When 22-year-old Erik Thomas was a basketball star at Wesley Chapel High (WCH), he drew attention from opponents for his always-tenacious effort on the court, from fans for his overall dominance and from the media for his mind-boggling, record-setting statistics.
What he failed to draw, however, was the kind of attention from big-time Division I college coaches that you might expect someone who averaged 33 points and 16 rebounds as a senior for the Wildcats would receive.
Blame it on his size, which was and still is 6 feet, 5 inches, and 215 pounds. Blame a torn ligament in his ankle that scared away some schools. Or, blame it on the game itself, which is more impressed by flash than fortitude.
But, you can’t blame Thomas’ attitude, work ethic or competitive drive, which continue to propel him towards his dream of playing in the NBA.
On June 22, Thomas woke up with slight hopes for being drafted that evening’s second round. And why not?
Three days before the draft, the Portland Trailblazers called and invited him to a pre-NBA Draft workout. When he arrived, he found out he would be competing against a number of top college basketball players in a quest to convince team brass he was a worthy draft pick.
The group, invited to the sixth and final pre-draft workout held by Portland, included North Carolina small forward Justin Jackson (who ended up picked No. 15 in the first round by Portland but then traded), Oregon power forward Jordan Bell (drafted No. 38 overall by Chicago in second round), Kansas State guard Wesley Iwundu (drafted No. 33 overall by Orlando in the second round), and California’s Ivan Rabb (drafted No. 35 overall by Orlando in second round).
That’s pretty good company to keep, and Thomas held his own against the better-known players.
“I spoke to one of the (Portland) guys, he said they liked my performance,’’ Thomas said. “I think I did very well, considering it was my first pro workout. I was just enjoying the moment, honestly.”
After going undrafted, Thomas said he would be trying to earn a spot with an NBA team for their summer league, held in Las Vegas and Orlando.
“Everybody wants to be drafted, of course, and it was my dream to get drafted,’’ Thomas said. “But, if I can get on a summer league team and go there and perform, I’ll have more people watch me play. Hopefully, I opened up eyes at that camp.”
Impressive College Stats
Thomas has certainly opened eyes since he left Wesley Chapel as its most accomplished basketball player.
Thomas’ college career included one-year stops at East Georgia State College and Baton Rouge Community College (BRCC).
While at BRCC, he earned Louisiana Junior College Assn. Player of the Year honors and attracted a slew of those Division I coaches that seemed to miss him at Wesley Chapel.
He ended up choosing the University of New Orleans. “My coach (at BRCC) called around, telling coaches I was transforming into a great player,’’ Thomas said. “He warned everyone in our conference, ‘Hey, you should watch this kid.’ I think some of the schools might be upset they didn’t recruit me.”
Like back in his days as a Wildcat, Thomas continued to draw attention from opponents, fans and the media. This past season, he capped his college career by leading the Privateers in scoring (19.5), rebounding (7.8), steals (45), field goal shooting percentage (59.1) and even free throw percentage (78.3). He earned Southland Conference Player of the Year honors, and guided his team to its first NCAA tournament appearance in 21 years.
“It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” Thomas said. “For all of us to be able to have that experience together, to win the conference title and get as far as we did, that’s just a story to tell later down the line to the grandkids.”
A Family Legacy
For local basketball fans in Wesley Chapel and even New Tampa, where his parents now live, the name Thomas is synonymous with hoops excellence.
Sister Sthefany also played at Wesley Chapel High, graduating in 2007 after setting the Pasco County career scoring record (since broken) with 2,563 points before going on to Division I Clemson University in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Thomas definitely ended up living up to his sister’s rep, scoring 2,138 points. They are the only brother-sister team in the history of the Bay area to each break the 2,000-point mark.
As a junior at WCH in 2011-12, Thomas averaged 21.7 points and set a school record by averaging 14.1 rebounds. That record didn’t last long, as his senior year, he averaged 16.3 rebounds, and added another school record with 32.7 ppg.
That included one game where he had 32 rebounds, and two games where he scored 45 and 46 points.
The Wildcats went 24-5 in both of his final two seasons, and he was named the Florida Dairy Farmers Player of the Year for Class 5A.