CINCINNATI -- Saturday will serve as a homecoming for Shaquille Thomas. Well, sort of. Less than an hour drive up the Garden State Parkway to Piscataway, N.J., many family and friends from his hometown of Paterson will see him play college basketball in person for the first time.
Sure, cousins and aunts will fill a pocket of the RAC for the return. Even two close high school friends will take the court against him in Rutgers' Eli Carter and Miles Mack.
Yet, to call this a homecoming almost feels like a misnomer these days for Thomas. After bouncing around three high schools in four years before eventually committing to UC, he's spent the last two seasons transforming this Midwestern town into the closest compartment of stability he's enjoyed in years.
The redshirt freshmen endured a difficult childhood growing up in a family where his father passed away before he entered first grade and mother died before he entered high school. He was raised by his grandmother with a collection of extended family pitching in but lacked a true father figure.
That's changed with the Bearcats. With father figures filling out the coaching staff and a tight-knit brotherhood share the court on a daily basis. Comfort and consistency now constitute everyday life for the 20-year-old.
"I feel stable; I feel like I have family here," Thomas said. "I've been here for two years, I know everybody now. It definitely feels like home. It's very different just for everybody, even my teammates and coaching staff and academic staff and everybody, trying to help me out and try to get the best out of me. That's what I like about it."
Thomas appears on the brink of paying back the goodwill. Midway through his first season coming off redshirting last year, Mick Cronin shows signs of confidence in the 6-foot-7, 190-pound guard/forward. Against Notre Dame, Thomas played 24 minutes, his highest total of the season. It marked the second time in the last four games he cracked 18 minutes.
Suddenly, flashesof the player who averaged 28 points and eight assists his two seasons at NIA Prep in Newark began to shine through. Thomas slashed to the lane and hit a turnaround jump shot with ease and used his length to suffocate defensively.
The Bearcats can use his offense. In need of a lift beyond The Three Amigos, Thomas could be that player. Some days his smallish frame can't withstand the physicality, hence why he only logged seven minutes against Pitt. However, against Notre Dame he contributed five points, three boards, two assists, one block and zero turnovers.
"I am just going out to play," said Thomas, who contributed season highs of 11 points and seven boards against Maryland-Eastern Shore. "I'm more prepared now. Sometimes it just takes a couple games to get used to the speed and everything like that. That's the thing that affected me the most. The speed of the game, the physicality."
He may be the best pure athlete on the team but translating that to on-court success took time and enduring the growing pains of learning college basketball without letting offensive strategy inhibit instinctive scoring. Only, whether or not he stays on the floor won't involve his offensive output.
"The more he becomes a reliable defender it allows him to stay on the floor," Cronin said. "The longer he can stay on the floor his offensive talent is going to grow. He's going to become a better finisher the calmer he is out there. And he's a good passer."
More than any offensive statistic, Thomas could add proficiency on the offensive glass. If you look at offensive rebounds per minute played this season, he's second on the team only to Cheikh Mbodj. Thomas collected one offensive board for every 9.7 minutes played.
"Aside from his one-on-one ability and passing, ability to put the ball in the basket, (it's) his offensive rebounding," Cronin said. "He makes us a bigger team because he's such a big guard."
Around the parts where the Bearcats will hope to break a two-game losing streak this weekend, Thomas' skills are well known. They run in the family. His uncle is former NBA star Tim Thomas. His sister, Essence Carson, was the seventh-overall pick in the 2008 WNBA Draft. She was named an All-Star in 2011, but plays overseas right now in the offseason. The two talk after most every game even though she's stuck watching most of them on Gametracker from Israel.
Her tips revolve around staying patient, as even she struggled during her early years at Rutgers. Most importantly, she preaches to focus on defense. Almost makes you wonder if Cronin didn't pay for an international call to Carson planting talking points.
Thomas no longer lives in the shadows of his famous family and continues to break out of his teammates' shadow over the last month. Comfort level inside his new home will be the key to making an impact in a return to his old one.
"I feel more confident," Thomas said. "I knew it was going to come sooner or later, but I just have to keep on going and playing with more confidence."
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