Not just himself but everyone used to this Bulldog sporting the high-rise, flat-top style for his first two Mississippi State seasons. Now here Thomas is featuring a closer cut which, honestly, had media doing double-takes to make sure it was the former ‘Flat Top Freddie'. Yeah, he said, the public reaction has been surprise over his June afternoon impulse.
"I really couldn't believe it but people said it looked better like this."
What outsiders can't look at right now is how Coach Rick Ray's summer squad is doing in their off-season weeks. But according to junior guard Thomas, this is looking better too. A lot better in some key ways in fact.
"I'd say what is changed with us is our work ethic. I think we're working harder than we ever worked before. Because we want it more now. We know what to expect when we get on the floor. We're juniors so there should be no more excuses."
The we Thomas refers too are his classmates, guard Craig Sword and center Gavin Ware. They are the core of the 2014-15 Bulldog ball club, seasoned a couple of tough winters together and presumably reaching their playing prime in year-three under Ray. And as Thomas said, they have no more excuses for struggles on the court.
Including lack of help and depth. After two short-handed seasons Mississippi State has just about a full roster for the summer semesters. Just about, because newcomers Oliver Black and Demetrius Houston have yet to join their to-be-teammates. Ray said today that will come in the July semester. Houston was delayed because his high school finished a little late for the clearance process; and Black has had to complete one more course for eligibility.
Plus, guards I.J. Ready and Trivante Bloodman are both coming off spring health issues that needed fixing. But both are also on schedule for the coming preseason and maybe even for pre-pre-season in summer. So now and at last Thomas, Sword, Ware, and senior forward Rocquez Johnson have enough teammates to play the full five-on-five.
And, Thomas said, to allow everyone to position themselves for jobs when Mississippi State tips it off in November. There's nothing like having a full roster, Thomas said, to improve the team and improve individuals.
"I think it's going to help a pretty lot. Because this year I may move to the two, that's what I think may happen. We're loaded at every position and every player can push each other. So I think that it helps tremendously."
For Thomas this summer offers more chances to expand his game, whether in pick-up play or just getting in the Mize Pavilion on his own to take shots. A lot of shots, since he's serious about winning a job as two-guard. Given his spotty shooting the first two seasons—frustrating because his release is as pretty as possible—this is an interesting ambition.
But then in Ray's offense a two-guard isn't confined to shooting from the arc. So Thomas is not spending this summer just lofting trey-tries. Far from it. "He just wants me to play my game. Shoot, drive, get other people open, rebound, play defense. He just wants me to do it all sometimes." Not, however, at the expense of something Thomas is already respected for.
This is Mississippi State's best man-on-man defender after all, and recognized around the SEC for his matchup prowess. So while practicing defense in summer play isn't as easy as taking a lot of shots Thomas finds ways to hone his skills there, especially in pickup games. The interesting thing is he really doesn't see what he does as something special.
"I say defense is just a mind thing. Anybody can play defense, you just have to really stick your head on the ball and stay with it, just move your feet." Yet no Dog does it with the same efficiency and even flair as Thomas. "Because my coach harped on me about that a lot. I think I can be a defensive stopper this year if I work a little bit more at it."
What helps him this June is having not only more opponents but different position-types to practice against. There may be a temporary shortage of point guards, meaning Thomas will match up on Sword often as not. But the Bulldog frontcourt is far, far better stocked now with center Falloy Ndoye and forward Travis Daniels eligible for varsity action. Thomas likes what he's seen in summer play from both.
"Those guys are working very hard. And we're going to expect a lot of things out of those guys, because they're going to provide a lot of minutes for us. I feel they're going to be pretty great for this program." Which means great for him and Sword and Ready, too. "Because their presence down low, if they're scoring a lot we can play inside-out the whole game. And that will give a lot of teams problems."
These summer weeks are when healthy and eligible Bulldogs start putting things together, says Thomas, whether in open gym competition or the summer workouts. The latter are likely more intense too, but Thomas is not complaining. "I just want to keep getting stronger," he says. At the moment he's down to 203 pounds but Thomas figures to play at 210 or 215 when the season starts. Classmate Ware, now, he's heading in the other direction having trimmed to a reported 260 pounds.
"Gavin is slimmed down a lot, that's good for him," Thomas says. "When he's big and chunky he's kind of slow getting up and down the court. But he's pretty slim now, I feel he's faster too. When he makes his moves it's pretty good for his size."
Thomas and team have many more weeks ahead for the off (ha!) season to keep the chemistry bubbling. And, maybe, to show some other summer surprises? Thomas won't promise anything; cropping the flat top was a surprising enough move for one month after all.
"I had it for about nine years, that's pretty long. I think I can adjust to what I've got, though."