COLLEGE HOOPS: Thomas van der Mars enjoying breakout season on The Bluff
The practice drill called for the Portland Pilots to split into two teams of six. Each team was at opposite ends of the court, with five players stationed about 10 feet apart just outside the 3-point arc and one player with an assistant coach under the basket to rebound.
The goal was to sink as many 3-pointers as possible in five minutes. Every 60 seconds, players rotated one spot to the left.
The problem was the Pilots have 13 players, so someone had to be left out.
That someone was Thomas van der Mars.
"Thomas, you go over there," Pilots coach Eric Reveno said. He had something better and more appropriate for the 6-11, 235-pound junior center to do. At a side basket, van der Mars bounced a ball off an elastic backstop near the top of the key and back to himself before wheeling in the lane and going into what has become his signature move a right-handed jump hook shot.
The Pilots don't want van der Mars to start launching shots from almost anywhere. They want him to concentrate on developing a low-post presence, because that's where they see him doing the most damage, mostly as a scorer, but also as a rebounder and a shot blocker.
Van der Mars led all scorers with 17 points in Sunday's 87-56 rout of Southern Utah at Chiles Center and became one of three UP players to score 100 or more points through the Pilots' first eight games. He didn't reach 100 points in scoring last season until game 16. So, the center from Gouda, Netherlands has basically doubled his offensive output from a year ago, a major reason the Pilots are 5-3 heading into Saturday's 7 p.m. game against Portland State at Stott Center.
"Thomas is really kind of blossoming," Reveno said. "I mean, he played against some really high-level competition at Oregon State and Michigan State and he held his own. And now if we execute properly and get Thomas the ball in the right spots, teams are going to have to decide how they want to defend that.
"He's not the kind of guy that you can just give the ball to him anywhere on the floor and let him create for himself. But you get the ball to him in the right spot, he does his job real well."
Against Columbia, van der Mars hit his first seven shots from the field most of them hook shots and finished with a team-high 14 points on 7-for-8 shooting to pace the Pilots to a 69-52 victory.
The one miss? Also an attempted jump hook.
"When he came off, I told him why he missed the last one because he pivoted too fast," Reveno said. "He sort of smiled at me like, 'You don't ever let up, do you?' "
No, he doesn't, but van der Mars doesn't mind listening to anything from Reveno that is going to make him better.
"There's stuff that I can always improve," van der Mars said after a recent practice. "If you're every satisfied with where you're at, you might as well stop.
"I still don't like where I am for instance, finishing with contact. I still need to do a better job of that. But I think I have to put my game in context with the entire team. I think I understand my role really well now. I think I have a really good relationship with our coaches, in terms of trying to figure out how to help the team in the best way. I really want us to be good as a team. That's what I'm trying to do."
Since Reveno took over the men's basketball program in 2006, the Pilots have been aggressive in going outside the U.S. borders, drawing players from Canada (Jasonn Hannibal, Nemanja Mitrovic and Riley Barker), Germany (Robin Smeulders), Japan (Taishi Ito), Latvia (Oskars Reinfelds), Netherlands (van der Mars), Spain (Aitor Zubizarreta) and Ukraine (Volodymyr Gerun).
Some of the imports have been more successful than others, but the return on investment in foreign prospects has generally been more positive than negative for the Pilots, especially with regard to big men.
"Take a big guy like Thomas," Reveno said. "If he were in Seattle, he might get recruited at a level where it might be tougher for us to get involved. You look at some of the centers that are starting in the Pac-12 today, and Thomas is a guy that by the time he's a senior, there's not a team on the West Coast that wouldn't like to have him."
It helps, too, that a number of former UP players, including Nik Raivio, Luke Sikma, and Smeulders, have enjoyed recent success playing in Europe, adding to the Pilots' reputation overseas.
Said Reveno: "We've gotten some referrals and contacts that way, where someone has said, 'Hey, coach, you should look at this guy.'"
