- Andy Katz, ESPN Senior Writer
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We're determined to find the next Tyrus Thomas -- the player who comes out of nowhere to be a major force on an NCAA Tournament team and creates enough draft buzz to bolt for the pros and land in the lottery, all in one season.
We think we've found him in Connecticut's 7-foot-3 Tanzanian signee, Hasheem Thabeet.
He isn't a nationally known commodity yet, but he will be as he anchors the Huskies' frontcourt next season. He'll be on TV plenty and will have countless opportunities to be seen by NBA personnel.
Why are we in search of the next Thomas? Well, because his run from unknown redshirt freshman to the No. 4 overall pick in the NBA draft is so startling that it's worth seeing if it can be duplicated.
In Thabeet's case, the consensus at the college level is that it can be.
"There was nobody like him in the draft, nobody," Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin, a finalist for Thabeet, said. "He's 7-foot-3. He's all of 7-3. He's Dikembe Mutombo, but taller. Most 7-3 kids can't run and jump like him. He's real athletic and real intelligent."
The buzz about Thabeet is creating quite a stir within the Big East. Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun has upgraded his view on the rebuilding Huskies in large part because of Thabeet. He is potentially that much of a game changer.
The expectation is that Thabeet will start at center next to sophomore Jeff Adrien. The Huskies likely will start A.J. Price, who missed the last two seasons because of a medical condition (brain hemorrhage as a freshman) and a criminal act (laptop theft). Freshman Jerome Dyson will start at one wing with either sophomore Marcus Johnson or freshman Stanley Robinson at the other forward.
The Huskies might end up funneling a lot of play through Thabeet, at least defensively. He's still learning how to find his offensive game (sound familiar to Thomas?), but his shot-blocking presence should make him a scary sight in the post.
"I've seen him, and he's huge," former UConn point guard Marcus Williams said of Thabeet, who is from Tanzania but played last season at Cypress Community Christian School in Houston.
"He's not a skinny guy, either," Williams said Wednesday night in New York after he was selected No. 22 overall by New Jersey. "He blocks everything. He's a guy who should be special."
Three years ago, Thabeet would have been like Hilton Armstrong, playing behind Emeka Okafor and Josh Boone and trying to find his way. With the departure of Boone, though, Calhoun has no issues with leaning on Thabeet as long as he beats out fellow freshmen 6-9 Gavin Edwards and 6-11 Jonathan Mandeldove.
"He moves extremely well for his size," Connecticut associate head coach Tom Moore said.
Thomas wasn't the focal point on LSU's Final Four team, with Glen Davis taking pressure off of him. Thabeet won't have that luxury, as Adrien's the only returning player who played significant minutes.
NBA personnel are well aware of Thabeet and the general take is that he'll be in the league in three years.
"He moves well and blocks shots but he needs to be pushed," said one NBA scout with personal knowledge of Thabeet but under NBA rules isn't allowed to be quoted on underclassmen. "He just needs to be coached. He has the raw talent. He's not a stiff. He's very strong. If his head's right, he'll be OK. He's worth following and talking about."
If he has the type of season that is expected, though -- the kind of unexpected season that Thomas had for LSU -- he could be there as early as next year.
Andy Katz is a senior writer for ESPN.com.