The X-man looks to be the X-factor for the Aztecs

by Antonio Morales

When former San Diego State point guard Richie Williams graduated two years ago, the succession plan was already known.

D.J. Gay was set to step in for Williams as soon as the four-year starter finished up his career at SDSU.

Now that a four-year starter, Gay, has graduated, it’s time for someone new to step in and fill the point guard shoes of Gay and Williams.

This successor might be unfamiliar to fans, but they’ll become familiar with sophomore guard Xavier Thames soon enough.

Thames took the road less traveled to arrive on Montezuma Mesa.

The sophomore, from Sacramento, was a top-20 point guard in the country when he was at Pleasant Grove High and elected to go to Washington State right out of high school in 2009.

But a year later, Thames decided it was time to move on from WSU and began looking for a change of scenery.

As soon as he met the SDSU coaching staff, his heart was set on becoming an Aztec.

“Mainly, the coaching staff,” Thames said, when explaining the reason he decided to attend SDSU. “I felt a good connection with Coach Fisher, Little Fisher (assistant coach Mark Fisher), Coach Dutcher, even when Coach Hutson (now at UNLV) was here I felt a good connection with them and the players as well. They really took me in and took care of me on my visit. Those are the two main reasons I came here.”

It’s no surprise Thames decided to come to SDSU, the school has had success with transfers in the past. James Rahon, Malcolm Thomas, Lorenzo Wade and Tony Bland are some notable transfers in recent Aztec history.

But like most transfers, Thames had to sit out a season because of NCAA transfer rules.

While he was able to practice and be a part of the team last season during the Sweet-16 run, when it came to game time, Thames had to watch from the bench.

Competitive athletes, like Thames, want to play all the time, so the sophomore is ready to step onto the court to make an impact this season.

“I’m real anxious to get out there and play with the guys,” Thames said. “I had a whole year off and I’ve never taken a year off in any sport since I was little, so I’m really anxious to get out there and play.”

Thames imitated the likes of Kemba Walker and Jimmer Fredette while on the scout team last season, but also learned during his year off.

He had the luxury of watching one of the steadiest point guards in the nation as he observed former team captain Gay, who hit a number of big shots and controlled the flow of the Aztec offense.

Thames said he gained a lot by being around Gay.

“I learned a lot from D.J. last year; I talked to him a lot,” he said. “I learned the defensive schemes, coming off of pick-and-rolls and different things like that. He would teach me a lot, so it helped a lot last year.”

Now that Gay is gone, its Thames’ time to shine as SDSU’s point guard.

Although Thames practiced with the team last season, he still needed to develop chemistry with the team. He’s doing so on and off the court.

“I’ve gotten used to playing with Chase and everybody,” Thames said. “It’s a family atmosphere out here, everybody gets along and we all go out together.”

While building a more personal relationship with his team, Thames also developed his game.

Before the first practice of the preseason, head coach Steve Fisher said Thames was significantly better this year than he was a year ago.

According to Thames, he went to the gym twice a day to lift and work on his three-point shot during the summer.

“He would be here early and stay late,” Fisher said. “He worked on ball skills. You would see him pounding two balls, getting with a coach working on seeing the floor, thinking like a point guard. He worked on his game, he really did.”

Thames learned a lot in the last year and was taught many things by coaches and players alike.

But one thing you can’t teach is size. Thames stands at 6 feet 3 inches, 195 pounds. That’s vastly different from Gay and Williams, who were both shorter than 6 feet, even though Gay was listed at a generous 6 feet tall.

Thames’ height will give the Aztecs an added dimension this season.

“He brings more size to the point-guard position and that’s a huge luxury,” Fisher said. “He can get into traffic and find people a little easier. He’ll be able to guard three-different positions while still being our point guard.”

As a bigger point guard, it’s fitting that Thames patterns his playing style after one of the biggest point guards in the NBA.

“I like Deron Williams,” he said. “I watch him a lot and Chris Paul. I like the way they work off the pick-and-roll. So those are the two main guys I watch a lot.”

Some people think Thames may be more of a combo guard than a true point guard.

Fisher dismissed that notion rather quickly.

“He can play off the ball,” Fisher said. “But he’s a point guard. He’s worked very hard with his ball skills and everything that goes into leading a team with the ball. He’s a good leader.”

Fisher holds Thames in high regard, as does the media. Thames was tabbed as the Mountain West Conference Preseason Newcomer of The Year by the media last month.

The newcomer label suits Thames well, because many Aztec fans have never really seen him play before.

Thames said the fans should expect him to give everything he has on the court.

“Playing hard each and every possession like it’s my last,” Thames said. “I like playing defense, I like my midrange shot, just going out there, having fun and getting my teammates involved.”

Individual accolades aside, Thames has one focus this year: winning.

“For the team, just trying to win another Mountain West Conference Championship and go to the tournament, those are the two main goals,” Thames said.