How LSU star Cameron Thomas’ mom helped him be all he can be — •

LOS ANGELES – It’s commonplace for NBA draft picks to thank their mothers for their love and support on draft night. But when former LSU star Cameron Thomas gets selected in the upcoming draft, he can also thank his mother for the mentality and work ethic she instilled in him on the court.

Thomas enters the 2021 NBA draft as one of the best scorers in his class. The 6-foot-4 shooting guard led the SEC in scoring as a true freshman last season with 23 points per game. And the driving force behind the projected first-round pick is his mother, Army veteran Leslie Thomas.

“My mom has instilled work ethic, discipline. Being in the military, she preaches discipline all the time,” Thomas told •.

Leslie Thomas played middle school and high school basketball in Virginia. She said she joined the Army in 1990 and spent four years stationed at Fort Jackson, South Carolina; Daegu, South Korea; and Fort Riley, Kansas. She left the Army at the rank of E4 to take care of her oldest daughter, Shaniece Collins. In 2001, Cameron Thomas was born.

“The Army teaches you discipline. It teaches you to be on time. And I took pride in that,” said Leslie Thomas, who raised her children as a single parent. “I’ve always told Cameron when he was young, ‘Get there. I’d rather for you to be there early than be running late.’ I just don’t like tardiness. ‘Get there so you can mentally prepare.’ And I just instilled that in him ever since he was young. And I’m happy that he still continues that.

“In the military, it’s structure. And I think when you have structure in your life, you have focus. And routine is very important.”

Thomas has taken his mother’s instruction to heart. He says he always wakes up early, shows up to appointments early and keeps a daily routine. He also has a serious demeanor on the court and does not engage in trash talk.

“You’re going to be in a different mindset, cool, cordial. But on the court, I’m not looking at that,” Thomas said. “That’s why I’m so serious, because my team needs a win and I’m doing whatever it takes to get a win. So, my emotion is very stale and even-keeled the whole game.”

Thomas said he began falling in love with basketball at 2 years old. He had a Nerf hoop, enjoyed watching his sister play and was fascinated by basketball great Kobe Bryant growing up. Leslie Thomas said she noticed her son’s passion for basketball when he was about 10 and playing well against older kids. While she tried basketball trainers, she opted to take the primary role in his training by taking him to South Norfolk Community Center in Chesapeake, Virginia, to work on shooting and fundamentals, sometimes twice a day.

Likely first-round NBA draft pick Cam Thomas (right) developed a strong work ethic from his mother, Leslie (left).

Dale MacMillan

“He would go shoot, I’d get his rebounds,” Leslie Thomas said. “And it’s strange because whenever we went, I was the only mother, the only parent in the gym. You would think he would be embarrassed, but no, some of the other kids would come over there and watch. And I would just go get his rebounds.

“Who else is there? I was like, ‘I’ll do it, Cam.’ I played and I was around my daughter’s games. And so we went in there, start getting the rebounds and it was fun. It was exercise for me and it was a way that I could get close to Cam.”

Thomas embraced his mom’s basketball coaching. It still rings in his head that she didn’t want him to miss free throws and always said, “Free throws are free.” She also wouldn’t let him implement a new move in a game until he perfected it by making shots 10 times in a row. And she instilled in her son the mindset that scoring is the name of the game.

“My mom really gave me the backing and support to take it to the next level, and be who I am today,” Thomas said. “She was just helping me, teaching me the fundamentals of the game.”

The mother-son teamwork paid off as Thomas went on to be the all-time leading scorer at basketball powerhouse Oak Hill Academy, surpassing the likes of future NBA stars Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony. Thomas was ranked as the 23rd-best high school prospect in the country in the Class of 2020 and signed to play for head coach Will Wade at LSU.

One reason Thomas chose to play for the Tigers was because Wade recruited his mother as hard as he recruited him. Wade told • he doesn’t know if he’s ever tried harder to be on time than when meeting with Thomas and his mom.

“She wants that thing to run like the military,” Wade said. “You’d better be five minutes early, and everybody better be on point. It’s rubbed off on Cam. That’s how his daily discipline is. That’s how his daily routine is. It became very apparent talking to her that she’s very detail-oriented, that she wants things done exactly how they said they’re going to be done. I think those are great qualities to have.”

While many kids want to get away from their parents when they go to college, Thomas was glad his mom moved to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, during his lone season at LSU. He lived on campus but often visited his mother at her apartment to talk and watch basketball while eating home-cooked meals. Leslie Thomas attended all the Tigers’ home games.

“My mom saved up and rented an apartment down there and really stayed on top of me, and made sure I got everything I needed. So it was just amazing to have my mom by my side,” Thomas said.

Thomas led LSU and all Division I freshmen in scoring during the 2020-21 season. In two NCAA tournament games, the 2021 All-SEC first-team selection scored 27 points in a victory over St. Bonaventure and 30 points in a loss to Michigan.

Cameron Thomas showed off his scoring skills during the NCAA tournament.

Aaron Doster/USA TODAY Sports

But the game that stands out for Wade was when Thomas scored 29 points on an injured ankle during an 86-80 win at Missouri on March 6.

“You don’t know that [toughness] when you recruit somebody,” Wade said. “You don’t know what’s inside of them. … You don’t know that drive, that discipline that they have every day. That was impressive to me as anything that he did on the court.

“When he scored 25 points, he came back the next day and was the exact same guy in practice. When he scored 16 or 18 points, which didn’t happen much, he came back and was the same guy, and stuck to that routine, and stuck to what he did. To me, that’s what bodes well for future success.”

Thomas said he finalized his decision to go to the NBA after the Michigan game and he applied for the NBA draft on April 15 by signing with CAA agents Erika Ruiz and Michael Tellem. An NBA scout said Thomas has the potential to be a Vinnie Johnson-Lou Williams-Jamal Crawford-type of scorer in the league.

Wade says Leslie Thomas never got in the way of his coaching and backed anything he wanted from her son.

“To me, it’s a tremendous, tremendous resource,” Wade said. “It’s a tremendous advantage for Cam that they have that relationship. It’s a big advantage for any organization that you’ve got a talented, talented player, and you’ve got somebody that is going to be hard on that player, is going to tell them the truth, and is going to help you with your message and help you move things forward.

“Now, you’ve got to get her trust. Once she trusts you, she’s going to believe in you, and she’s going to let you work as hard as you can with Cam. There was times he was doing two extra workouts a day. She was saying, ‘Coach, we need more. We need more. We need more.’ ”

Thomas and his mother have watched several NBA drafts together. This year, they will watch it together from the green room at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York. And when NBA commissioner Adam Silver announces Thomas’ name, there will be a lot of emotion.

“I love my son so much,” Leslie Thomas said. “This is his dream. This is his journey. It’s starting to hit me. I feel overwhelmed because sometimes I’m like, ‘Is this really? Oh, my goodness.’ His dream is going to come true.”

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for •. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.

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