Freshman Isaiah Thomas makes his debut with the Washington Huskies tonight with hopes to help resurrect a program that stumbled to a 16-17 record last season and hasn't played in the NCAA tournament since Brandon Roy's senior year in 2006.
With blessings from Nate Robinson, the former Washington Huskies pint-size basketball dynamo, Isaiah Thomas will wear the iconic No. 2 jersey as he begins a long-overdue and much-anticipated college career tonight at the University of Portland.
“Isaiah and I talked about what number he was going to wear and he wanted No. 2, and I told him, ‘I know you’re going to represent that number, so you have my permission,’ ” said Robinson, a New York Knicks guard. “He’s going to carry on the tradition of Husky basketball and hopefully bring a title to Seattle.”
So much is expected from Thomas, a 5-foot-8, 180-pound freshman, who appeared remarkably calm on the eve of his Huskies debut despite high expectations. Thomas hopes to help resurrect a program that stumbled to a 16-17 record last season and hasn’t played in the NCAA tournament since Brandon Roy’s senior year in 2006.
“I just told him to bring that winning attitude back to the U-Dub,” said Roy, the Portland Trail Blazers All-Star. “I know when you say something like that to a young guy, it might seem like that’s putting a lot on him, but Isaiah is the type of person who likes challenges. So when you say it’s your job to bring the UW back to where it used to be, he understands what that means.”
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Thomas said Thursday that he exchanges text messages with Roy, former Husky Will Conroy and former Rainier Beach High standout Jamal Crawford every day. Some days it’s even four or five times.
“Me, Brandon and Jamal, who’s like our extended member of the Husky family, we’re all really close,” Conroy said. “We hang out every day during the summer. We brought in Isaiah and we help him. We tell him, ‘If you need anything, need help with anything, don’t be afraid to ask.’ I did four years there. Brandon did four years there. So we know what he’s going through.
“Me and Brandon, we had Jamal to lean on when we were in school. He was in the NBA and we wanted to make it to the NBA. It was a reality. When you hang around guys like that, it becomes a reality.”
For now, Thomas says talk of the NBA is premature. When asked about his personal goals, he says, “I really don’t have any individual goals.” Then he adds: “My goal is to get the team back to the NCAA tournament. That’s the biggest goal. Get that and build from there.”
The first step toward redemption begins inside Portland’s Chiles Center against the Pilots, who return four starters, including forward Luke Sikma, the son of former Sonic Jack Sikma, from a team that finished seventh in the West Coast Conference with a 9-22 overall record. Last season, Washington struggled to beat Portland 67-63 at Edmundson Pavilion.
Early indications suggest the Huskies, who beat Western Washington 105-85 in last week’s exhibition, are more prolific offensively. All-American candidate Jon Brockman, poised to become the school’s career rebounding leader, has extended his shooting range to 17-18 feet and versatile junior swingman Quincy Pondexter added size and strength to his 6-6 frame.
The Huskies should also receive more scoring from guard Justin Dentmon and forward Matthew Bryan-Amaning, though Bryan-Amaning is doubtful for tonight’s game because of a leg injury.
Still, the biggest difference in the Huskies is Thomas, who scored a game-high 27 points on 9-for-12 shooting in 19 minutes against Western.
“I don’t think it will be too much for him,” coach Lorenzo Romar said. “He’s one of those guys since he’s gone to bed at night he’s always dreamed of doing what he did the other night. In his mind, he’s kind of living out what his expectations for himself have been.”
There were times when Thomas, the Class 4A state Player of the Year in 2006, thought this debut would never happen.
After his junior year at Curtis High, where he averaged 31.6 points, he transferred to South Kent School in Connecticut because he struggled academically to get into UW. He spent two years at the prep school, and the distance and time away from family and friends made him depressed and nearly caused him to give up his dream. It wasn’t until June that he attained a qualifying standardized test score that allowed him to return home.
“It’s crazy the road I traveled,” Thomas said. “It’s a blessing to be able to play in this game. I just can’t wait until the tipoff. It’s been well worth it.”