COLLEGE PARK ——Jonathan Thomas spent his first two years at the University of Maryland consumed by his studies in mechanical engineering. From his current vantage point, Thomas now realizes there was a void.
A former basketball star at Tuscarora High, where he was Frederick County's Player of the Year as a senior, Thomas is one of five walk-ons who made the team this season after a series of open tryouts in the fall.
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Not that Thomas has played much. Though he averaged about six minutes a game early in the season when fellow point guard Pe'Shon Howard was out for a month with a broken foot, Thomas has played in just two games, for less than a minute in each, in the past 15 games.
Even with Howard sidelined again, this time for the season after suffering a knee injury in practice last week, the opportunity will be rare for Thomas. When first-year coach Mark Turgeon looked down his bench last Saturday at Cameron Indoor Stadium for someone to spell Terrell Stoglin, he picked another walk-on — freshman Arnold Richmond — rather than Thomas.
Thomas said before Howard's second injury that he is ready to play if called upon. Maryland (14-10, 4-6 in the Atlantic Coast Conference) plays against Boston College (8-17, 3-8) at home Thursday night.
"You've got to have that mentality in whatever you do," Thomas said. "You can never get complacent. You can't say, 'This is never going to happen.' Because if you say that, it won't happen. Whatever you do, even if it's just to go hard at it [in practice] and compete, there's going to be a positive outcome."
Balancing his new obligations and schedule — which has included missing several days of classes because of travel — has not been easy for Thomas. Despite dropping an English class at the suggestion of his counselor in order to lighten the load, Thomas conceded that his 3.8 GPA "took a little hit" during the fall semester.
"It's time management, so you have to do things when you have the opportunity," Thomas said. "I got used to it my freshman year, and I kind of mastered it my sophomore year. Now it's like freshman year all over again. You're not just managing your time; you're managing your energy and your sleep."
Thomas said that he just can't go from practice to cracking the books. He is often tired and sore and needs to find a second wind. When it comes, typically late at night, Thomas often studies straight through until morning classes begin.
"A lot nights I don't go to sleep. I usually get about three or four hours," Thomas said. "There's so much work to do, a lot of it gets backed up. Definitely gets piled up quick, even if you're not playing basketball. You have to work on your skills of communicating [with] people who can help you. If you don't communicate with classmates or your professors, you'll never make it."
While some of his professors have been understanding, a few have questioned Thomas' sanity in adding what amounts to a second major — ACC basketball.
"They kind of laughed and said, 'How can you be so dumb to do both?'" Thomas said with a laugh.
Thomas, who called his decision to try out "unfinished business," said that even his parents have questioned him at times. But Thomas said that his father in particular "didn't want me to pass this up. He at least wanted me to try it because it will let me know that college is more than just getting grades. I always think about that when I'm coming to practice."
This season has also been like his sophomore and junior years in high school, when Thomas transferred from Tuscarora in Frederick to Towson Catholic, where he found his playing time scarce as a backup to future Virginia Tech star Malcolm Delaney.
Former Towson Catholic coach Josh Pratt recalled a player who never backed down to Delaney in practice, but also said "[Thomas] always had a book in his hand."
Charles Thomas recalled getting a call regarding his son's whereabouts one day from Pratt.
"They were about to start practice and he couldn't find Jonathan," the elder Thomas, an engineer at Fort Detrick, recalled. "He was in the library."
The younger Thomas said that the two years he spent playing with Delaney and Donte Greene, now with the Sacramento Kings, as well as against current Terps teammate Sean Mosley (St. Frances) gave him the confidence to try out at Maryland after playing occasionally on the school's club team.