Texas standout a game changer, even after injury
LANCASTER, Texas — For Elijah Thomas, the toughest part of dealing with the torn tendon in his left ring finger that resulted in surgery and kept him off the court for four months was not sitting idly as his teammates struggled without him.
It wasn’t the void in competition or simply missing out on playing the game he loves.
All those things stung, but not nearly as much as the realization that he would also be forced to put down the video game controller.
“That was the No. 1 thing,” said Thomas’ mother, Delores Evans. “He was like, ‘Mom, it’s so bad I can’t even play my video game.’ All he could do was rest it.”
The Illinois recruiting target is happy again these days. He’s back to dominating in his NBA 2K14 video game for both the Xbox and PlayStation 4, but most importantly he’s back on the court playing again for Team Texas Elite on the AAU circuit.
The 6-foot-9, 230-pound center from just south of Dallas returned to action earlier this month for the first week of the July evaluation period and is working to get back to his old ways on the floor.
“The biggest thing for me is to get back into basketball shape. When I accomplish that, the sky’s the limit for me,” Thomas said. “I had a lot of pressure on me last weekend and people said I played pretty well. I didn’t feel like I played all that well, but I guess there were some good things I did.”
The five-star big man is a Top 15 player in the nation for the 2015 class and list Illinois among his top choices. Oklahoma State, Texas, UNLV, SMU and USC are among many others Thomas is giving strong consideration.
The recruiting process, which ramped up last summer for Thomas, has been exhausting, but the personable big kid has enjoyed it every step of the way.
“It’s been good, I really enjoy it,” he said. “I’ve been told by some people, you only get to do this once. You only get one chance to get recruited to go play in college so why not enjoy everything that comes with it.”
It’s been a heck of a ride for Mom, too, who has turned to having fun with the various coaches when they call inquiring about her son.
“I’ll find myself asking them ‘Are you sure you want him? Why would you want him to come play basketball for you, he’s only 5-2?’ ” Evans said. “He’s really enjoyed it and really grown from it. I think it’s a good experience to go through. I just tell him all the time to stay humble.”
Illinois is among the schools who have been there since the early stages in Thomas’ recruitment with assistant coach Jamall Walker leading the charge along with John Groce. Walker is close with a family friend of Thomas, which is how the Illinois staff was made aware of the back-to-the-basket center so early.
“I talk to Coach Walker all the time. We talk about a lot of things, girls, my hobbies, hanging out with my friends, my workouts and it usually comes back around to basketball,” Thomas said.
The relationship he’s developed with the Illinois staff, coupled with the fact that Illinois is in need of a high-level big man, has made the Illini an attractive destination for Thomas. It helps that they’ve done a nice job selling Mom, too.
“They are great coaches. They’re honest with me and tell it like it is,” Evans said. “They let you know what it’s like to be a basketball player there. They say they can help him get to the next level and get him to where he wants to be.”
Distance isn’t a factor for Thomas or his mom.
“Whatever’s best for him. Whether he goes away or stays close, it doesn’t matter to me,” Evans said.
Said Thomas: “It doesn’t really matter where I go. It’s all about the program and what it has to offer as far as the education and the sports. It’s not about where I go, how far I go, it’s all about me becoming a better man and a better basketball player, that’s all she cares about.”
Another factor in Thomas’ recruitment is the chance to play in college with his close friend and AAU teammate Jawun Evans. The point guard is also a high priority for Illinois, which is one of a few schools that is recruiting both players.
“It’s not a definite, but it would be nice to play together,” Thomas said. “We hang out a lot. He comes over a lot and we jut spend time together and we’ve been playing ball together.”
For now, Thomas will continue to enjoy the recruiting process. He initially said he would pick a school on Jan. 15, his grandmother’s birthday, but understands it would be in his best interest to make a decision closer to signing day in November. As of now, there is no timetable for making a decision.
“I’m just listening to all the recruiting pitches and taking it day by day,” Thomas said.