Kellon Thomas could have sulked, could have withdrawn, could have cursed his poor luck. Instead, he channeled one of the most frustrating episodes of his career to improve, and he and Kent State are likely better for it.
Thomas, a 5-11 guard from Indianapolis, is one of the leaders of a team in transition, as the Golden Flashes (3-2) prepare to face Cleveland State (2-5) Saturday on ASN.
“I think we still have a little ways to go, but we’re progressing each game,” Thomas said. “We’re finding ourselves and finding what we need to do to win each game. We take something from it and incorporate it into the next practice and the next game.”
Thomas is Kent State’s second-leading scorer (12.4 ppg) and one of four players with double-figure assists. But his contributions that don’t show up in a box score may be more important.
“I’ve been put in a role this year to be one of the vocal leaders of the team,” he said. “I think in my eyes, I keep everybody together. I think we go as far as our leadership takes us, and that’s what I’m trying to do for our team.”
Thomas was mostly a spectator last season as Kent State won 23 games and the Mid-American Conference regular season title. He suffered a fracture to the orbital bone around his left eye during an early December practice, an injury that eventually required surgery and limited him to just eight games.
Time on the sideline permitted him to study his teammates, particularly senior guards Devareaux Manley, Derek Jackson and Kris Brewer. They were three of the Golden Flashes’ top four scorers and team leaders.
“They did whatever it took to win,” Thomas said. “I don’t think I would have really seen that if I didn’t get hurt. So, in a way I was kind of thankful for that.
“Even though you know that defense is important, just learning from Derek Jackson that defense is so important that every time you step on the court, you do whatever it takes. He didn’t get a lot of recognition for what he did, but he was one of the main reasons that our team won last year. Just by sitting out, I saw that in a better perspective than I ever did playing.”
Kent State coach Rob Senderoff witnessed Thomas’ dedication last season after the injury. Thomas was determined to play once he got the OK, despite missing time and the fact that the seniors were likely to cut into his minutes.
“He very easily could have said, Coach, I don’t want to play, but he wanted to help his team,” Senderoff said. “That tells you the type of player and the type of person he is. He was willing to sacrifice his minutes and individual accolades to help the team, which personifies what he’s about. He’s incredibly selfless.”
Fitted with a protective mask, Thomas played in two games and was still uncomfortable. A visit to a specialist revealed that his eye socket had sunk, he said, and required surgery, shelving him for the remainder of the season.
Thomas returned to a different team. Seven of the 10 players averaging double-figure minutes, Thomas included, didn’t play last season. The Golden Flashes were more perimeter oriented. Their senior guard trio of Manley, Jackson and Brewer attempted more than half of their shots (953 of 1,868) and accounted for nearly half of their field goals (377 of 797).
Kent State has greater inside-outside balance this season, with 6-8 Jimmy Hall (17 ppg, 8.2 rpg), the leading scorer and rebounder, and upperclassmen Khaliq Spicer (6-9) and Chris Ortiz (6-8). An indication of that came last Saturday in an 85-76 loss at Pittsburgh, where the Golden Flashes outrebounded the Panthers 33-26.
“We have a really good player inside, Jimmy Hall, so I know that I need to get him the ball,” Thomas said. “I know if that takes away from my shots, it’s still what’s best for the team, so I guess you could say stats and stuff like that don’t really matter.”
The Golden Flashes need Thomas’ production. He is a scoring point guard, a capable pull-up jump shooter and able to draw contact and get to the foul line.
“Whatever deficiencies he has,” Senderoff said, “he makes up for with heart and competitiveness.”
Kent State’s improvement curve figures to be a little longer this season, as new players learn their roles.
“This is a good group,” Thomas said. “We all get along well and we all want to do whatever it takes to win. I think at the end of the year you’ll be able to tell how far we’ve come and how well we get along.”