Jonathan Thomas spent his first two years at the University of Maryland consumed by his studies in mechanical engineering. From his current vantage point, Thomas now realizes there was a void.
A former basketball star at Tuscarora High, where he was Frederick County's Player of the Year as a senior, Thomas is one of five walk-ons who made the team this season after a series of open tryouts in the fall.
"You try to do stuff to get your mind off of not playing, [and] you're busy so you try not to think about it," Thomas said before a recent practice at Comcast Center. "When the seasons start to change and it starts to get colder, and it starts to be basketball weather, I began to understand how much I missed it when I started playing this year."
Not that Thomas has played much. Though he averaged about six minutes a game early in the season when fellow point guard Pe'Shon Howard was out for a month with a broken foot, Thomas has played in just two games, for less than a minute in each, in the past 15 games.
Even with Howard sidelined again, this time for the season after suffering a knee injury in practice last week, the opportunity will be rare for Thomas. When first-year coach Mark Turgeon looked down his bench last Saturday at Cameron Indoor Stadium for someone to spell Terrell Stoglin, he picked another walk-on — freshman Arnold Richmond — rather than Thomas.
Thomas said before Howard's second injury that he is ready to play if called upon. Maryland (14-10, 4-6 in the Atlantic Coast Conference) plays against Boston College (8-17, 3-8) at home Thursday night.
"You've got to have that mentality in whatever you do," Thomas said. "You can never get complacent. You can't say, 'This is never going to happen.' Because if you say that, it won't happen. Whatever you do, even if it's just to go hard at it [in practice] and compete, there's going to be a positive outcome."
Balancing his new obligations and schedule — which has included missing several days of classes because of travel — has not been easy for Thomas. Despite dropping an English class at the suggestion of his counselor in order to lighten the load, Thomas conceded that his 3.8 GPA "took a little hit" during the fall semester.
"It's time management, so you have to do things when you have the opportunity," Thomas said. "I got used to it my freshman year, and I kind of mastered it my sophomore year. Now it's like freshman year all over again. You're not just managing your time; you're managing your energy and your sleep."
Thomas said that he just can't go from practice to cracking the books. He is often tired and sore and needs to find a second wind. When it comes, typically late at night, Thomas often studies straight through until morning classes begin.
"A lot nights I don't go to sleep. I usually get about three or four hours," Thomas said. "There's so much work to do, a lot of it gets backed up. Definitely gets piled up quick, even if you're not playing basketball. You have to work on your skills of communicating [with] people who can help you. If you don't communicate with classmates or your professors, you'll never make it."
While some of his professors have been understanding, a few have questioned Thomas' sanity in adding what amounts to a second major — ACC basketball.
"They kind of laughed and said, 'How can you be so dumb to do both?'" Thomas said with a laugh.
Thomas, who called his decision to try out "unfinished business," said that even his parents have questioned him at times. But Thomas said that his father in particular "didn't want me to pass this up. He at least wanted me to try it because it will let me know that college is more than just getting grades. I always think about that when I'm coming to practice."
This season has also been like his sophomore and junior years in high school, when Thomas transferred from Tuscarora in Frederick to Towson Catholic, where he found his playing time scarce as a backup to future Virginia Tech star Malcolm Delaney.
Former Towson Catholic coach Josh Pratt recalled a player who never backed down to Delaney in practice, but also said "[Thomas] always had a book in his hand."
Charles Thomas recalled getting a call regarding his son's whereabouts one day from Pratt.
"They were about to start practice and he couldn't find Jonathan," the elder Thomas, an engineer at Fort Detrick, recalled. "He was in the library."
The younger Thomas said that the two years he spent playing with Delaney and Donte Greene, now with the Sacramento Kings, as well as against current Terps teammate Sean Mosley (St. Frances) gave him the confidence to try out at Maryland after playing occasionally on the school's club team.
"You definitely get a sense that you're more relaxed because you've been through that at some of the highest levels," said Thomas, who was recruited to play at Hampton after his Baltimore Stars travel team won the Amateur Athletic Union's state championship. "Coming from that to here was just a little transition."
His experience playing for the Terps this season might help him after he graduates. Thomas, whose mother Jeanice is a chemist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, hopes someday to work with engines, "making things run better, cleaner and faster."
He has talked with his father about helping design better engines for the team plane that the Terps fly because it gets bounced around in turbulence.
Turgeon said Thomas and the other walk-ons have helped make the Terps a more efficient team this season.
"He makes our practices better. He's a good player," Turgeon said. "He's a tough guard; he's a smart kid. All those guys, they really relish their role. We look better; our preparation is better. JT has been great. He's a solid, solid kid. He puts academics first, and I'm really glad he's part of the team."
During most games, Thomas is animated on the bench, often mimicking Turgeon's emotions and body language.
"Every day you learn so much," Thomas said. "It's really up to you to try to understand everything he's throwing at you. It's hard, but sometimes it's something you've got to think about, even when you're out of practice and thinking, 'What is he is trying to do here?' Every day has been a great experience."