Ten minutes. In reality, it was a matter of seconds but for Lance Thomas, Gordon Hayward’s halfcourt attempt lingered in the air for an eternity before the ball painstakingly made its way to the basket, clanged off the rim and fell to the court.
The buzzer blared, signaling Duke University’s two-point victory in the 2010 NCAA championship game over Butler University. Jon Scheyer jumped on Thomas’ back in celebration, sending his co-captain to the ground in a burst of chaos and excitement. Thomas hit his head on the court.
“I opened my eyes and confetti was falling all over me,” Thomas said. “It was amazing.”
Five years later, Thomas remembers the vivid details of the moment from his space in the New York Knicks’ visitors locker room at TD Garden. He has played in just two more games in the NBA than he did during his four-year career at Duke – a slower paced journey than he expected, but one he has embraced.
Thomas knew when he lifted the trophy the night of April 5, 2010, it did not guarantee him a spot in the pros. He returned to campus (with a hero’s welcome) to complete the semester and graduate. As June neared and NBA hopefuls prepped for the draft, Thomas did not expect to hear his name called. He had averaged 4.8 points and 4.8 rebounds as a senior, a ways away from strong consideration.
Thomas still believed he could play in the NBA, though. Instead of the draft, he viewed the D-League as his best route.
“I wasn’t really a guy who was on the radar like that,” Thomas told Basketball Insiders. “I was a proven winner, but I wasn’t really putting up NBA numbers to put myself in position to be drafted in the first round or anything like that. My main thing was, I just wanted the opportunity to show that I could be an NBA player. When I had the opportunity to play in the Development League, I was like, this is a no-brainer. I want to do that and try to prove it.”
Thomas was selected by the Austin Toros in the second round of the 2010 D-League draft. He was far from Cameron Indoor Stadium, but he described the Toros fanbase as “very great.” He wasn’t there for the hoopla anyways. Thomas credits the coaching staff for working extensively with him on the skills he needed to take the next step and making him feel like he had a chance to accomplish his goal.
“It’s competitive,” Thomas said of the D-League. “It’s like a bunch of crabs in a barrel. Everybody wants to get to the NBA.”
The following summer, he was named to the U.S. team for the 2011 Pan American Games, a squad made up of D-League players during the lockout. From there, he received a training camp invite from the then-New Orleans Hornets. Thomas bounced around between the Toros and the Hornets before earning an NBA deal for the remainder of the season after a pair of 10-day contracts.
“A lot of days are tough,” he said. “ There are days when you just never know what’s going to happen – the trade deadline is coming up, the last two days of your 10-day contract, things of that nature. I’ve never been a guy to look over my shoulder. I just go for it. I never wonder what if.”
Thomas appeared in 106 games for the now-Pelicans over three seasons, averaging 3.0 points and 2.3 rebounds in 12.4 minutes. When the team released him in November of 2013, he decided to pursue basketball in China for the Foshan Dralions.
“Of course you always miss (the NBA),” he said.
He was determined to make it back. Last September, the Oklahoma City Thunder signed Thomas. He averaged 5.1 points and 3.4 rebounds in 20.5 minutes over 22 games, including 13 starts, before being traded to the New York Knicks in January as part of the Dion Waiters-Iman Shumpert-J.R. Smith deal.
The changes weren’t done yet. The Knicks waived him two days later, only to re-sign him on a pair of 10-day contracts. The New Jersey native is now posting a career-high 9.3 points and 3.4 boards in 24.6 minutes in his latest stop close to home.
Teammate Quincy Acy, who competed against Thomas in the Elite 8, has seen growth since their college years.
“He brings his hard hat to work every day,” Acy said. “He mostly played the four in college and now he can guard the one through five. That’s a testament to his hard work. (His journey) says a lot about him, his perseverance and his will to get where he wants to go. Nobody can tell him what he can’t do.”
Thomas understands success in the NBA is a process. He has never been one to rush his progress and is willing to be patient, putting in the work necessary to stick in the league. Knicks guard Shane Larkin noted the extra time he spends at practice and describes his work ethic as “100 percent pedal to the metal.”
“I never expected anything; I’ve never been like that,” Thomas said. “I’ve always wanted to take the next guy’s head off if I’m competing against him. I think that’s what’s fueled me to continue to play this game. My competitive nature and drive has gotten me where I’m at.”
The memories of winning a national championship at Duke will always be special to Thomas. The sound of the final buzzer and downpour of confetti are still clear in his mind after journeys through the D-League, NBA and overseas. He wants to be remembered as a person who “worked his butt off, and on top of that he’s a winner.” If that means paying his dues over the past five years, he’s all in.
“I really have no regrets with how my career has turned out,” Thomas said. “It’s been unique, to say the least. Everything I’ve had or accomplished in life has never been laid out on the red carpet for me. I think all the things that have been thrown my way in regard to this game makes my story that much better.”
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