The Pilots found van der Mars at the Canarias Basketball Academy, a college preparatory school in Spain's Canary Islands that is run by Rob Orellana and specializes in skills development. The academy has turned out a number of high-profile prospects, including Joel Freeland of the Trail Blazers, UCLA's Wanaah Bail, Florida State's Boris Bojanovsky, LSU's Shane Hammik and Seton Hall's Tom Maayam.
Van der Mars met with several Division I coaches while at the academy, many with similar sale pitches: "We think you'd be a good fit for our program," and "We think you could make an immediate impact with our team."
Then there was Reveno, who pushed his basketball program as well as the academic opportunity and UP's close-knit, community atmosphere factors that have helped place Portland among the top-rated regional universities on the West Coast.
Van der Mars said his classroom experience has exceeded almost all of the expectations he had before he arrived.
"It's unlike anything we do in Europe, because school and sports are integrated," said Van der Mars, who is pursuing a business degree in operations and technology management. "All of the professors are very willing to work with all of the student-athletes.
"They understand what you're going through, and they come to the games. They see. They know who you are. They like to know how you're doing, and they have a vested interest in your performance as a student and as an athlete."
"I think UP is a very unique place, period," said van der Mars, who interned last summer at Nike's global supply chain department. "Some of my better friends on campus are also professors, which is very unique. And the small class sizes here I've talked to other players that have made the jump from Europe to other Division I programs, and they're talking about sitting in classes with 500 people and being just a number.
"I really like it here."
On the court, van der Mars has emerged as the early-season favorite for Most Improved Pilot from the 2012-13 season. In eight games, he's averaging 12.5 points and 5.9 rebounds in 23.8 minutes, and he's shooting a team-best 60.7 percent (37 for 61) from the field.
Again, much of van der Mars' success is directly connected to the proficiency with which he is knocking down jump hook shots.
"Something Coach Rev always says, the game is about preparation and having confidence in what you do," van der Mars said. "Because I do that move so much, I think I have a lot of confidence in that shot."
Added Reveno: "When Thomas first got here, it was all about getting that one go-to move that could be the cornerstone of his low-post offense. With every low-post player, you want that cornerstone move that the defense has to do something about. Then it makes your whole game easier, because then, as Pete Newell used to say, it becomes a game of counters."
When defenders have denied van der Mars the low block or overplayed his right hand, one of his countermoves is to pivot the opposite direction and shoot a left-handed hook shot. He shoots it well, too, often with the same rhythm, finesse, and accuracy that he displays with his right hand.
"I started working on my left when I got to CBA in Spain with my position coach, Avydas Straupis," van der Mars said. "His theory was that if you work to improve your left hand, it will improve your right hand as well. When I got here, I kind of went back to where I was comfortable and just focused on my right. Then this last summer, I went outside my comfort zone and started working on my left to see how that would work.
"You should have seen me the first couple of practices. I was all over the place. Now, I try to mix it up and give defenders a different look, but it's really all about trying to get the highest percentage shot for our entire team."
Interestingly, the official statistics show that in 71 games for the Pilots, van der Mars has made 231 of 420 shots (55.0 percent) from the field, including 0 for 1 from 3-point range.
Van der Mars has never attempted a 3-point shot in a game.
The scoring error occurred in Portland's 78-76 victory at San Francisco last season when van der Mars was credited with a missed 3-pointer with 1:24 remaining a shot that was taken by San Francisco's Avry Holmes, No. 12 of the home team, and not van der Mars, No. 12 of the visiting team.
The Pilots are working to fix the mistake.
Can Reveno imagine a situation where van der Mars might shoot a 3?
"He's not a bad shooter, as you can tell by his free throws," Reveno said. "He's got a nice, clean shot, but he's a good reminder of the value of doing what you're supposed to do really well, instead of being a jack of all trades and master of none. I'll put his jump hook up against anybody's. You get him in the right position with his feet down and where he gets a good, strong pivot, you're surprised when he misses.
"So, you don't need your center shooting 3s. I can find 6-foot-3 guys to do that."