McFeely: Bionic point guard Wheeler-Thomas key for Bison as true freshman
FARGO — Watching Damari Wheeler-Thomas bounce around the North Dakota State basketball practice court this week — cutting, jump-stopping, leaping, sprinting — you have to appreciate modern medical technology. Six months ago he had a metal rod inserted in his left leg. Today he's a key piece of the Bison's fortunes.
The Bison's bionic man, a reference that probably goes over the head of the 6-foot true freshman.
"I had a little fracture in my leg. I was playing on it and it kept getting worse and worse," Wheeler-Thomas said. "So I finally got surgery on it and we found out how bad it was."
The surgery came in mid-July, after Wheeler-Thomas came from the Chicagoland area to Fargo to begin workouts with the Bison. After discovering stress fractures on his lower tibia, doctors decided to insert a titanium rod about the width of a pencil the whole length of the bone to stabilize it.
"It was in a certain spot in my shin that I needed the surgery if I wanted it to heal," Wheeler-Thomas said. "Without the rod, it wasn't going to heal correctly. They said it was either the rod or a plate and I didn't want a plate."
"I know Paul George had to get the same surgery done when he had that crazy injury. I got the same thing."
Ah, yes, the Paul George injury. The NBA star was playing in a scrimmage for Team USA in 2014 when he landed awkwardly and snapped his right tibia. George's leg bent at a 90-degree angle and the tibia broke through his skin. A compound fracture, providing gruesome content for the internet and social media.
Much different injuries. Same surgery.
Wheeler-Thomas missed four months, playing his first game for NDSU on Nov. 10 at Kansas. He hasn't missed one since, riding the roller-coaster a true freshman is going to ride. Too many turnovers and missed shots at points early in the season, too many fouls in multiple games later in the season. The usual stuff for a young guy.
But if big men Grant Nelson and Andrew Morgan are the centerpieces for the Bison, Wheeler-Thomas is a piece that has to be on the floor for 30-plus minutes a game. The point guard has become that important to NDSU, which has won six of its last eight games.
"I think what you're starting to see now is him back in the rhythm and routine of being that guy that we anticipated," Bison head coach Dave Richman said. "An understanding of who we are is probably his greatest strength. Grant and Morgan, we play through those guys. But you can see the capabilities, the potential, the upside, the understanding. He just continues to grow in astronomical ways."
The Bison are going to need Wheeler-Thomas to play big this week, one that will be telling for the rest of their season. NDSU (6-4 in the Summit League, 9-13 overall) travels to South Dakota on Thursday and South Dakota State on Saturday. The Bison are fourth in the conference, needing at least a split to hang in the race for the second or third seed in the league tournament.
It's all about avoiding clear favorite Oral Roberts until the title game, if at all possible.
If the Bison win both games, they are in great shape. If they split, they're in OK shape. If the Bison get swept, they're probably just another middle-of-the-pack team.
"Every conference game is important. They all count the same, they're all important," Wheeler-Thomas said. "These two, they're in the way of our goal at the end just like any other ones. When we get these two, we'll see where we stand at the end of the week."
Richman calls a good point guard his "security blanket," mentioning former Bison standouts Ben Woodside, Lawrence Alexander and Vinnie Shahid by name. He believes he has a similar player in Wheeler-Thomas.
"It's been vital that he's been on the floor for us. He is an elite on-ball defender. He runs the show, offensively," Richman said. "What the fans don't see is how he endears himself to his teammates, endears himself to me. I think that's so important for the head coach-point guard, head coach-quarterback relationship you have to have."
Wheeler-Thomas is averaging just 1.5 assists per game, a small figure for a point guard. That comes from the way NDSU runs its offense through Nelson and Morgan. The ball goes into them and comes back out. Nelson, the 6-11 wing, leads the Bison in assists in Summit League play.
Richman prefers to look at the turnover numbers, which in stretches have been stunning. In a good way.
Wheeler-Thomas has 25 turnovers in 21 games, just 1.2 per game. In four games from Dec. 30 to Jan. 12, he had a total of one turnover playing an average of 30 minutes per game. Wheeler-Thomas has made one turnover total in the Bison's last three games.
"The assist numbers aren't maybe what you'd like or what you'd anticipate for the point guard. But the number that is impressive to me is the turnovers, or lack thereof," Richman said. "I don't care what style offense you're playing. When you're playing 30-plus minutes, you have the ball in your hands that much and you're taking care of it for the most part that's good. Yeah, that's really good."
So is modern medical technology, which has made it all possible.