Watching the Howard Pulley Panthers this weekend in Maple Grove you might notice a 6-foot-9 former Gophers player in the crowd cheering on Jarvis Thomas.

Thomas, an explosive junior forward at Orono High School, got cut from a team at 13 years old. He couldn’t dunk as a 6-foot-3 eighth grader when he first met Jonathan Williams, who played for the Gophers from 2005-09. He thought about quitting the sport to focus on football. 

But after Williams started working with him over summers in St. Paul, it wasn’t long before he played with more confidence and eventually played above the rim, too.

"He's been a great influence," Thomas said. "He's kind of what got me started in this whole thing. Coach Jon wouldn't let me quit. He just kept working with me. We always did workouts -- and the rest is history."

Thomas is one of the fastest rising prospects not just in Minnesota but the entire country in the 2018 class. Videos of him soaring and slamming alley-oops and putbacks have been all over social media this spring from his AAU season.

“I thought he had a lot of potential,” Williams said. “Over time, he’s developed into a hell of a basketball player. It’s all deserving of him. He’s a rebounder, shot blocker and a junkyard dog. With his athleticism running the floor and being that work horse – you can get endless things out of him.”

Thomas and the Panthers, who have won 17 straight victories, host the Pulley Invitational on Friday through Sunday with 15, 16 and 17s teams playing at Maple Grove Community Gym.

The Gophers haven’t offered Thomas a scholarship yet, but they’ve shown more interest lately. So have schools like Xavier, Butler, Florida, Michigan and Michigan State, he says. It likely won’t be long before his major conference offers list expands from Pittsburgh and Texas A&M at this point.

Within the last year, Thomas has grown nearly two inches from 6-6 to about 6-8 and 220 pounds. He’s playing in the Nike Elite Youth Basketball League (EYBL) for the first time. But he’s fit right in with new teammates, including Apple Valley star point guard Tre Jones, DeLaSalle three-point ace Gabe Kalscheur and Cretin-Derham Hall big man Daniel Oturu, a Gophers commit.

Thomas is averaging 7.8 points and 6.3 rebounds per game for Pulley, which has already qualified for the Peach Jam championships with an 11-1 record.

"I didn't think it would be how it is; it's crazy how well we play together," Thomas said. "They got didn't exclude me at all, got me in the mix. Got me doing what I like. I like to run the floor. That's what we do."

Oturu and Thomas make for one of the most athletic frontcourts in the EYBL. They both excel at blocking shots, rebounding, running the floor and finishing strong at the rim. Oturu is trying to get Jones and Kalscheur to join him at the U. Thomas said he hears it, too. He tries not to focus on if Minnesota will offer him.

"Daniel definitely is on me about that," Thomas said. "(Gophers assistant coach) Ben Johnson called me the other day and asked me if I want to come up to see their new facility. We just have to figure out a date. … It’s the home state, I try not to let it affect me. If the offer comes then it comes. I would evaluate it just like I would any other school." 

Football is still a priority. He’ll play wide receiver again his senior year at Orono -- and decide after that if it's possible to play two sports in college. But the game he once thought didn’t suit him at all is now where he sees his brightest future. That's thanks to Williams and hard work.

“(Since the eighth grade) he’s been working out in the gym with me two to three times a week,” Williams said. “Things just started to click for him. He’s young (16). He doesn’t have a lot of basketball experience. So where he’s at right now, I saw it coming. It’s all starting to make sense for him.”