Saturday, Oct. 31, 2009 | 2:05 a.m.
UNLV assistant coach Lew Hill keeps telling Quintrell Thomas he should have just come to Las Vegas out of Elizabeth (N.J.) St. Patrick High.
Instead, Thomas went to Kansas, did a whole lot of watching and sitting on coach Bill Self’s bench, and he now is a Rebel – a year too late, in Hill’s mind.
“I always tell him, ‘You never should have gone there, you should have come here,’” Hill says. “But how do you turn down Kansas after a national championship?”
The Jayhawks won their third title, against Memphis in overtime in 2008, and Thomas was hooked. His biography in the Kansas media guide glowed.
“An extremely athletic wide body (that) brings an element of toughness, especially in defensive rebounding,” it read. “He will provide immediate depth inside ... a prototypical power forward.”
However, those sterling compliments on paper didn’t translate to production on the court. Thomas scored 39 total points in 26 games, starting once, at Kansas.
“The thing that led me to leave was I wasn’t playing,” he says. “I didn’t see a reason why I wasn’t playing.”
Self did, in the form of Cole Aldrich, twins Marcus and Markieff Morris, Thomas Robinson and Jeff Withey. That quintet will be a powerful low-post nucleus for the Jayhawks for the next two seasons.
Asked what he most misses about Kansas, Thomas, who occasionally talks with a few Jayhawks, pauses.
“I can’t say,” he says. “I mean, here it’s not like the big college town, but it’ll get back there.”
Asked what he least misses about Kansas, he pauses. And pauses. And pauses. He says, “Ummmm,” and can’t come up with any answers, but he says he has no regrets.
Thomas is much more enthusiastic about UNLV and Las Vegas, which finished a close second to Kansas the first time around.
When he picked the Rebels over St. Joe’s and Siena in May, he told the Sun, “We start winning, we could turn Vegas upside down.”
Thomas, 19, is excited about what he’s seen on the squad so far this season.
“We have an athletic group,” he says. “Coming from Kansas last season, everybody on that team was athletic. Here, it’s the same exact way here. We have a lot of big-time players in this program.”
Thomas has been on the mend since he underwent surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left shoulder in August, when his Las Vegas baptism included triple-digit dry desert heat.
“It was obscene,” he says with a slight smile.
At practice, the 6-foot-7, 230-pound forward either walks around with a basketball cupped in his right hand, leans against a black padded wall watching the action or sits on a red padded cube.
Once in a while, he chats with Mike Shepherd, UNLV’s director of basketball operations. Shepherd points to the court and explains schemes and strategies.
Sometimes, Thomas even smiles, like he did Thursday when he chatted with walk-on forward Mychal Martinez, sitting out after having laser surgery on both eyes, and strength coach Jason Kabo.
That he’s rehabbing an injury during his redshirt season, per NCAA transfer rules, doesn’t make it any easier for Thomas to be a spectator for a second consecutive season.
“It’s definitely hard,” Thomas says. “This is the longest I’ve been away from competitive basketball. It was hard a couple of weeks ago, but it gets easier and easier the closer I get to the day I’ll play.”
That likely will come at the end of December or early January, at the latest. At the team’s FirstLook event, he participated in limited drills, shooting layups. He takes close-range shots and free throws at practice.
“I’m doing some things, but it’s limited,” Thomas says. “(Trainer Dave Tomchek) doesn’t want me reaching out of my shoulder comfort zone. I can’t do too much where I have to reach.”
UNLV coach Lon Kruger, who always coaxes his player to be physical in the paint, says he’s going to like having Thomas’ “East Coast banging” mentality on his team for three seasons, starting in 2010-11.
A scouting service listed Thomas’ pluses as intensity and passion, rebounding and toughness, while his negatives are counter moves, an accurate perimeter shot and size for position.
“He’ll fit in perfect,” says Hill. “He’ll give us a physical inside presence, much like Joel (Anthony) and Lou (Amundson) did. He’s explosive and athletic, and he’ll play strong.”
The quicker he gets back, Thomas says, the better because he wants to push the Rebels to be strong come March … and April.
Only time will tell reads the current topper on his myspace.com page.
“It’s not going to last forever,” Thomas says. “I look at the bright side. I’ll be back, eventually. We’re going to be real good. Hopefully, I can get back out there and help everyone by being an extra body at practice.