We all know it’s hard to win recruiting wars, especially for guys like Justin Thomas.
He’s the best player on the UConn basketball team, but when he was asked last year about his future, he didn’t have a clear answer.
He told reporters that he would rather play for the U.S. than for the country of his birth.
The UConn coach didn’t buy it.
The nation didn’t.
So how did Thomas end up in a battle with the NCAA for his basketball career?
A year later, the answer is simple: He didn’t take the advice of a few of his peers.
“I had a lot of friends who were like, ‘I can’t see this happening,'” Thomas said.
“My dad told me, ‘Listen, you have to be a leader.’
I wanted to be one, but I didn’t want to get in a fight with my peers.”
Thomas had one good teammate, however.
He got an invite to the UCONN All-Star game, a showcase event that takes place every year.
The players get together at a hotel to watch the game, and Thomas is the only one to show up.
He had a tough time making the team, so he decided to attend instead of going to the All-American game.
“After the All, I didn’ see anybody else,” Thomas said of the Allstar game invite.
“It was tough, but it was a lot more fun than I expected.”
Thomas decided he would try to make the team after all.
He signed a letter of intent to play in college basketball.
Thomas didn’t realize it, but he had made it.
That’s when things started getting tough.
The NCAA’s recruiting rules are complicated, and there’s a lot to learn.
“When I first got in contact with the school, they told me to just be a good teammate,” Thomas explained.
“If I’m going to be that good, then I’m got to show them I’m a good leader.”
Thomas was a leader in the locker room.
He was always ready for anything, even when things weren’t going his way.
“He just got into this world of everything he had to do and everything he was expected to do,” said former teammate and current UConn player Tyler Jones.
“But he always was willing to learn.”
Thomas’ teammates loved him, and they felt a lot like family.
“His teammates always cared about him,” Jones said.
Thomas had a great year.
He averaged 20 points and 6.9 rebounds.
Thomas showed that he can be a lockdown defender in the post and rebound like a pro.
Thomas was an integral part of UConn’s Big East tournament run, where the Ucons upset No. 10 Creighton.
Thomas made a lot for his teammates, and the program got better.
But he didn’ think he was ready to make an impact in the NBA.
“Justin was always the guy who wanted to learn and he always wanted to prove that he could be a better basketball player than everyone else,” Jones explained.
Thomas took an offer from the New Orleans Pelicans, but that was before he joined the Utopian Foundation.
The charity gives students the chance to work in underserved communities, giving them the opportunity to earn scholarships.
UConn recruited Thomas with an offer to play at UConn and a commitment to the foundation, but Thomas decided not to attend because he wanted to work with the UCP’s basketball team.
The idea of working with the foundation is appealing to Thomas, who wants to help other students.
“There’s a certain feeling that you get when you go to a school, you want to help the kids,” Thomas told me.
“You want to show the kids that they can make it in the world.”
UConn was in a great spot.
Thomas would be able to work for the foundation and earn scholarships while helping the school build its basketball program.
It was a big boost for Thomas.
UCONNs basketball program was thriving, and he wanted the chance at being a part of it.
“Once I got on campus, I was like, I’m ready,” Thomas recalled.
“This is what I’m trying to do, this is what my life is all about.
I just wanted to put everything on the line to be able for my school to do well.”
Thomas has a chance to make a big impact for UConn, and that’s why he is excited to go to New Orleans.
“That’s where the best thing is, is New Orleans,” Thomas added.
“The best place to be.
I want to represent the city, and I want them to know that I’m here to help.”
Article by Michael Schatz