Jalen Thomas is in the midst of a stellar run for the Panthers ahead of their most important games

Jalen Thomas and the GSU Men's Basketball team walk towards the bench during a commercial timeout. Photo by Matt Siciliano-Salazar | The Signal

The Georgia State Panthers rallied off one of the most outstanding stretches in program history, even if they didn’t always know when they would play next. Following a 14-5 regular season, the team will play the Arkansas State Red Wolves in tomorrow’s quarterfinals.

It will be the first time the Panthers play since their 82-73 win over the South Alabama Jaguars last Saturday.

The fans and the team itself have seen several players shine this season. But none can compare to the improvement Jalen Thomas continues to make.

Looking at his stats, one could point to his four-point increase in scoring and similar efficiency. Entering the season, Thomas knew he would need to work with Eliel Nsoseme, a potential Sun Belt All-Conference name.

Yet, the two have blended well on the court. But off the court, their relationship may have concocted their impressive run this year. 

Critics could talk about his push shot or his solid interior defense or even look at his increased minutes. 

But one would only fool themselves by not tipping their cap to Thomas’s sophomore campaign. The Panthers recorded one of their best starts in school history at 14-5, and Thomas credits more than just himself for the success.

“I’ve just learned from last year that we can’t be selfish. We have to stick together, especially when adversity hits us in games,” Thomas said. “I definitely see that a lot more in this year’s team, which is why we’ve been able to pull out the last six games.”

The Panthers are outscoring opponents by nine points during their six-game win streak, their best stretch by far during an inconsistent season. Deep in the paint, Thomas is playing his best basketball of the season, averaging 15 points and seven rebounds on 64% shooting from the field.

But the most significant number to know: 14 of his 17 free throws this season also came in those six wins. He’s become more aggressive and involved on both ends of the floor and owes it to Eliel Nsoseme, who Thomas believes will “definitely be on one of the All-Sun Belt Teams.”

“Each and every game, he always comes to me before the game, and he knows what I have to do, and he tells me they’re going to need me this game,” Thomas said. “He tells me I need to play hard, and he always tries to guide me in the right direction.”

The two front starters’ playstyles share an uncanny resemblance: stay in the look for second-chance opportunities and provide an inside presence on the defense. 

Nsoseme uses his strength to get to the basket. Thomas uses a variety of shot-types to score. His preferred weapon is his push shot, an emerging mainstream skill for the modern big, including NBA MVP candidate Joel Embiid, a favorite player of Thomas’. 

“That’s just part of my game naturally, is having that touch around the basket. That’s my favorite shot, little floaters and push-shot around the basket,” Thomas said. “It’s not like I work on that in the gym or anything; it just comes naturally. Those are the types of shots I like to take.”

Much like Embiid, Thomas is playing on a new level this season. While he may not have Embiid’s stature––not many ever will––Thomas has gained newfound confidence through his coaching staff.

“They’ve really been expecting me to play like that the last month or so. They just always tell me to play harder, play more aggressively,” Thomas said. “Just be that type of guy that brings it all on the court and gives that 100% energy.”

Last season, Thomas averaged less than six points in 32 games. This season, he’s nearly double his scoring at 10.5 on increased efficiency. As he prepares for his first game as a top-seed in the Sun Belt Conference Tournament, Thomas and the Panthers know what’s at stake.

The last few games, we’ve been able to pull out wins, and we’re starting to come into our own as a team,” Thomas said. “I think we’re playing the best basketball we’ve had all year. 

It’s not only the best they’ve played all season, but it’s how they’ve thrived; it’s how Thomas has stopped up his game. After last season’s disappointing losses to Georgia Southern, the Panthers left the GSU Sports Arena crowd devastated and shocked a year ago.

This season, and this tournament, look to provide a new experience from last season. After the Eagles beat them twice in less than two weeks, including a 19-point loss in the conference tournament, Thomas enjoyed every moment of his deserving success.

“I think those last two games we were just struggling battling it out, just doing the best we can. I don’t think those last few games we had fun as a team last year,” Thomas said. “The last few games, and this winning streak we’ve been on, we’ve been having a lot of fun on the court. I think this is the most fun I’ve had on the court since I’ve been here.”