Will he ever get it?
Thomas is off to a rough start in what will be a defining season for the enigmatic talent
It has never been a question of ability for Tyrus Thomas. The mystery has always been when those flashes of brilliance would come together in one breakout season.
Lately, Thomas has been saying he is ready, even going along with the notion this preseason that an average line of 20 points and 10 rebounds was not out of the realm of possibility.
But as Thomas embarks on his fourth NBA season, a full-fledged veteran while still just 23, you wonder whether it's ever going to happen.
Although Thomas has started at power forward in three games, Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro has chosen not to use him down the stretch of either close contests, such as the loss to Miami, or blowouts, like the embarrassment in Boston in which Thomas sat out the entire fourth quarter. Before Tuesday night's game against the Bucks, Thomas was sent home with flu-like symptoms, giving rookie Taj Gibson his first career start.
Whether Thomas is still not getting it in his second season with Del Negro, no one is saying for sure, although the coach did indicate that part of the reason for the Boston benching was a problem reacting quickly enough in defensive rotations. While it might be too early to believe Thomas' future with the Bulls is in peril, management clearly is just as uncertain about him as the rest of us are, choosing not to extend his contract and instead allowing him to become a restricted free agent at the end of the season.
Hearing about his amazing unrealized potential does not sit well with Thomas.
"Sometimes it [ticks] me off because nobody else is with me in the gym," he said the other day. "They don't know what I'm doing. They don't see what goes on in practice. But people are going to say what they want to say, so it doesn't matter."
And as for that endless raw ability?
"I don't see it as a burden," he said. "I work so whatever happens after that, all you can do is work and play."
But Thomas has a history of pouting when things don't go his way, and it's obvious he has always seen himself as more swingman than post player, which he has played and will continue to play at times.
"That's what I am," Thomas said when asked whether he prefers the perimeter role. "My senior year in high school, I was 6-6 [he started high school at 5-foot-6], and I never played in the post. But I just want to be on the floor. I can make stuff happen from any spot on the floor. As long as I'm on the floor, it's OK. I don't really get caught up with what position I am. But in actuality, that's what I am."
When you know his mentality, it's a little easier to understand his love of the outside shot, although he has taken criticism for taking too many 18-foot jumpers. Del Negro says that if it's open, he has no problem with it. Thomas doesn't sound like he cares what people think.
"I shoot a lot of shots a day, so when I'm in the game and I feel like I want to shoot the ball, I'm going to shoot it," he said. "I'm not going to take a shot I haven't worked on, so whatever I shoot is a shot I know I can make, and if I miss it, oh well."
That attitude can work for Thomas if he can perform consistently and finally channel that me-against-the-world thing into an attitude his teammates, coaches and fans can embrace. But it also often works against him, and it's fair to wonder whether the contract uncertainty will turn yet another Bull into a counterproductive force.
By nature, Thomas is suspicious. In a series of interviews two years ago, Thomas and family members talked about his history of trust issues and dealing with authority. Although Thomas was raised in a loving and supportive home with his mother, grandparents and uncles just 10 and 13 years older than him, he clearly was affected by a father who spent most of his son's childhood in and out of prison.
"I just couldn't take other males telling me what to do," Thomas said of his early high school years. "I'd be like, 'You're not my dad. You can't tell me this. You can't tell me that.' It was kind of like a rebellious stage in my life."
His mother, Jessica, who worked in juvenile corrections for 10 years, said then that she worried about her son's anger.
"When he was younger, I never worried because he had his uncles and other male role models," she said, "but I worked in corrections long enough to find out what kids go through, and you always worry about the moment when it might tear him up."
However, his mother said that as an adult, Thomas has been a positive influence on his 11-year-old brother, Travis, and he is following through with his goal of working with kids, starting a mentoring program for at-risk youth in Baton Rouge, La., and Chicago.
"In his program [in Baton Rouge], one of the young men going into ninth grade said he looked up to Tyrus like he was his stepfather, even though Tyrus was only 22 at the time," she said Monday.
"That's just Tyrus. He was very involved with the kids, very successful. He's doing it because it's what he loves to do. He does it because it's in his heart."
It is a side to Thomas not many see. Kind of like the side who has regularly attended the Chicago Sky's WNBA games for the past three years.
"It just so happens that two of the girls I went to college with got drafted by the Sky the same year I came here," he said, "but I would've went anyway. I just like basketball. I'll go watch high school, middle school, little kids; I just like to watch basketball. Sometimes you can [get something out of it], actually. I always go to high school games to see if there's something you like or could use."
With the kind of talent that could sell tickets, it would be a good thing for Thomas to take that same open approach with Del Negro, teammates, fans and media. It will be great if that window of brilliance stays open long enough for him to realize it.
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.
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