Less than a month from now, when the bright lights and perspiration of this college season are a distant and fading memory, aspiring NBA prospects will be competing in an entirely different way. Teamwork and sacrifice, two defining elements of tournament success, will take a back seat to the cut-throat world of draft positioning. Like a heard of well-cured meat, prospects will line up to be measured, weighed, poked and prodded while dozens of league personnel make their final assessments on each players worth.
But where does the line of meet between performance and potential? As intriguing a player as, say, a Tyrus Thomas is because of his wealth of athletic attributes, does that package of goods favor him over a more established commodity such as Shelden Williams? If recent draft history is any indicator then yes, the lure of what could be often takes precedence over that which is known.
Yet, on March 23rd both of these players will meet in a head to head match up that will be both a measure of each players current ability and virtually inconsequential at the same. The irony in this game is without measure. All-American Williams will be playing in his 4th consecutive Sweet Sixteen game and will be looking to cap off an illustrious 4 year collegiate career with another dominant all around game. Williams has shown tremendous development during the course of his time in Raleigh, progressing from a quiet and tentative freshman into the vocal heart and soul leader of his team.
Thomas on the other hand is an explosive tour-de-force whose dynamic capability is only dwarfed by the inconsistent results it has yielded to date. To be fair, Thomas is just a redshirt freshmen and has a long ways to go in his development from athlete to player. However if one were to look on an NBA draft board today there would be few teams that have Williams name above Thomas.
Therein lies the rub of it all. The draft process is a strange beast, each team has different needs and covets a variety of skill sets to compliment their existing rosters. But at the end of the day the prevailing wisdom seems to boil down to this: If you are young and explosively athletic your potential alone is worth more than your resume may warrant. While Williams has given fans and scouts a detailed account of what he can bring to an NBA floor as soon as next season, Thomas has captured the minds of all with his raw fury. Every fiery weak-side block that Thomas skies for with his other-worldly 42+ inch vertical counts for 10 times what Williams produces through fundamental position, intelligence, and a sense of the moment.
Now, it is not my intention to lambast Tyrus Thomas. He is a marvel to watch at times and has the potential to do great things. But, in the heart and heat of tournament time Thomas has not yet been called on to produce one significant stretch of basketball despite his teams first two wins. Meanwhile, Shelden Williams has been an anchor for his team in ways that transcend mere production. He is a complete player, though with obvious limitations as a physical specimen.
But, where is the measure that determines how significant Williams limitations are compared to Thomas? Is it correct to assume that the understanding of the game, the sense of the moment, the feel Williams has for making plays when the game is in its most critical stages, is nothing more than a natural right of passage for the more physically gifted freshman?
Perhaps Thomas does have the mental makeup to become a truly elite force in the not too distant future. Truly, if one were to put Williams knowledge and experience into Thomas body there would be no better player in the country. However, no such science exists at this time and no measure is yet in widespread use to gauge Thomas potential mentally for the game. Todays Tyrus Thomas can easily be yesterdays Stromile Swift if he does not continue to work hard and improve upon his weaknesses. The NBA will not be confused for a developmental league, its lessons are harsh and its schedule cruel.
The searing burn of the NCAA tournament spotlight is but a precursor to the daily pressures of being a professional. It is a mans world and requires internal fortitude to survive. Shelden Williams has shown such fortitude and will take heart in the hard lessons he has forged through the toughness of tournament play-he is ready for the next level. Tyrus Thomas is yet a babe in the woods. While his physical god-given gifts are the stuff of legends; that is only half the equation. The heart is what leads the head into battle and Thomas has not shown he is ready for this war. But he does have a great chance to this Thursday.