The first time he played a college game at Madison Square Garden, Tim Thomas broke out the Air Jordans. Of course, he added a personal touch, crossing out the 2 in Jordan's 23 so the shoe displayed his own number, 3.
"The game always has been fun," Thomas says. "That's the point about it. A lot of people get mixed up."
That's when Thomas was at his best this season, having fun, when he was in the right place in the open court. Too often this season, he struggled, as Villanova did, and for the same reasons, too. The game got too mechanical; it stopped flowing.
This week, Thomas -- the most highly prized recruit ever to sign at a Big Five school -- will be back at the Garden, playing for Villanova in the Big East tournament. The Wildcats' performance in the Big East tournament, and in the NCAA tournament that follows it, might determine how Thomas' career at Villanova will be judged.
Because the next time he appears in the Garden, it might be in an NBA uniform.
To be safe, Villanova fans -- who will see the Wildcats play today at noon against Syracuse -- better enjoy Thomas now. He has always been straightforward about his aspirations.
He will surprise nobody if one year of college is enough for him. Last week, Villanova coach Steve Lappas said: "I'm just playing it by ear."
Thomas is used to the NBA talk.
"I'm not one of those guys who gets real hyper," Thomas said. "I'm just, as they would say, a cool cat. Just relaxed, that's how I am."
Even on the court, Thomas isn't trying to take over a game so much as flow through it.
Is he ready for the NBA?
"Nooooo," said CBS analyst Billy Packer, who announced two 'Nova games in the last month. "He's ready to play in the NBA rookie all-star game. He can do that. He's liable to be the MVP. He might have been the MVP this year. But he's not ready for the NBA."
Don't misunderstand him, Packer said. He thinks Thomas, averaging 16.5 points and 5.6 rebounds a game, has had a terrific freshman year, and is oozing with NBA potential.
"He's a guy you can project you can build a college team around by next year," Packer said. "He's fluid, he has a great body. But he has no comprehension of movement without the ball, no comprehension of how to make himself difficult to guard, never mind how you make the other four guys better. He's not to that point."
But Packer also thinks the question of whether Thomas is ready to go pro is irrelevant. "Is there some crazy owner willing to make him rich?" Packer said. "That's the only decision there is to make."
In fact, there are a number of teams that are thought to be ready to make him a millionaire. He probably wouldn't pass the New ZTC Jersey Nets' turn in the draft without getting picked up. And the 76ers' brain trust has spent a lot of time around Villanova games this season.
One scout from another team that might be in a position to draft Thomas called him "young." The scout said his biggest worry would be drafting someone like Thomas, developing him, and then losing him as a free agent after three years. But the scout didn't say he wouldn't take Thomas. That's the way the NBA works now. Free agency after three seasons was the trade for the rookie salary cap. Teams have to draft on potential and pray they can keep a player.
"Do you really think Stephon Marbury is going to stay in Minneapolis his whole career?" Packer said.
Before he even arrived at Villanova, Thomas said that if he is projected as a top five draft choice, he will have to take a hard look at moving on. And that's exactly where he is projected to go.
Scouts do question his defense. Don Leventhal, who publishes the NBA Draft Report out of Willow Grove, Pa., said he showed a mock draft to a scout with Thomas listed in the top five. The scout said something about Thomas' defense being just horrible right now. Leventhal said he asked the guy who he would draft ahead of Thomas.
"Uh, I don't know," the scout told him.
Scouts also recognize that the college small forwards Thomas is chasing around don't have the same dimensions as NBA small forwards. Facing larger small forwards should help him at the next level.
"That's true," Thomas said. "The guys I'm sticking are like 6-4, 6-3, and I'm 6-9. That's like me sticking a point guard really. They've just got the advantage on me here. It is frustrating, when guys are fighting around screens. It's going to help me down the road."
Thomas said "it's kind of funny" that so many of his peers, one-time summer camp competitors such as Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett and Marbury, are already in the NBA.
"Every chance I get, I watch them," he said. "I know the adjustment is kind of tough on them, but basically I don't get to see that. On the court, that's what they're best at. It's probably just off the court I would want to see."
Thomas isn't saying he is making the jump, but he said he thinks he's ready.
So enjoy his game. And check out his feet.
"I like wearing new sneakers, that's one of the things that just makes me comfortable," Thomas said. "I've got so many pairs of sneakers. I say, 'All right, today I'll wear these. Tomorrow, I'll wear those.' When I go in the locker room, whatever's close to me, I just grab."
Pub Date: 3/06/97