Sports

JT Thor left Alaska after one season of JV basketball at West High. Now he’s 18 and waiting to be picked in the NBA draft.

JT Thor turns 19 years old next month. He’s one of the youngest players in this year’s NBA Draft class, but he’s always been ahead of the curve.

He’s willing to do whatever it takes to accomplish his dream, whether it meant graduating from high school a year early to jump-start his college career or leaving Anchorage to live on his own at 14 so he could sharpen his game.

“I don’t want to live life knowing I could’ve gone harder,” Thor said.

Thor stands 6-foot-9, weighs 210 pounds and has an enormous 7-foot-3 wingspan. He spent last season as a freshman at Auburn University, and some projections make him a late first-round pick. Sixty players will be drafted, 30 in each of two rounds.

[2 players who grew up playing in Anchorage could go in Thursday’s NBA draft]

Before Thor could drive a car, he left his family in Anchorage and moved 4,000 miles to Huntington, West Virginia, to chase his dream of playing basketball and providing for his family.

Living on his own in a dorm room, Thor was homesick a lot that first year, but he also knew the level of competition he faced back home wasn’t going to get him where he wanted to go. He had made a sacrifice — not unlike the sacrifice his mother made 23 years earlier when she left Sudan, a nation ravaged by war at the time, and brought her family to the United States to seek a new opportunity.

She left everything behind and settled in Nebraska, where Thor was born, before moving to Alaska. After several years in Anchorage, the family moved to Atlanta.

“JT and his family, they are immigrants who came to this country for a better life,” Auburn University basketball coach Bruce Pearl said. “But the No. 1 thing was the work ethic. They followed the work. Whether it was Nebraska or Alaska or Seattle, they followed the work. Whether it was in the poultry industry or the high-tech industry, they followed the work.”

Thor grew up seeing that work ethic. It was instilled in him at an early age and has stayed with him every step of the way — from Anchorage to West Virginia to Atlanta and most recently to Auburn, where he averaged 9.4 points, 5.0 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game as a freshman.

“That’s what JT is all about,” said Thor’s brother, Jal Rial of Atlanta. “Him seeing how hard our mom worked. She’s never home. She’s working two, three jobs and still not seeing us have the best of everything.

“That’s what motivated him. That’s probably still what motivates him today. What he wasn’t good at, he took the hours to really do. Whether it was ball-handling, whether it was lifting weights, all that good stuff. I kind of put it all on my mom.”

Thor spent his freshman year of high school at West High, where he was on the junior varsity team. The next year he was at West Virginia’s Huntington Prep playing alongside numerous Division I prospects.

He realized he was no longer the best player on the court. So what did he do? He worked. He spent all his time in the gym or in the weight room, and if he wasn’t playing basketball, he was watching it, taking in everything he could.

When Thor got to Auburn last year, he didn’t jump right in and dominate. He earned a starting job out of the gate, but it took him a couple of games to adjust to the speed of the game, the different nuances, the new plays.

Again, Thor stayed the course. He never stopped working.

[When Golden State made Justinian Jessup the 51st pick in the NBA draft, Nome cheered]

A year ago, Thor wasn’t necessarily on the radar of NBA teams. His combination of size and skill and athleticism was rare, but he was still raw.

If there were any doubts about whether or not he could succeed at the next level, he all but erased those in February with his performance on the road at Kentucky.

Playing in one of the most storied venues in basketball against one of the marquee programs in college basketball, Thor put on a show. He was 8 of 11 from the field, including 5 of 6 from deep, and with 24 points and nine rebounds, he became the only freshman in the last decade to post that stat line in a road game at Rupp Arena.

“That’s why he’s one of my best NBA prospects because he has the ability to elevate his game,” Pearl said after the game. “You have 24 and nine as a freshman in Rupp? That’s pretty good.”

What Thor displayed in that game — the talent, the versatility, the confidence — it’s what has him shooting up teams’ draft boards. He’s worked out for numerous NBA teams over the last month and with every workout, his stock seems to rise.

“He’s got size, a real high-flyer,” ESPN analyst Jay Bilas said earlier this week. “The fact that he’s so athletic, he can get up and down the floor, he can guard, he can rebound, and he can even rebound the ball and take it himself — kind of rip and run. There is some upside there with him at the next level.”

Thor has worked hard for the chance to go pro, and he thinks he’s ready.

“If you ask me,” he said after a recent workout, “I think I’m a first-round talent.”

Greg Ostendorf is a senior writer for auburntigers.com.

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