Getting to Know Gentrey Thomas
Moncton Magic coach Joe Salerno knows the path to the 2018/19 NBL Atlantic Division championship will travel a familiar road, and that knowledge is going to be a huge part of every roster decision he makes this off-season. "The Halifax Hurricanes are our benchmark," Salerno says, having invested time reviewing his squads 4-1 division series loss to the eventual league runners-up. "With their style of play, they got higher percentage shots than we did, and a big reason for that is their personnel." When Salerno broke the two teams down position-by-position, two words kept springing to mind. Size and athleticism. And in that context, the team's newest signing is a perfect fit.
Gentrey Thomas is a 6'4" combo guard out of Halifax with an almost 7-foot wingspan, and the explosiveness to be a difference-maker for a team and a coach that feels it can maximize his potential. "He ideally fits the mold for the upgrades we're trying to make," says Salerno. "Size, athleticism and versatility, he checks all those boxes. Gentrey can really create his own offense, which we lacked at times last year. He's a guy you can iso on a wing and let him go to work, plus he can shoot it a little too."
Thomas had multiple options as a free agent starting his pro career after taking a year off to complete his degree at NCAA Division 1 University of California at Riverside. The Magic were able to offer an enticing on-floor opportunity, but that wasn't all that mattered to the young man. "Their fast place of play, the coaching, the way the organization is set up, it's just right for a player like me," Thomas says. "But it's also just a good vibe and environment for me to develop in. When I look at players like AA, who I grew up watching, I want to come in and learn from him and guys like him. I want to pick their brains, take from their games, add to mine, become a better player, a better person, a better professional both on and off the court."
Thomas played his high school ball for Auburn Drive in Nova Scotia before a now-famous familial connection led him to the prestigious Orangeville Prep and the Athlete Institute in Ontario. "I have a cousin in the NBA, Dillon Brooks. (Brooks played at Oregon State and just finished a great rookie year with the Memphis Grizzlies) He took me to play at a tournament in Nevada with CIA Bounce (a very prestigious youth program on the AAU circuit) with Andrew Wiggins, Tyler Ennis, and some other great players. The head of CIA Bounce asked me to play on one of the teams so I kept going and playing with those guys for 2 or 3 more summers. The head of the Athlete Institute saw me there, offered me a scholarship and it worked out great. I loved my time at the AI, it was all ball and school work and I really improved my game."
From there, Thomas was offered a scholarship to Snow College in Utah and then made his way to Riverside, California for 2 years of Division 1 basketball before his off year. He first encountered Coach Salerno a year ago at the annual Courtside Classic, a semi-pro summer tournament in P.E.I. "I had a good showing last year and coach talked to me then about what my plans were. I told him I had to finish school up and then figure things out. I had other coaches approach me too, but I was just waiting for the right time. So, I came up to the tournament this year again, did my thing, coach approached me, and we had a good conversation. I waited a couple of weeks to talk it over with my family before deciding this was the best place for me to go at this stage of my career."
Neither Salerno or Thomas know exactly what position the rookie will spend most of his time playing this winter, but having the ability to switch between both guard positions means the time will be there provided he performs. "Physically and athletically he can play in the league right away," says Salerno. "It'll be how quickly he picks up the pro game and what our systems are that will determine how he does. He's an extremely talented player and his athleticism could make him an extremely effective defender, so he's got all the tools to have an impact right away."
"I don't know where coach is thinking of putting me position-wise," says Thomas, "but I'm comfortable at the point or the 2. I have a 7-foot wingspan and I like to use that on defense to disrupt things and get out and run and gun and dunk. But I also like playing team ball and getting teammates shots. I just love to win games man."
It's been a long time since Atlantic Canadian basketball fans have gotten a look at Thomas in person and in those years, his game has really evolved and changed. As an athletic player with good size, Gentrey was coached to be an inside player exclusively and the move to the Athlete's Institute unlocked a ton of potential. "When I was last in Halifax," he says, "I'd just hit my growth spurt and coaches had me playing big. I had the handles but I couldn't use them because they didn't want me to. When I got to Orangeville, they put me in the backcourt for my scoring and I developed a nice little jump shot, I could use my quickness laterally. Once they just let me play, it was like whoa, I could use my quicks, so I got out and started to play 94 feet and just got a lot better."
He also is embracing his role as a Canadian in the NBL, and sees the important role the league has in growing the game in this country. "People can look down on basketball in Canada and Canadians playing the game professionally. So, I have a chip on my shoulder. I just want to prove everybody wrong and do this for my family and my community." Another member of that basketball-rich family of his is already a member of the Magic family as well. Gentrey's third-cousin Terry provides a great example of just how to do it in this league, and he's taking full advantage. "Since I'm back, we talk a lot, we're going to shoot every day and doing everything we're supposed to do in the right way."
When you ask Gentrey questions about his career goals, his answers are very reminiscent of the ones I got from his cousin during our first chat about one year ago. Asked if he had aspirations to catch the eye of Basketball Canada to play for his country one day, or make his way to Europe in the future to play, or stick close to home, he didn't limit himself. "ALL of what you just said," he laughed. "I definitely want to represent Canada sometime. And yeah, I'd love to go to Europe and travel and play with different people in different places, but no matter what, the end goal is always the NBA. Even if that doesn't happen though, I'm still gonna be playing basketball, the game that I love."
Fans, head over to YouTube if you want a closer look at the newest member of the Magic and stay tuned for a more extensive interview with Coach Salerno in the coming days where we discussed a wide-range of topics from the protected lists to who his son patterns his baseball game after. Happy Canada Day everyone!
Story by David Tingley
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National Basketball League of Canada Stories from July 3, 2018
- Getting to Know Gentrey Thomas - Moncton Magic
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