Portland State's Khalid Thomas working for big finish
Khalid Thomas' college basketball experience was one of starts and stops even before the COVID-19 pandemic.
A journey that began by leading the College of Southern Idaho to the brink of a national junior college championship is entering its home stretch for the captain of the Portland State men's basketball team. The last few years have taught the Salem native not to take any opportunity for granted.
In the past, including last season, Thomas said, he was "too distracted on what's coming instead of living in the now."
The immediate now is a stretch of 10 Big Sky Conference games over 22 days for a Portland State team that has played better basketball since a 16-day COVID-19 pause. Coming off a tough two-point home loss to Montana on Thursday, Jan. 20, the Vikings are scheduled to host Montana State at 7 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 22, followed by visits on Monday, Jan. 24, from Idaho and Thursday, Jan. 27, from Southern Utah.
Thomas said the Vikings used the 16-day pandemic shut down to refocus. He said PSU is playing at a level above its 4-10 record (2-4 in Big Sky games).
"I feel like overall we're just improving and everybody's finally on the same page," Thomas said. "Everybody's fully understanding. We trust each other more. And it just looks and feels way better."
One of three second-year starters on the PSU roster, Thomas is playing a team-high 25 minutes a game and is contributing in a variety of ways. His shooting, like the team's as a whole, has been inconsistent. But he enters the weekend averaging 10 points and 6.6 rebounds, and confident his shooting will come around.
First-year coach Jase Coburn praised the leadership and day-to-day energy Thomas provides, calling him "a fun young man to be around."
On the floor, Coburn said the length and versatility of the 6-10 Thomas have helped the Vikings play some of the best defense in the conference. He can defend on the perimeter, where his length can disrupt (as his 1.5 steals per game indicate), or he can play down low.
"He allows us to do a lot of different things defensively," Coburn said, noting that rebounding "at a really high level" is a significant piece of Thomas' defensive impact.
Offense has been more of a struggle. A 45% shooter last season for the Vikings, Thomas is shooting 38% through 14 games and 24% from 3-point range.
Shooting has been a team-wide struggle as the Vikings adjust to new players and new roles in Coburn's first season at the helm after he spent eight years as an assistant coach at Portland State.
Coburn and Thomas both expect more out of him down the stretch of this season.
"There's more in the tank for Khalid," Coburn said.
Thomas continues to make effort and rebounding cornerstones of his play, while spending time in the gym to improve his ball handling and to restore his shooting confidence.
He earned his degree in social science from Portland State and has an interest in real estate, but said his goal remains to play professional basketball.
"My competence putting the ball on the floor and making plays, I feel like that's improved. I just feel like everything is improved," he said. "And, as long as I keep improving, I'll be where I want to be. But I'm not too caught up in looking ahead, because that's been something that's really been holding me back and messing me up on the floor."
Thomas, who spent one season at Arizona State before coming to Portland State as a senior in 2020-21, might have moved on one more time had Coburn not been promoted to replace Barret Peery as the Viks' head coach.
A second-team all-state selection in 2016 as a junior who helped South Salem to third place at the 6A state tournament, Thomas moved to West Linn to live with his father for his senior year, helping the Lions to a third-place state finish in 2017.
At the time. Thomas saw himself playing Division I basketball and hadn't given junior college a thought. But, it proved to be a good next step.
As a freshman, he helped the College of Southern Idaho to the 2018 National Junior College Athletic Association national championship game. The Golden Eagles lost by three to South Plains in the finals, with Thomas contributing 20 points, seven rebounds and four steals in the title tilt.
Considered one of the top players junior college players in the country that season, Thomas initially committed to a Texas Tech program coming off its NCAA runner-up season. But, an influx of grad transfers to the Red Raiders' program contributed to his decision to return to CSI for a second season.
A broken foot sidelined Thomas for the first half of his sophomore season, but didn't limit his chance to jump to Division I.
His next stop was Arizona State for the 2019-20 season. His playing time was limited, but he did hit a game-winning 3-pointer against Princeton.
With the COVID-19 pandemic disrupting life, Thomas moved again, deciding to come home and play his final season at PSU. As a senior last winter, he averaged 11.2 points and five rebounds as a full-time starter.
When Barret Peery left to become an assistant coach at Texas Tech, it looked like Thomas' bonus year might happen at yet another school. But, he'd built a strong relationship with Coburn and vowed to stay if Coburn was promoted to head coach.
Thomas said playing in three different college programs (and at two high schools) taught him to interact with a variety of personalities, experience that helps him lead the Viks.
"I'm really trying to hone in on how guys react to things. Learning how they react to stuff," Thomas said. "And me being able to put things in ways that they can understand, so that they respond the way that we need to for the team."
Even though COVID protocols have led to shifting lineups, Thomas said there is a cohesion developing at PSU.
"We're starting to trust each other a lot more," he said. "We're starting to get a lot more done and accomplished together, so I think that's something that's really good."
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