NEW ORLEANS — That it is a new season for Tyrus Thomas is as obvious as the sweat pouring off his face as he finishes his last warmup shots before his Charlotte Bobcats played the New Orleans Hornets on Friday night at New Orleans Arena.
One can see this season’s promise in Thomas’ more chiseled frame and the positive outlook in his expressions and hear it in his speech and tone.
Thomas, a former McKinley High School and LSU standout, won’t even talk about the 2011-12 campaign, turning that page with a wave of his hand like it was the season from hell. He’d rather hold on to the optimism of this season, for the Bobcats, who went 7-59 last season, and for himself, after averaging career lows in points and rebounds. And that wasn’t the worst of it.
The Bobcats, who played with two starters out – Gerald Henderson has a sprained foot, and center Brendan Haywood stayed behind with his mother, who had surgery — lost 107-99 to the Hornets, but Thomas said he believes the team will come around.
He says he already has.
“I feel good,” he said. “A new group of guys, new vibe to the locker room. I’m just going to work hard, stay positive and let the chips fall where they may. But it’s been great.”
Thomas was averaging 7.3 points and 3.0 rebounds heading into Saturday night’s home game against the Dallas Mavericks. That’s still not in line with the most productive seasons in his seven-year career. However, Bobcats first-year coach Mike Dunlap is pleased with Thomas.
“He’s been a bundle of energy,” Dunlap said. “No.1, defensively, is where he shines, and his mentorship with some of the younger guys has been great. Those are the two big things. And then, (against Phoenix on Wednesday), he got some big mid-ranger jumpers to go down.
“So, I think he’s rounding into shape of what he’s comfortable with with the new staff and some new teammates.”
Last season was the complete opposite. Thomas found himself in the throes of frustration. It started a week before training camp when he suffered from stomach ulcers. He was hospitalized and lost 20 pounds, never gaining it back.
His strength was gone, and so was his great leaping and shot-blocking ability. Gone was his stamina and aggressiveness, his attacking the basket and the range on his shots. Gone was Tyrus.
With Thomas too weak to play his natural power forward, coach Paul Silas switched him to small forward in an effort to get some productivity from a player with a $40 million contract who was being counted on.
That was a disaster. And the losing came at the worst clip in NBA history. He and Silas bickered, with the coach ending up shoving Thomas near the end of the season. All that came on the heals of the previous season, in which Thomas played just 41 games because of rib and knee injuries, playing in just seven games after the All-Star break.
Silas was let go. Dunlap was hired in the offseason.
Dunlap understood all that Thomas went through. He also knew that Thomas was potentially a big-time player, one the team had invested its future in after dominating performances in the 2010 playoffs with the Bobcats.
One of the first things Dunlap did was to visit Thomas in Baton Rouge.
“I wanted to see where he comes from,” Dunlap said, “and players typically are more comfortable on their turf than yours.
“So I wanted him to know I’d go the extra mile, kind of join hands with him, if you will. I learned about Baton Rouge, and we had a nice lunch, and the conversation was easy.”
Said Thomas: “He told me what he plans are, the things he’s willing to bring to the organization and how he wanted everybody to play.”
With the season over, Thomas also continued to heal. He was able to work out more vigorously, and saw results. He stayed away from fried foods. His weight climbed back up to 245 pounds and, he said, because of his diet, he feels even stronger.
Meanwhile, the Bobcats made moves. They acquired hot-shooting veteran guard Ben Gordon in a trade with Detroit. They drafted Kentucky’s Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, a sensational athlete with an all-around game, with the second overall pick, and Jeffery Taylor at No. 31. They signed point guard Ramon Sessions and Brendan Haywood, a center with a physical presence known for shot-blocking and rebounding.
It’s a better team, no doubt. There’s hope and excitement. Even though he serves in a reserve role, Thomas is one of the team’s respected veterans. He sounds happy.
“I’m just trying to help the team win any way possible,” he said. “Right now, everybody has to do a little more and a little extra, get out of their comfort zone to make this thing work. Your role may change day to day.”
Dunlap said he’s noticed the bounce in Thomas’ step concerning his play.
“I think he’s energized with the combination of new players and new staff and a chance maybe to play to his strengths,” Dunlap said. “Defensively, he has the chance to trap and roam a little bit more. And there’s some freedom in the middle of the court for him offensively.”
Thomas’ potential was in the stretch of seasons in which he averaged more than 10 points and six rebounds, to go along with his defensive play. Asked if this year represented a chance to have his best season, he said, “my only goal is to win.”
Clearly, he’s glad to be back to health, back to playing well.
“I come from The Bottom (section of Baton Rouge),” he said proudly. “So anytime you can make it from where I made it from, and how I struggled, you got to be optimistic about everything.
“It’s a new season. Last year didn’t end the world, it wasn’t Armageddon; it was just a bad season.”