Michelle Smith Feature: Cal's Thomas found what she was looking for not far from home
The Cal women’s basketball program has had its share of hometown stars over the years – Alexis Gray-Lawson, Devanei Hampton, Brittany Boyd and now, Asha Thomas.
Thomas, the Bears’ junior point guard, grew up in Oakland, attended high school at Bishop O’Dowd in Oakland. And when she was in high school, she was dead set against playing close to home.
“When I was younger, I thought I wanted to get away, to go to the east coast,” Thomas said. “I thought it would be better exposure and all that.”
Thomas’ older brother Quentin, who is 11 years her senior, played at North Carolina, playing in the kind of supercharged, basketball-crazy settings that Asha imagined herself playing in one day. It was an experience that Thomas said “brightened my eyes.”
But it turns out that Thomas got everything she needed by staying home.
“I still have good exposure. I get to play against future (WNBA draft picks), it’s a 10 or 15-minute drive home when I want a meal, or if I’m struggling and I just want to have family around,” Thomas said. “And I get to see the impact I have on other local kids who come to watch the games. You are a role model to them, regardless of how you perform. That’s been one of the best things about it.”
Cal coach Lindsay Gottlieb said Thomas has handled being a homegrown talent as well as anyone she’s ever coached.
“She deals with it like she deals with everything else, very gracefully,” Gottlieb said. “Of all the players we’ve had, she’s been the most able to stay true to herself in any situation. Being close to home is only a bonus to her. She’s beloved by her family, our fans and the home community, and she’s stayed level-headed about it all.”
Thomas has been a level-headed presence on the floor for the Bears in all three seasons that she has been a starter so far. Thrown into the lineup from the first day of her college basketball career, she has started in 88 games for the Bears, missing only one game in her career earlier this season after going through the concussion protocol. Thomas is averaging 10.9 points a game, and has hit a team-leading 40 3-pointers.
The Bears (15-8, 6-6) will need everything Thomas has to give over the final six games of the Pac-12 schedule as they look to improve their position in the standings heading into the conference tournament. Cal, which has dropped three straight and fallen out of national rankings, is coming off a tough weekend in which they dropped two games against Oregon and Oregon State.
Cal will play three of their next four games at home, starting with Friday night’s game against Colorado. And Thomas will be gathering tickets from her teammates, as she always does, for family and friends.
“She might be the single most coachable player I’ve had in my career,” Gottlieb said. “She takes coaching, in every direction, tone or circumstance. She turns failure into positive things. And she does whatever it takes.”
Gottlieb said Thomas has turned herself into a “real shooter.”
“She’s knocking down shots, and her leadership has grown. She understands more of what I want and she is directing other people. She’s got this burst of speed and she can really blow by you,” Gottlieb said.
Thomas said she has learned to “get the beauty out of the struggle”, something she had to do at various points over the last two seasons as Cal struggled in conference play. She and the Bears feel more prepared this season.
“I don’t think in previous years we had what we have this year, with our guard play and our dominant posts,” Thomas said. “Mentally, we are a lot more mature. We know how to get over the hump and now we just have to do it.”