WHILE THE Pac-10 may not be the freshman showcase it was last year, when USC's O.J. Mayo and UCLA's Kevin Love dominated the headlines before turning pro, a few first-year players are making a mark. The most hyped of them, forward DeMar DeRozan of USC (12.4 points, 5.1 rebounds at week's end) and 6'3" UCLA defensive demon Jrue Holiday (9.9 points, 1.5 steals), have stepped in ably for their predecessors. But the race for Pac-10 freshman of the year could come down to a battle between less-heralded recruits in Washington.
No first-year player in the conference has had a bigger impact than 5'8" point guard Isaiah Thomas, whose team-high 16.7 points a game through Sunday had lifted No. 22 Washington (16--5, 7--2) into the Top 25 after a two-year absence. If Thomas's name recalls that of another point guard, it's because his father, James, a Lakers fan, gave it to him after losing a bet on the 1989 NBA Finals between Los Angeles and the Isiah Thomas--led Pistons. But his size and fearlessness remind U-Dub fans of former Husky and current Knicks guard Nate Robinson, whose number 2 Thomas, a Tacoma native, wears proudly.
In his first league game, against Washington State on Jan. 3, Thomas assisted on or scored 15 of his team's first 17 points. "He doesn't flinch," says Washington coach Lorenzo Romar. "When things aren't going well, he finds a way to break the defense down—by getting fouled, hitting threes or just getting in the lane."
The Huskies had taken a conference-leading 582 foul shots at week's end, with Thomas attempting a team-high 137 and making 72.3%. As a bonus he has allowed senior Justin Dentmon to move to shooting guard. In an 84--71 upset of No. 14 Arizona State last Saturday, Dentmon scored a career-high 30 points, while Thomas added 25.
Two nights earlier the Sun Devils had to watch another freshman have a career game. Washington State guard Klay Thompson, the middle son of former Lakers forward Mychal Thompson, poured in 28 points, including a school-freshman-record eight three-pointers, to lead the Cougars (12--9, 4--5) to a 65--55 win. Through Sunday the 6'6" Thompson was averaging 12.1 points while hitting 40% of his threes and all 20 of his free throws. "He's pretty complete," says Cougars coach Tony Bennett. "And we probably demand more of him than any of the other freshmen in the league. We need him to score, we need him to rebound, we need him to guard a lot of the best players."
Thompson, who grew up near Portland and in Southern California, wanted to play in the Pac-10, preferably at USC, but Bennett was the only conference coach who coveted him. Thompson uses that as motivation. "It's always good to beat the schools that didn't recruit you," he says. "You want to prove them wrong."
While calling Thompson "the best freshman I've seen come through this program," senior forward Daven Harmeling says that he could loosen up a bit. "We had a bet on his recruiting trip that if anyone could make him smile, he'd get 20 bucks," Harmeling says. "We couldn't crack him. But he's slowly breaking out of his shell."
If he keeps playing this well, Thompson—along with Thomas—will soon be breaking into the national spotlight as well.
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BRUCE L. SCHWARTZMAN/SCHWARTZMAN SPORTS (THOMPSON)
GUN AND RUN Thompson (1) can stroke the three, while Thomas is a driving force.
CHRIS MORRISON/US PRESSWIRE (THOMAS)
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