Thomas sets sights on Illini's best Junior star plans return next season

January 08, 1993|By Chicago Tribune

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- The exchange came after Deon Thomas mentioned he'd like to take a shot at Illinois' all-time scoring record. It would mean he'd have to return for his senior year.

"We've heard that before," said one of the writers assembled around Thomas, referring to the broken promises of former Illini stars Nick Anderson and Marcus Liberty.

Thomas looked his questioner in the eye and replied, "I'm not like those guys."

For now, at least, as Thomas headed into his third Big Ten season when Illinois visited Northwestern last night, put the junior from Chicago on the record as planning to return for his senior season and go after Eddie Johnson's school-record 1,692 points.

"That's something I want to do and I'm going to work toward it," said Thomas, who is 18th on the all-time school list with 1,205 points.

Though few would question his professional potential, Thomas knows parts of his game need work. He's an extremely dangerous scorer from close range, but he thinks he won't be ready to play in the NBA until he can put the ball on the floor. He also wants to continue to build strength after lifting weights seriously for the first time this summer.

"I'm getting to the point where I have to stop fooling around if I'm going to be in the NBA," Thomas said. "I've always been a post player, but I've got to get better at putting it on the floor.

"I don't think I'm ready to go yet. There are too many things I still need to work on -- putting the ball on the floor and knocking down the outside jumper."

Thomas sees that as the difference between being a midlevel draft pick and a high one. Too bad more of his teammates don't have such problems. If they did, Illinois would have been looking forward to last night's Big 10 opener with delight. Instead, the Fighting Illini (7-4) are stumbling into the conference season in bewilderment.

After jumping out to a 7-1 start, they've lost three straight, their longest December losing streak since Gene Bartow's Illini went 8-18 in 1974-75, the year before Lou Henson arrived. It's the first time Henson has lost three straight non-conference games at Illinois.

The Illini handled the Chicago States and the Mercers, but they haven't been able to keep pace with steadily improving competition. Their most impressive victory came against Vanderbilt six weeks ago. That doesn't bode well as they venture into one of the deepest and most talented conferences in the nation.

The Illini have little support for Thomas and Andy Kaufmann, who leads the team with 20.6 points per game. Against Marquette, the Illini bench produced one point in 46 total minutes: a T. J.

Wheeler free throw.

"It's really hard for Deon to do a lot," Henson said after the loss to the Warriors. "If [the backcourt] doesn't shoot it well, we are going to have trouble getting the ball inside to Deon."

The Illini might not be ready for conference play, but Thomas is. During the last two years he's been pushed around by bigger, stronger players in Big Ten lane battles, but a summer of hard work in the weight room has put him on even terms with the bangers.

"I basically did what I should have done before," he said. "They sort of roughed me up last year. They outweighed me. They pounded on me and I want to pound back."

Thomas has passed the advice on to Chris Gandy, the reedlike 6-foot-8, 201-pound freshman who is spending his redshirt season trying to gain strength.

Thomas will always be known for his finesse, but he said he's started to enjoy the physical side of the game. After Illinois lost a bump-and-grind affair to Missouri, Thomas said, "There was a lot of bumping and pushing. I'm starting to like that kind of game.

"If I had worked on this all along -- conditioning and hitting the weights and putting the ball down -- I'd be a much better player than I am now."

He's already pretty good. Ask anyone who's tried to stop him.

"As you know, he can dominate inside," New Mexico State coach Neil McCarthy said. "He can score every time he touches the ball. He's an All-America in my book."

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