When Tyrus Thomas made his Charlotte Bobcats debut in February 2010, I saw a player the Chicago Bulls should have been reluctant to give up, even for the first-round pick they got in return.
Thomas wasn't a classic low-post scorer and never was going to be. He was a 6-foot-10 sprinter and high-flyer. He rebounded and blocked shots. He got so high when he dunked that you could feel the basket vibrate through your TV. In his Bobcats debut, he had 12 rebounds and blocked six shots.
Thomas would have been free at the end of that season and had a few potential suitors. The Bobcats kept them away by signing him to a five-year, $40 million contract.
The contract is among the worst moves the Bobcats have made. The investment turned out to be as bad as Charles Barkley is funny or Shaquille O'Neal is big.
The contract will run three seasons after this one and Thomas will average $8.7 million.
Don't blame him. Blame his employer. Charlotte owes him more money than it owes any player on the roster.
President of basketball operations Rod Higgins told the Observer that when the Bobcats traded for Thomas they were preparing for the playoffs.
He wouldn't call the contract a mistake. He acknowledged Thomas has not been as effective this season as he has in the past.
Against Indiana at Time Warner Cable Arena on Wednesday, Thomas played 15 minutes, took eight field-goal attempts and made two. He grabbed five rebounds, three of them offensive. He blocked three shots, scored four points and was called for five fouls.
What would you call his performance?
I'd call it a breakthrough. In his previous four games Thomas scored four points and grabbed one rebound.
A reporter asked Thomas for an interview after practice Tuesday and he walked past him without pausing.
Thomas already was in the hallway with friends and family after the Indiana loss when the media was admitted to the locker room.
I asked if he had a minute and he slapped my hand and called me chief, which is what former Bobcat Stephen Jackson occasionally called reporters. He was courteous despite making his group wait.
I asked if he's having the season he envisioned. He said he was not.
I asked what's wrong.
"You probably know as much as I do, maybe more," Thomas said. "You watch us."
I know that last season he averaged 10.2 points, 5.5 rebounds and 1.6 blocks, and shot 47.1 percent from the field.
I know that this season he averages six points, 4.5 rebounds and 1.6 blocks, shoots 34.9 percent and does not start for the NBA's worst team. He splits time with D.J. White at reserve power forward. They back up Boris Diaw.
Thomas is underweight. But there's something more. He no longer flies high. He went up for a dunk and Indiana's Lou Amundson stuffed him. The real Tyrus Thomas never would have that shock blocked.
I asked again: Why aren't you more effective?
Thomas said again that he didn't know.
Is he lost?
"No, I don't think so, not at all," said Charlotte coach Paul Silas.
Added Silas: "He and I talked. And I told him exactly what I wanted: defense; rebounding; blocked shots; shoot open shots. Because for a while he was turning down open shots. And now he's started shooting those again. So it's just a matter of him getting to what we need and doing that and he'll be fine."
Thomas, who left Louisiana State after his freshman year, was the fourth player selected in the 2006 draft. He went one spot in front of Duke's Shelden Williams and one spot behind Gonzaga's Adam Morrison, who was drafted by and briefly played for the Bobcats.
Is Thomas a candidate for amnesty? A clause in the new collective-bargaining agreement entitles a team to release a player and clear his salary so it no longer would count against the cap. But the team still has to pay him.
Charlotte would owe Thomas $26.1 million. And they'd still owe Chicago a first-round pick (which is protected for this season because the Bobcats will miss the playoffs but eventually will have to be paid) for a player no longer on the roster.
Thomas is frustrating to watch because I've seen what he can do. There was a healthy disdain to his game.
I could write that Thomas is rich and lazy and doesn't care.
But the dry-erase board on the wall outside Charlotte's locker room suggests otherwise. There are notations next to the names of players representing types of workouts - and Thomas has as many as any Bobcat. Strength and conditioning coach Matt Friia stood there, marker in hand, after the Indiana game.
"Tyrus is one of the hardest workers on the team," said Friia. "He's getting stronger and is putting on some weight. He's had some knee soreness so we're trying to keep his legs stronger and keep his soreness away."
Thomas tore the meniscus in his left knee last season and missed 24 games. He returned in March but sat out the final nine games because the knee was sore.
Friia said that the less Thomas plays the more cardio he wants to do so he'll be prepared when Silas calls his name.
"If he says he's going to be here, he's going to be here," Friia said about the training room. "Even if we don't talk about it he's going to be here. And then when he comes he does everything I ask."
The Bobcats don't play again until Wednesday. The All-Star break is a vacation, and a vacation can invigorate.
Will the second half be better for him?
"I don't know," said Thomas. "I don't have a crystal ball."
He didn't say this dismissively or sarcastically. He genuinely appears not to know.