October 17, 2021
IImar’I Thomas ready to make her mark at UCLA
The star post player who scored 53 points in a game last season is set to make a big impact for the Bruins
It was a tough season for UCLA last year as travel issues and injuries led to them having a shorthanded roster of about seven to eight players each night.
But this season is shaping up to be much different. Reinforcements have arrived in the form of a couple of players who missed last season due to those injury and travel issues, as well as a bevy of incoming players from the transfer portal.
With Michaela Onyenwere and Lauryn Miller gone, two crucial players in the frontcourt, the Bruins are going to need some of those newer players to have an immediate impact. One of those players who can step up and contribute right away is forward IImar’I Thomas, a transfer from Cincinnati.
Thomas comes to UCLA as a highly decorated player. She was the AAC Freshman of the Year during the 2017-18 season and each year she was at Cincinnati she was named to the All-AAC First Team. Last season, she was the AAC Player of the Year and a finalist for the Becky Hammon Mid-Major Player of the Year Award.
She is no stranger to the West Coast. Thomas grew up in Oakland and attended Sacred Heart Cathedral Prep in San Francisco. Being able to be closer to home and her family was a key factor in transferring to UCLA.
“It feels great. I left home at 16 to go to Cincinnati so to be able to come back home now for my final year, it’s amazing,” Thomas told The Next. “My hometown is just a quick trip and my family can come to every game practically so it’s great.”
During her four years at Cincinnati, Thomas fit the mold of a traditional inside presence who could make plays off the dribble at times. She has great footwork in the paint and can use her combination of skill and strength to finish strong over the defense.
She’s been a double-digit scorer throughout her college career and last season she averaged a career-high 23.7 points per game while shooting 54.3% from the field. In today’s game, there aren’t many traditional post players around anymore. Most bigs are becoming more perimeter-oriented and stepping away from the paint.
Thomas relishes the ability to punish defenses down low and she’s always seen it as one of the most important aspects of her game.
“I think being efficient down there, which is one of my strong points, has always helped me,” Thomas said. “Especially going to the next level, I feel like being able to finish inside like that has helped expand my game. I think being able to play inside and out will help at the next level.”
And Thomas has definitely looked to expand her game. She didn’t shoot many three-point shots at Cincinnati. Throughout her four years with the Bearcats, she only took a total of 66 attempts from three-point range and shot only 18.3%.
In early practices with UCLA, however, she’s shown an increased willingness to step out and take more shots from long range. That ability to consistently knock down perimeter jumpers will help open up the floor for the rest of the team and make her a much more versatile player than she already is.
The additional focus on the three-point shot as a weapon was something she started to work on in her final season at Cincinnati. She took more three-point attempts (45) than her first three seasons combined (21).
Having the ability to be a big that can stretch the floor and do other things is something that is emphasized strongly at UCLA.
“I think I started to get out of my comfort zone with that last year so I just want to continue to shoot it at a higher percentage and just make open shots. Take great shots and make them,” Thomas said. “I think it’s extremely important. We kind of play positionless basketball here which is why I was interested in coming so I can really grow my game.
“I’m a lot more than just a low post player, I feel like I showed that my last year. I feel like it’s extremely important to excel in every aspect of the game.”
Getting out of her comfort zone is something Thomas is going to have to do a lot at UCLA. It’s almost like she’s starting college all over again with a brand new team on a brand new campus. She’s had to make some adjustments to fit in, she’s no longer the No. 1 option on the floor the way she was at Cincinnati.
Throughout the early days of practice, Thomas has been one of the newcomers that have stood out to Bruins coach Cori Close. Close acknowledged the adjustments Thomas has had to make while praising her work ethic and desire to buy into the team’s overall goal.
“IImar’I was one of the first people to really buy into our vision and our style of play,” Close told The Next. “… She wants to be a pro and I think it fits really well with her. She can shoot the three, she can score on the block. You can see she has a really high IQ.
“At the same time, it’s a sacrifice. When you’re sort of the ‘big dog’ on campus, Player of the Year in your conference, you almost become a freshman again for a short period of time. I really respect her courage. It hasn’t been easy, but she will be a major cog in our championship quest.”
Thomas is probably the most efficient interior scorer on the roster at the moment. She’s an efficient offensive player overall and Close is already thinking of all the ways she can take advantage of Thomas’ skill-set and make that translate to on-court production.
One thing Close would like to see from Thomas is for her to be a little more assertive when establishing position on the block and really call for the ball. She’d also like to see the rest of the team make a real concerted effort to get Thomas the ball, especially in spots where she’s most effective.
“I think everybody at Cincinnati knew that she had to touch the ball every time down the floor,” Close said. “… She’s not only a great scorer, she’s a great facilitator. So we need to not miss her when she slips to the basket, gets to the post, gets to the mid-post. She loves that mid-post placement in the middle of the floor right off the lane lines. We’ve got to find her better. I think sometimes we lose track of her and we aren’t as productive when she doesn’t touch the ball in key areas.”
It’s not just Thomas’ offense that she brings to the table. It’s the other intangibles as well, particularly her rebounding. She never averaged double figures in rebounding while at Cincinnati; the last time she did was her senior year in high school when she grabbed 13.4 boards per game.
But she was a double-double threat her entire college career thus far and with the rebounding the Bruins lost with Onyenwere and Miller, that part of Thomas’ game is going to be critical for team success. Thomas is considered to be a little undersized for a post player, but it’s something she never let deter her from becoming a good rebounder.
“I’ve always been kind of an undersized post player, so just having a knack for the ball and being able to outwork my opponent to get the rebound, it’s just kind of an effort thing,” Thomas said. “I think that’s extremely important, honestly. I tried to get as many double-doubles as I could.”
And as the team prepares for their season opener on Nov. 10 against Pepperdine, Thomas loves what she’s seen from her new teammates. They’ve made it very clear that simply making the NCAA Tournament and perhaps winning a couple of rounds is not the ultimate goal. They have much higher aspirations.
Those high expectations and mindset are what initially sold Thomas on joining the Bruins.
“I think we’re definitely aiming for the highest and to have a championship mindset, and that’s something I’m really excited about,” Thomas said. “It starts every day here and I think that’s something that really drew me to come here. They challenge you every single day. I think the team is just really going to step up to that challenge. We have so many weapons, we have veterans, young players, I think it’s going to be a great mix.”
Written by David Yapkowitz
David has been with The Next team since the High Post Hoops days when he joined the staff in 2018. He is based in Los Angeles and covers the LA Sparks, Pac-12 Conference, Big West Conference and some high school as well.