With the clock running short on his senior season, W.F. West High School’s Jordan Thomas had no idea exactly where, or if, he was going to be a college basketball player.
He’d heard from a few schools but nothing was set in ink yet and before he could reverse pivot it was time to double knot his shoelaces for the WIAA’s 2A state tournament in Yakima. The long weekend of basketball would be his final opportunity to showcase his unique abilities on the court, and he made sure to make the most of it.
“At the start of my senior year I wasn’t even thinking about playing college ball. It wasn’t until schools like PLU and George Fox reached out to me,” Thomas said. “There was a little bit of pressure when you knew certain coaches would be at certain games, but I just tried not to let that get to me.”
As it turned out, Thomas was well-equipped to handle those pressures and then some. Playing an integral role in the Bearcats’ run to the state championship game, the 6-foot-4, 185-pound power-point guard finally managed to catch the eye of the right coach.
“We caught wind of him toward the end of his senior year. He was putting up good numbers and we scouted him at state during state playoffs all the way to title game,” said Pacific Lutheran University men’s basketball coach Chad Murray. “He was doing all kinds of things.”
After their introduction it became clear that Thomas would one day soon be doing “all kinds of things” for the Lutes.
Now in his sophomore season at the Division III school in Tacoma the former Bearcat, who spent his first three prep seasons at Centralia, has made himself an indispensable part of the Lutes’ present and future.
A four-year letterman in high school and two-time All-Evergreen 2A Conference player, Thomas started in each of the 24 games he appeared in as a freshman, highlighted by a season-best performance of 27 points and 17 rebounds against Pacific.
For the season he averaged 10.5 points and 7 rebounds per game while notching four double-doubles.
That sort of output was no surprise to Murray, although he was reticent to reveal his sky-high expectations to Thomas too early.
“We knew he could be an impact player for us, but I never put it on freshman to have that expectation that, ‘Hey we need you to be good right away,’” Murray said. “That can be tough for a freshman to handle, but he did a great job last year as a freshman.”
Murray noted that it didn’t take long for his coaching staff to figure out that Thomas could guard multiple positions, including the other team’s big man. With an undersized roster, the Lutes found themselves relying on Thomas to cover the other team’s best players regardless of position.
“We felt like we could put him on some bigger guys and he could use his athleticism to make sure he didn’t get pinned or not get sealed,” said Murray. “What we thought might be a matchup problem for us turned into a matchup problem for other teams.”
This year, Thomas continues to be a difference maker on both ends of the court for PLU. Earlier this season he went off for 23 points against Northwest Christian, and he’s second on the team in scoring (12.6 a game) while averaging 7.5 rebounds a game.
He also leads the team in steals (2.4 per game) and blocks, and his 34 assists are the second-most on the team.
“We put him in all kinds of situations,” noted Murray. “From an offensive standpoint we ride him, too. He’ll bring the ball up for us sometimes. He’s Mr. Everything for us.”
Thomas says his experience running the point in high school was essential to his successful transition to the demands of the college game.
“In high school I played more of just the one (point guard), but coming into this I was already comfortable playing multiple positions. I think that’s just because handling the ball is much harder as a point guard than it is as forward or a post,” said Thomas. “One thing I had to adjust to when I got here was playing with my back to the basket. I was used to being down low and trying to score so I had to adjust pretty quickly to that.”
As he looked back on his prep career Thomas said there was one coach in particular who he felt helped him hit the hardwood running once he reached the collegiate level.
“(W.F. West) coach (Chris) White, for sure, prepared me for the speed of the game and just hard work in general. He ran us into the ground and just really worked us hard,” Thomas said. “I appreciate him for that. I feel like I learned a lot from him in the one year I played for him.”
Throwing it back a little farther, Thomas was grateful to a certain sharp-shooting Centralia Tiger who lit him up time after time in practice until his defensive skill set had been forged by fire.
“Hodges Bailey. I really appreciate him as a friend and just as a basketball player,” Thomas said, of his former Centralia teammate, now starting for Lewis-Clark State College in Idaho. “We worked out every time we could. He made me the defender that I am today. He broke my ankles a lot.”
With a solid resume to his name already and more than two more years left in his stint at PLU, the Lutes coaches are doing their part to keep Thomas trending upward in life and basketball.
“I think he’s still got such a high ceiling so we will never let him be satisfied with who he is and where he is as a basketball player and as a person,” said Murray. “You see him now as a sophomore and freshman. When you see him as a junior and a senior hopefully he’ll have 20 pounds on, hulking out, and ripping rims down.”
Of course, the college experience is not intended to be entirely about athletics, and to that end the Lutes have been able to deliver as well.
“We took him to Australia in the spring. Not that they speak a different language but it’s still 15 hours away and going on that foreign tour was a trip of a lifetime for him and his teammates,” said Murray as he recalled the team’s big travel down under. “We did an excursion in Cairns, Australia where we got to hold koalas and got to pet kangaroos. We saw a bunch of crocodiles up close and personal.”
What’s more, Thomas has been taking care of business in the classroom where he is working toward a major in sociology with a minor in communication and psychology. Thomas says he wants to become a school counselor someday so he can help others get the most out of their education while also enjoying the fringe benefits of a life in academia.
“I want to be in my kids’ life and I know that as a school counselor you get the summers off,” said Thomas with conviction.
Murray says he was struck by how quickly Thomas was able to find his footing as a collegiate student-athlete while living on his own for the first time.
“There’s always growing pains that guys go through when they first go away from home, but he adjusted really well. He’s doing awesome in the classroom and he’s got great teammates that root for him,” said Murray.
Thomas says he’s thankful to his mom and grandma who help to keep him up to date on the local hoops happenings back in Lewis County while he’s away at school. He also stays connected to his roots thanks to the support of some of his old time cohorts from seasons gone by.
“I’ve got some old high school friends and old coaches who’ve come out, and a lot of support from people who I might not have heard from in awhile but they’ll reach out and try to find out how the season’s going and how I’m doing,” he said. “I always appreciate those people.”
As someone who understands firsthand how difficult it can be to work your way out of Lewis County and into a bigger and better opportunity, Thomas says he has one piece of advice for any youngsters who may be banging their head against the wall trying to figure out how to get noticed.
“I would tell them to be patient and don’t put that pressure on yourself just yet. When I was a freshman or sophomore I had no idea that I would be playing any level of college ball,” said Thomas. “If you keep your head down and keep working, you’ll progress.”
PLU will host Lewis and Clark College at 8 p.m. on Jan. 24 at Olson Gymnasium in Tacoma. The Lutes full schedule can be found online.