Under the heavy glare of the national spotlight, Brandon Rush and Tyrus Thomas both delivered outstanding performances both on the individual and team level against a pair of traditional national powerhouses.
Also make sure to check out our latest 2006 Mock Draft update, to see how this has affected the stock of these players and others.
Tyrus Thomas, 6-9, freshman, power forward, LSU
15 points, 13 rebounds, 7 blocks, 6-11 FG, 3-7 FT, 31 minutes
Last week we chronicled the amazing ascent of this freshman from being a completely unknown high school recruit a year and a half ago to one of the rising stars of college basketball.
As if to justify the hype, Thomas went out and had an explosive performance against the second ranked team in the NCAA, featuring arguably the best frontcourt in the country and no less than 3 legit first round NBA draft prospects. Basically, the competition could not have been any stiffer. No less than 31 NBA scouts were in attendance with the game being broadcasted on primetime national television.
If this was the scouts first impression of Thomas, they had to come away extremely impressed with his play and the way he handled himself. There is little doubt that he is one of the top athletes in all of college basketball, but there was so much more to come away impressed with than just that.
First would be his shot-blocking skills. Thomas is a world-class leaper with outstanding length, instincts, timing and hands. He not only blocked 7 shots in this game, but also altered countless more at the rim. His fearless style of play allows him to go right at anyone regardless of their height, skill-level or the hype they came into this game with. While he will bite for the occasional pump-fake, his patience, natural instincts and timing are outstanding for a freshman and he does a great job staying out of foul trouble while not giving up even a bit of the intimidation factor that make him such a valuable player to have at the college level, averaging over 3 blocks in only 25 minutes per game.
Second would be his motor. Where as most naturally gifted athletes this age are prone to relying on their explosiveness too much and tend to turn their energy level on and off unpredictably, Thomas plays the game at full-speed and never slows down as long as conditioning is not a factor. He is unbelievably active in the paint, always looking to be right in the middle of the action, never giving up on plays, keeping tons of balls alive on the offensive glass and constantly looking to help out defensively. He is tough as nails and extremely aggressive, using the little strength he has very cleverly, challenging players much bigger and stronger than him with no fear whatsoever of the repercussions and often making something good happen for his team in the process. His rebounding has been phenomenal this year, sitting at just a hair under 10 rebounds in 25 minutes per game.
In transition is where Thomas is truly dynamite. A teammate can just throw him a lob in the general area of the rim (or well above) and Thomas will get off his feet in an instant and throw it down. In previous games this year we even saw him handle the ball a bit in the open floor and not look too bad doing so despite the difficulties involved in doing so at his size and length. The fact that he was a 5-11 guard just four years ago before hitting a 10 inch growth spurt helps explain this. Thomas is a guard no more though, so you better box him out on the offensive rebound because if not he will explode right over the top of you and throw-down an emphatic put-back dunk. Just when you thought you could write him off in terms of having any type of back to the basket game to speak of, he shows some nice footwork to make a terrific spin-move in the post (a la Hakim Warrick) and elevate for a beautiful turnaround jump-shot using a super soft touch, a fairly advanced move.
In terms of weaknesses, Thomas has his fair share as you would imagine from a player that was not considered to be a top 100 recruit by any major recruiting service out of high school. The main one would be his strength, or lack thereof. Standing 6-9 and only holding 195 pounds on his frame, he is going to struggle in some parts of his game, specifically holding his spot in the paint trying to back his man down offensively, establishing position for rebounds, not being outmuscled defensively, and even in terms of just not getting beaten up down low and worn down as we saw at the end of the UConn game. Considering that he appears to have the type of frame that can carry a lot more weight, though, this shouldnt be a huge concern as he continues to naturally grow into his body as he gets older. He was punished by the much bigger Hilton Armstrong in the post in the 2nd half, giving him too much space, waiting and just expecting to be able to explode off the ground and block his shot once it went up. This is a bad habit we often see super-athletic big men forming at the college level because of the fact that it will work for them 75% of the time at this level, but will obviously not fly in the NBA. Even when he is not giving his man room to operate on him down low, hell take one hit in the chest from a strong body and find it very hard to recover in time to challenge the shot.
