HUNTINGTON — Marshall University sophomore guard Luke Thomas received an early birthday surprise on Monday afternoon.
It wasn’t one that likely classifies as a gift, either.
Thomas, who turned 20 on Tuesday, suffered a broken nose on Monday, courtesy of the elbow of freshman center Goran Miladinovic.
The gifts Thomas was afforded due to the elbow were a week or two away from the basketball court and surgery on Wednesday, neither of which was a way he wanted to start year No. 20 nor his second year with the Thundering Herd.
Still, the sophomore was smiling at the Cam Henderson Center on Tuesday and even received an apologetic hug from the Herd’s 7-foot freshman center before the team went into stretching drills for practice.
Seeing the exchange, Marshall head coach Dan D’Antoni couldn’t let the opportunity go by.
“I told everybody that Luke isn’t afraid to stick his nose in there every day,” said D’Antoni before letting out a big chuckle.
Thomas took it in stride and was focused more on the play than the end result.
“I turned around and ‘Bam!’ Got me right in the face,” Thomas said. “It was good defense, I thought. Darius (George) was on my back and we got a turnover out of it.”
Thomas, a 6-foot guard from Proctorville, Ohio, is known more as a 3-point sharpshooter in game situations, but one of his best attributes comes in practice where he pushes those around him each day, going up against fellow guards Jarrod West, Andrew Taylor, Marko Sarenac and Jeremy Dillon on a regular basis. If one of those players gets out of position, Thomas’ strength is finding the open spot within a defense and knocking down shots, which is not only key to D’Antoni’s offensive game, but also a critical teaching tool when the team is going over defense.
“One, he shoots as good as anybody or better than anybody we’ve got, so he forces you to guard space when he’s working against you,” D’Antoni said. “Two, he’s a great teammate, always encouraging. If he doesn’t get a minute (of playing time), he’s not coming with his head down. That’s a sign of maturity and good parenting.”
Thomas said it is just about understanding his assignment and being bought in to it.
“Everybody has a role on the team, and that’s my role,” Thomas said. “I come in every day and compete, because if I’m not competing, the guy in front of me doesn’t have to compete. I’m trying to push them so we can be the best we can be as a team. That’s what Coach always preaches. One through 17.”
D’Antoni said Thomas’ selfless mentality and understanding of concepts make him a valuable, trusted returnee for the team, an important aspect with so many newcomers to the squad. Any time Thomas sees someone out of place, he’s quick to communicate with him, serving as a coach on the floor while D’Antoni is assisting others.
“Consistency will be key,” Thomas said. “You’ve essentially got eight freshmen. I might not play a lot, but I’ve been here and I know the little stuff that can help them out. All those guys will play and I just try to be the best teammate I can be, day in and day out.”
That mentality has helped him gain the trust of teammates and coaches alike.
“He’s proven his standing on the team this year,” D’Antoni said. “I wouldn’t hesitate to put him out there now. Last year, I may worry. This year? Not so much.”
Last season, Thomas played in eight games for the Herd. He had a steal against Rice in the Conference USA Tournament.