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Originally published July 17, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified July 17, 2008 at 11:40 AM

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Isaiah Thomas ready to play basketball for Huskies

UW guard Isaiah Thomas has been a hit in early scrimmages and classroom sessions as he makes his long-awaited arrival at Washington.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Another afternoon of scrimmages neared its end on a practice court at Edmundson Pavilion, and Huskies players debated whether to continue.

From one corner of the gym, Isaiah Thomas voted yes.

"C'mon," he said sheepishly. "I need to make one jumper today."

"That won't happen often," UW coach Lorenzo Romar said later of Thomas' off-target shooting.

In fact, in just two weeks on campus as a member of the Huskies, Thomas has done nothing but reinforce the faith of UW coaches who stood by the former Curtis High School standout for two years while he was at a Connecticut prep school fighting to become academically eligible.

During informal scrimmages this summer, the 5-foot-8 combo guard has lived up to his billing as an electric scorer and playmaker who might be able to bring back the flash and dash of the Nate Robinson-Brandon Roy era.

"He's just a great player, a great passer," forward Jon Brockman said of Thomas, who averaged 31.2 points as a junior at Curtis of University Place. "Everyone knows he can score. But the biggest thing I've noticed is how he can pass. His passing is really going to help this team."

Other teammates note how Thomas — at 182 pounds, about 20 pounds bigger than in high school — so easily gets into the paint.

"He's small, but he's so fast," said center Matthew Bryan-Amaning. "He gets into the lane whenever he wants."

Romar is more impressed by what Thomas, 19, has done off the court.

The sometimes-arduous academic journey to become a Husky might create an impression that Thomas has trouble getting things done. He attended South Kent (Conn.) Prep School for two years, then needed until June to get a qualifying standardized test score.

On the contrary, says Romar. As evidenced by Thomas' wish the other day to keep playing until he got it right, he has accomplished every task UW coaches have asked with little, if any, prompting.

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Like most of the incoming athletes at UW, Thomas is enrolled this month in the school's freshman bridge program, which includes a daily writing class designed as preparation for more advanced courses. Romar says the first report he got was that Thomas had turned in one of the best papers and did so early.

"Everything we have asked him to do, he has done," Romar said. "No 'Oh, I forgot.' It's just done. To me, that's the most impressive thing. We always knew he could play basketball, but the fact that he has become so much more mature and responsible is something I really applaud him for. He's really come a long ways that way."

Romar says "no question" the two-year stint at South Kent played a big role in that development. Washington coaches helped facilitate Thomas' move there after it became apparent he wasn't going to be eligible for the 2007-08 season.

"There were no crutches, no safety nets," Romar said. "He had to do it on his own. There were times he was ready to come home, it was that difficult for him."

But the lure of returning home eventually kept Thomas on the right track. Once he was enrolled at South Kent — he left early in his senior year at Curtis — Thomas was again fair game for any college that wanted him, and he admits it was tempting to listen to offers from Connecticut, Kentucky, USC and others.

"There were times I thought twice," he said. "But in the end, my relationship with coach Romar and the loyalty I had with UW for sticking with me, it was like I had to stay."

Also a factor were regular talks and visits with Robinson and Roy, who have become close friends of Thomas.

Thomas said sometimes on weekends off at South Kent he would drive to New York and visit Robinson and Jamal Crawford, now playing for the Knicks. And Thomas talks on the phone with Roy several times a week.

At times when he was wavering, Thomas said the two ex-Huskies would tell him no one was better than Romar to prepare him for an NBA career.

"I'd come home on breaks and it was like, 'Why would I want to leave?' " he said. "I'd already been gone for two years."

Now that he's home to stay, the task is to revive a program that hasn't made the NCAA tournament since Roy graduated in 2006 and last year fell to 16-17. But the addition of Thomas and fellow freshman guards Scott Suggs and Elston Turner Jr. to a core that includes potential All-American forward Jon Brockman and junior swingman Quincy Pondexter has the Huskies optimistic about a return to March Madness.

In another conversation Monday, Roy told Thomas to "bring that swagger back [to the UW program]. Get that winning mentality back."

Thomas said, "The biggest thing is he believes I'm going to do it, and if he does, then I believe I'm going to do it."

Those who hadn't seen Thomas much in the past two years are believing as well. One local college coach who witnessed Thomas playing pickup games in June in Tacoma alongside Rodney Stuckey of the Detroit Pistons predicted that Thomas will lead all Pac-10 freshmen in scoring next season.

Romar says that, like Robinson, Thomas welcomes such pressure. "It's fun for him," the coach said.

To Thomas, the real pressure was getting here. He says the first day on campus last week after such a long wait "was weird. There were so many people putting it in my head that I wasn't going to make it that it's just a big relief off my shoulders."

Now comes the fun part.

"I want people to anticipate a great season," he said. "I believe that we will put on a great show this season. I want to get it back to where Nate and B-Roy had it where it was like the Phoenix Suns' offense, where we run and run and run."

Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or bcondotta@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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