MILWAUKEE (AP) â€” Above all else, Tim Thomas is a basketball junkie. The Milwaukee Bucks forward is a rabid fan of the game he plays.
So at every spare moment in March, in hotel rooms on the endlessly boring days before Bucks road games, he was glued to the television, even skipping his daily ritual of video games to watch college teams play for the national championship.
``I wonder how many points I'd be averaging,'' he thought to himself. ``I bet it would be sick.''
Had the 23-year-old Thomas not left Villanova after his freshman season in 1997, he would have been a senior this spring. He might have been playing in the NCAA tournament instead of watching it â€” and wondering what might have been.
``I was so mad,'' Thomas said. ``I thought about all the things I missed. I missed a lot.''
Instead, Thomas was struggling through a third NBA season as one of the dozens of young players who grew up too early in the 1990s. Although Thomas is now an important member of the Bucks, just 1 1/2 years earlier the 76ers had given up on him and traded him to Milwaukee.
``I always believed in myself,'' he said. ``It was tough in Philadelphia, and I wondered about it, but now I feel like I'm one of the lucky ones.''
Thomas, Milwaukee's sixth man this season, played a pivotal role in the Bucks' success in the season's final 15 games, when they slipped into the playoffs against the Indiana Pacers.
He also led the Bucks to victory in their Game 2 upset of the Pacers in Indianapolis, scoring 19 points.
But his late-season surge came only after a third straight season of inconsistency.
Instead of learning to play the game in college, he learned it with the 76ers and the Bucks. Looking back, Thomas won't say whether he would do it all over.
``It doesn't do any good to look back,'' Thomas said. ``You've got to look forward.''
He's not alone. On the Pacers' bench are Jonathan Bender and Al Harrington, two talented youngsters who might have been starring in the NCAA tournament but are instead watching the NBA playoffs from the best seats in the house.
For every successful teen-age phenom like Kobe Bryant, there are dozens more like Korleone Young, the Wichita, Kan., star who skipped college to enter the NBA draft in 1998. After one bad season with Detroit, he was cut by Philadelphia and ended up riding buses in the IBL this season.
``People talk about the lack of leadership and character in the NBA now, and I think a lot of that is because a lot of these young players in the league have never been captains,'' said Utah coach Rick Majerus, in Milwaukee to help the Bucks prepare for the playoffs. ``They don't know how to be leaders.''
Majerus' three best players of the 1990s â€” Keith Van Horn, Michael Doleac and Andre Miller â€” all stayed at Utah through their senior seasons and served as leaders on one of the nation's best college teams. All three are now successful pros. It's no coincidence, Majerus said.
Everything happened much more quickly for Thomas, who went from being perhaps the nation's most hotly pursued prep star in 1996 to Villanova, where he had one disappointing season.
He played poorly with the 76ers and was struggling in Milwaukee as recently as February, when most people thought he made a huge mistake by turning down a big-money contract extension from Bucks GM Ernie Grunfeld before the season.
But all that changed as Thomas' play picked up in the season's final games. In fact, Thomas scored three straight pressure-packed baskets in the final minutes of Milwaukee's 85-83 win over Orlando on April 17, a victory that clinched the playoff spot.
``There is some pressure on him because he's almost the pulse of our team,'' Bucks coach George Karl said. ``If he plays well, we play well. If he plays poorly, we have a tendency to play poorly.''
Although he's a lanky 6-foot-10, 230 pounds, Thomas is a jump-shooter who drives to the basket infrequently and doesn't yet weigh enough to post up against most other players his height.
Thomas thinks his future lies in Milwaukee. He loves playing for Karl in the modest media spotlight in Wisconsin, and he's now good friends with his teammates, from Ray Allen to Vinny Del Negro. His 23rd birthday party in February was the social event of the season, with nearly every Milwaukee player attending.
Still, Thomas surprised many by turning down that four-year, $24 million contract extension.
He wants the security of a six-year commitment from the Bucks, a luxury that most early entry NBA players never get. He becomes a free agent on July 1, although Milwaukee can pay him more money than any other team.
After three years of uncertainty, Thomas is looking forward to a little stability â€” and a chance to really grow up.
``My future is going to be great,'' Thomas said. ``I think I've been through the hard part.''