Commentary

Thomas takes control at Duke

Originally Published: December 14, 2009
By Mechelle Voepel | Special to ESPN.com

Jasmine ThomasAP Photo/Sara D. DavisAveraging 17.8 points, Jasmine Thomas had a career-high 29 against OSU on Dec. 3.

DURHAM, N.C. -- The conversation was lengthy and friendly. But ultimately, it was leading nowhere, and both parties knew it. Standout guard prospect Jasmine Thomas explained why she was not going to play for Joanne P. McCallie.

"I recruited her to Michigan State," McCallie, now Duke's coach, said of her initial contact with Thomas. "We had a 45-minute call, but she was very polite and told me she would be playing in the ACC. I was struck by her candor and savvy. She was not a recruit to blow any smoke about what she was going to do."

So Thomas, who is from Fairfax, Va., committed to Gail Goestenkors at Duke. Then, of course, the crazy coaching carousel began to spin in March 2007. Jody Conradt retired at Texas; Goestenkors moved to Austin; and McCallie took over at Duke.

"She was one of the first coaches I talked to when it was time to do phone calls," Thomas recalled of McCallie. "I really was interested in playing for her, but the distance was too much. There was no way I was going to Michigan.

"But I really did think I would consider playing for her in a different circumstance. So when I found out who the candidates were [for the Duke job], I thought, 'That would be a good option.' Coming here has been a great experience. I'm happy because I feel now this is her program, and you can tell with how our team is playing."

But you can also tell that this is Thomas' team on the court, and McCallie is fine with that. A 5-foot-9 junior guard, Thomas is leading Duke in scoring (17.8 ppg) and assists (5.1). She's also tops in minutes played; at 31.8, she is the only Blue Devil logging more than 25 a game.

And as No. 10 Duke prepares to take on second-ranked Stanford on Tuesday (10 p.m. ET) out on the West Coast, Thomas is sure to be a primary focus of the Cardinal's attention. Which will be the case with all of Duke's subsequent opponents, too.

"I laugh about her because sometimes she acts like a 12-year-old," senior teammate Joy Cheek said. "The smallest things make her happy."

For instance, if you got a chance to watch Thomas go to a crafts store like Michaels, you'd see an abundantly creative person in her element. She could easily spend the day in there if she ever had that much time. As it is, she dashes into the one near her house whenever she can.

"But when she's on the court, you would never know she's that giddy little girl," Cheek continued. "She takes control and gains our respect because she gets to the point. She tells you what you need to do and what you're not doing. You can see the fire in her eyes. I thought even when she was a freshman that she was going to be a good leader for us."

[+] EnlargeJasmine Thomas
AP Photo/Sara D. DavisDuke travels to Stanford on Tuesday. In two games against ranked opponents this season, Jasmine Thomas scored 29 (OSU) and 26 (Texas A&M) points.

Flash back to the fall of 2007, though, and Thomas was in somewhat of an awkward position, even if she never defined it that way. There were fractures at Duke when Goestenkors left.

It didn't take the sleuthing skills of Miss Marple to deduce that some players and McCallie mixed about as well as Vikings and Packers fans. There were bumpy times, hurt feelings and philosophy differences. These things happen when there are coaching changes.

Point guards find ways to blend the best of everybody, and that wasn't easy to do at Duke the past two seasons. Throw in a meniscus injury to Thomas at the start of her sophomore year, and she had a few hurdles to clear. Nothing she couldn't handle, though.

"She's always been willing to communicate and take charge," McCallie said. "She learned so much from Year 1, and that carried to Year 2. Now she's benefiting already from experiences in Year 3."

McCallie looks back to last season's 81-79 overtime victory against North Carolina, on March 1 in Durham, as a recognizable turning point for Thomas. She had eight of her 19 points in the extra period.

And in beating the Tar Heels, Thomas replicated a favorite achievement of the player she most admires: Lindsey Harding, her point guard predecessor at Duke.

"Especially in her junior and senior seasons, she was just dominant on the defensive and offensive ends," Thomas said of Harding, who plays for the Washington Mystics now. "She was a role model to me -- still is. People joke with me because I still get the jitters if she's around. Because that's how much I look up to her."

It didn't look that way on Dec. 3, when Harding was in attendance at Cameron Indoor Stadium the night Thomas scored a career-high 29 points in a victory over Ohio State.

"She has a lot of fight," Harding said of Thomas. "You can tell she has a little swag in a good way -- that this is her team.

"She was all over the place on defense; she does a great job of cutting people off on the help side. She doesn't just focus on her offense; she is a player who will play both ends of the floor. She puts the effort into defense, which is something that always stands out to me."

But Harding also adds that all point guards who have the potential to be dynamic scorers must figure out offensive balance.

"Still today, I have my struggles with it," Harding said. "I think most point guards do -- knowing when you have to score and what to do if you're having an off night. You're always learning.

"I know if I can't score [from the field], I have to get to the free throw line. There is no one answer; each game you have to find a way. What I've seen from Jasmine is that she's figured out this team and how she has to contribute."

Thomas points to what she got out of the Blue Devils' Nov. 15 game at Texas A&M, a 95-77 loss in which she was 9-of-28 from the field.

"My decision-making as a individual from the start of the season has improved," she said. "My decisions affect everyone else, and in that game, I made poor ones. I just refuse to let that happen again."

Making decisions in general, though, is something Thomas has proved to be good at doing. This past summer, she bypassed an opportunity with USA Basketball -- difficult choice for her -- because she felt she needed to stay in Durham and build her strength.

"It wasn't just to make myself better for Duke, but also for USA Basketball in the future," Thomas said. "I really think I needed to grow my game and work on many parts of it so I can be ready for whatever comes.

"I stayed here all summer, working on speed, agility and my strength, especially. I feel more like a solid player right now. I'm not easily knocked off balance; I can go in there and finish. I can jump up and get to the glass and not worry there's a stronger defender in there. I feel like there's no one I can't go up against. I think that's part of my mentality now."

And McCallie, who once hung up the phone with Thomas and disappointedly thought, "Well, I wish …" has relished being able to coach her after all.

"She is such an explosive athlete, but maybe in the past two years you wondered about her endurance," McCallie said. "What I see now in her is utter strength -- to elevate, to finish and to be that knockout punch."

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.