season wins, four league championships, two district titles, and the regional title and state championship in 2014.
The state run also included one of the best single-game performances in Norwalk history. In the program’s first-ever regional win, an 87-81 victory over Vermilion, Thomas had 32 points and 12 rebounds on 10-of-14 shooting from the floor and 10-of-10 from the foul line.
He also left Norwalk as one of eight players to lead the league in scoring, and one of six players to be a three-time all-league selection to the first or second team.
With his two NCAA Tournament games at GSU, Thomas also joined John Schroeder as Norwalk grads to play in the ‘Big Dance.’ Schroeder, a 1963 NHS grad, started for Ohio University in a 66-65 first-round loss against Dayton in 1965. Schroeder had 16 points and seven rebounds in the loss.
In a fitting bookend to his career, the loss on Friday in the tournament came five years to the day of Norwalk’s state title — which was Thomas’ final high school game.
“It’s time to face the real world and start planning my future,” Thomas said. “Playing Division I in Atlanta, as a junior at Norwalk, it just felt like the right move. Downtown Atlanta, a good program and far enough away from home — I took a shot, and it ended up working out.”
Thomas will graduate with a Bachelor’s degree in Human Development on May 9. But after graduation, Thomas will look to continue to play basketball professionally. Since the season ended, he’s been in contact with several different agencies about his desire to keep playing.
“The goal is to play as long as I can,” he said. “So it’s been a lot of conversations with agencies and coaches, trying to see which places are good for me — and who will help me get better jobs each year.
“I’m looking to play next level either the NBA G-League or overseas,” he added. “I’ll go wherever ... I just want to keep playing.”