Joston Thomas has an outlet.
With every chest bump issued to a teammate, salute to the crowd or wave of the arms, the Hawaii sophomore forward is stoking an internal fire that always burns.
Thomas, just four games into his career as a Rainbow Warrior, is already the emotional element of the team.
"I feel like this team, we need that type of emotion and intensity out there," Thomas said. "I’m here to give it. I don’t care if I score a basket or get a rebound or get a steal. Long as I get the crowd into it, my team into it, I know we going to pull off a win."
Unbeaten UH (4-0) was just hit with the unfortunate news that senior forward Bill Amis, a team captain and UH’s leading scorer and rebounder, will miss at least a month with a stress fracture in his right foot. It will fall upon the 6-foot-7, 235-pound Thomas to pick up much of the slack starting at home today against Arkansas-Pine Bluff.
HAWAII (4-0) VS. ARKANSAS-PINE BLUFF (0-4)
When: 7 tonight
Where: Stan Sheriff Center
TV: Live on pay-per-view (channel 255). Retelecast on KFVE tomorrow at 10 a.m.
Radio: KKEA 1420-AM
Tickets: $26 (lower); $18 (upper-adult); $16 (upper-senior citizen); $5 (upper-students, ages 4-high school); UH Manoa students free with valid ID.
Centers Vander Joaquim, Douglas Kurtz and freshman forward Trevor Wiseman should also see increased roles. Thomas will see expanded time at power forward.
"You have to be prepared for things like that, when somebody goes down," said Thomas, who promised to bring the same energy to the 4-spot. "That’s part of being a team."
Thomas has been an instant-impact player, both in his all-around production and court demeanor. He is one of five Rainbows averaging double-figure scoring at 12.5 points per game, and is the team’s second-leading rebounder at 6.3 per game. He’s shown versatility with a couple of 3-pointers and is a threat to block shots and collect steals, and has become a fan favorite with several emphatic dunks.
Maybe his biggest impact has been his fiery mentality, something Arnold has groomed since Thomas arrived from the College of Southern Idaho in the fall.
Senior tri-captains Amis, Kurtz and Hiram Thompson lead in different ways, generally by example. Arnold appreciates their style of leadership, but Thomas brings something UH has lacked in recent years.
"It’s something that he does," Arnold said. "You gotta let people be themselves, and he’s got a strong personality that way where he gets pretty emotional during the game. He plays with emotion and I think that’s great."
Where, then, did it come from? Thomas hails from "the DMV," as he calls the Washington D.C.-Maryland-Virginia area he moved to from Georgia around age 10. It’s a hoops hotbed that has produced many NBA and college stars, including the Oklahoma City Thunder’s Kevin Durant, who Thomas was teammates with at the Montrose Christian (Md.) boarding school. He still considers the area home.
"Growing up in that area, you know, every night is a highlight night," Thomas said. "You have to top it off with somebody that night, and only the strong survive. We kind of learn that growing up. You gotta show a lot of aggressiveness out there on the court, and play hard. So, that’s how we play in D.C., so it’s naturally in me to play like that."
Thomas’ parents were back in Georgia while he grew up at the boarding schools and on the hardwood. Not surprisingly, his main positive influence there was his former AAU coach, Rob Jackson. Jackson described himself as a "sounding board" for many of Thomas’ frustrations growing up.
"Inside him is a passion. And that’s the thing that drives him to be successful," Jackson said. "He’s learned how to channel that and I think develop him. … It was a matter of learning how to do that the right way.
"He’s just a hungry guy, man."
That hunger — he wants to play professionally someday — was sometimes a detriment to the young Thomas. He left both Montrose and nearby National Christian after disagreements with coaches.
He finished up his high school career in 2009 at God’s Academy in Grand Prairie, Texas, where his mother moved from Georgia. Though he put up some impressive numbers there — over 30 points, 10 rebounds and five assists per game — he couldn’t make it straight to a Division I school because he lacked some course prerequisites.
After a year at CSI, Arnold came calling.
This time, Thomas was ready. When he nods and waves to the crowd, he’s just letting you know it.