Another would be his overall skill level. Thomas is already a lot skilled than his obvious NCAA comparison Hakim Warrick was at the same age, but he will have to work on his power forward game to go from being just an athlete in the NBA to a real difference maker. His shooting mechanics do not look very good, hitting a couple of 10-12 foot jump-shots in the UConn game but missing fairly badly when he tried to do anything beyond that. His coach at LSU, John Brady, is unfortunately not known as much of a talent developer, so its hard to say how much staying in school will help him unless he possesses a tremendous work-ethic to go out and get better all by himself.
Despite these correctable flaws, Thomas already has a combination of attitude, current ability and unlimited upside that weve only seen from a handful of college basketball players his age in the past few years. He looks like a blank canvas that is just ready to be molded into the type of player that a good NBA coach wants him to be, whether its at the small forward or power forward position. While players like Rudy Gay are seemingly getting a free pass on playing more than one good game a month because of his perceived upside, Tyrus Thomas is showing similar potential, just without the benefit of years and years of recruiting hype following him.
Brandon Rush, 6-6 ½, freshman, small forward, Kansas
24 points, 12 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 blocks, 1 steal, 3 turnovers, 9-15 FG, 2-4 3P
This weekend Brandon Rush finally delivered the type of performance that initially made NBA scouts peg him as a likely top-20 pick and possibly the only one and done candidate in this draft going into the season.
Its not that he was having a bad season up until then, averaging close to 13 points, 5 rebounds and 2.5 assists shooting well over 50% from both the field and behind the arc, it was more about the fact that his team clearly needed a go-to offensive player and Rush did not looking willing to give his team that up until this weekend. He often looked too unselfish despite his reputation coming out of high school as a me-first player, being all too content passing up good shots and struggling to establish himself in Kansas' stagnant, point-guard deprived half-court offense.
Being just a freshman in his first dozen college basketball games, though, that wasnt the worst thing he could have done considering that he was still producing at a pretty good clip and on excellent percentages. That's especially true when you consider how smooth, talented and team oriented he has looked in the process and just how much more of a complete player he appears to be than the raw, explosive but somewhat awkward player we saw working out privetely for us at the IMG Academy and the Chicago pre-draft camp last June.
On Saturday afternoon everything came together for Rush on national TV in front of a horde of scouts and his older brother and current Charlotte Bobcat shooting guard Kareem Rush. He showed his fantastic athleticism and basketball instincts time after time, scoring, making terrific passes and exploding well out of his area to come up with strong rebounds. His outside shot and pull-up mid-range jumper were both falling for him as they have all season; he was getting into the lane and finishing gorgeously in his typical elegant fashion with a floater or using the glass, and at the same time complimenting his scoring by utilizing his outstanding court vision and passing ability to find teammates for open looks either on the drive and dish or from static positions from the perimeter. His defense also didn't look half-bad, reinforcing the fact that he is already a better player than he was last year after declaring for the draft. The effort is there, while the understanding of the team concept and the experience are coming at a rapid rate.
Part of Rushs tentativeness this season had to do with the fact that he is not the most polished player in a half-court offense. His ball-handling is just average and he still doesn't have the tricks needed in his arsenal to create his own shot the way he should be considering his explosive athleticism. It's a bit disappointing to see a player of his caliber only average just over 2 free throws a game considering some of the opponents Kansas faced in their out of conference schedule. In this Kentucky game he went to the line 6 times, a career high for him.
With Kansas playing more of an up-tempo style (more in line with the NBA style) than we are accustomed to, Rushs strengths as a player were on full display. Rushs pure talent, basketball instincts and feel for the game were never in doubt by those who had actually gone out of their way to see him play. He has the type of creative scoring ability that you are either born with or you aren't. His frame, wingspan and athleticism already put him in a rare class as it is. He already has the pull-up game off the dribble that most NBA shooting guards must have in their arsenal. When Rush is getting up and down the floor with his teammates there aren't many more exciting players to watch in the NCAA.
If he can find a way to maintain a consistent level of play over the next few months and help his team win some more games, he should have absolutely no problem finding a suitor for himself in this years draft.