Elijah Thomas is rated the No. 5 center and the No. 12 player overall in FOX Sports Next’s 2015 rankings (FOX Sports Next)
The evidence of Michigan's elevated profile on the college basketball scene continues to manifest itself on the recruiting trail. The latest example of this is the Wolverines' sudden strong presence in the recruitment of Dallas Prime Prep Academy sophomore center Elijah Thomas.
The five-star big man was extremely impressed by Michigan's run to the NCAA title game, and was particularly excited by the roles heralded freshmen Mitch McGary and Glenn Robinson III had in it. That only served to bolster a positive view of the Maize and Blue that predates last season.
"I've always been a Michigan fan," said Thomas. "My best friend used to always have me watch them. He was like, 'These guys are good.' I started watching them and I was like, 'Dang, they ain't bad.' This was around ninth grade. This year they just blew up. They finally got a couple of players who are similar to my game and skill -- (that are) grimy, like to play, and have just overall a killer scorer's mentality like Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Durant. I liked that a lot. That blew my mind. I was like, 'Dang, that's what I like!'
"Coach (Beilein) has a system, but if players can score, he lets you play. I like that a lot."
Rated the No. 5 center and the No. 12 player overall in FOX Sports Next's 2015 rankings, Thomas is one of the country's best low-post scorers regardless of class. His mixture of power, grace, and passing ability has made him one of the most talked about players over the first few months of the AAU season.
"There aren't most post players that can score it like Thomas can in high school basketball," FOX Sports Next recruiting analyst Evan Daniels said. "At 6-9, 230 pounds, Thomas can carve out some place inside, and when he gets touches he's able to go over either shoulder to score. Thomas is also comfortable stepping out and facing up for jump shots. He's active on the glass and uses his length and strength to reel in rebounds. He's one of the best post prospects in the 2015 class."
That explains why schools like Indiana, Ohio State, Illinois, Oklahoma and Baylor have already extended scholarships. His list will likely get even gaudier in the coming months. Interest from Duke, Kansas, North Carolina, Arizona and other power programs will intensify if he continues the tear he has been on recent weeks.
After a standout high school campaign a svelter Thomas has shown greater explosiveness and endurance during the AAU season. His conquering of the battle with conditioning was not an overnight proposition. It's a process that dates to middle school, when the projections of his future as a big-time basketball prospect were few and far between.
"I've got a story to my game," Thomas said. "When I was in seventh grade I was 275 pounds, 6-5. I had a little bit of skill, but people were telling me that I was not going to be good and I should just focus on school because I was smart. (They said) I should stick to playing football.
"I wanted to be really good at basketball so I started pushing myself and made the transition of playing for Team Texas (his AAU team). My coach started working out and my (godbrother) started working me out, too. We started working on my skill, on me getting in shape.
"I wanted to be athletic. I wanted to be able to do trick dunks and dunk on people in games because that's fun. When you watch it on TV, you want to be able to do that. You don't want to be known as that guy (that can't) dunk the ball. I had to add all that to my game. Then I started feeling good. I was like, 'I don't want to be just be satisfied -- I want to be the best ever. I want to be No. 1 hands down.'"
Thomas hopes to find in a college the same kind of connection he has with his current coaches and trainer. The vetting process is well underway, as he has already begun building bonds with a number of his recruiters. His point man at Michigan is assistant LaVall Jordan, and the rapport between the two has grown quite rapidly.
"The relationship is really good," Thomas said. "I call him all the time. I don't call him too much because he has a family (laughter), but I call him every now and then. We talk academics, we talk basketball -- we just talk about why I want to be great and everything else."
One of the keys to growing that and other ties even further will be visiting as many of his suitors as possible. That's the only way he believes he can get a true feel for how each of them fits his criteria. In Michigan's case it also qualifies as one of the prerequisites for a scholarship offer.
"I've visited Oklahoma, Kansas, Baylor, and Texas, but I have not visited many (others) that I really want to," he stated. "I really want to visit Michigan, Duke and Kentucky -- every school that is recruiting me. If they are recruiting you, they think you are a top priority and you want to see what their campus is like.
"Every school is recruiting me the hardest they can. Every school that offers me I tell them straight up that I'm a big fan of relationships. You can't talk to me one time and be like, 'I have high interest in you,' because that interest can go away fast. I'm just trying to figure out if (the respective coaches) just said something to me because of my name or my rank. I really like the coaches that just talk to you about more than just basketball. Life after basketball is really what is going to be the most important."
The relationship hurdle is just the first of a few that interested programs must clear. After that Thomas will keenly evaluate how he fits in schematically on floor, and personally off of it.
"I'll definitely look at the system," he said. "I'm not a freelance type of player, but if the coach has high trust in me being able to score the ball like I really want to and let me play — I love that the most. I'm definitely looking for a family (atmosphere), great relationships, and a fun campus. I'm a big kid. I like to have fun all the time."
Have game, will travel
One factor that won't play a significant role in his decision is distance. The gregarious youngster is willing to go anywhere in the country for the best situation and has no problem exhibiting a great deal of patience if that's what it takes to find it.
"I'm on a mission," he said. "Anything can change, but at this point, I'm not really into the whole staying close to home and being next to the family. If I (meet) my goals (the way) that I think I can, they could come and live with me one day."
Thomas later told FOX Sports Next about the recruiting process, "I am taking my time. I am a big kid. I don't want to speed it up. When you get to college it is all business, but right now I want to be with my family and friends and be a kid as long as I can."
Sam Webb is managing editor of GoBlueWolverine.com and co-host of the "Michigan Insider" morning show weekdays on Sports Talk 1050 WTKA. His Michigan recruiting column appears every Thursday at detroitnews.com. For more on U-M recruiting, visit michigan.scout.com.