Shaquille Thomas was once part of a rising tide of young talent at Paterson (N.J.) Catholic.Along with Fuquan Edwin, Jayon James and Jermaine Peart, Thomas was a member of a quartet that was supposed to have “Next.” The group was supposed to challenge St. Anthony and St. Patrick for supremacy in the New Jersey Non-Public B bracket…and ultimately the state. But a funny thing happened on the way to inevitability. Shaq’s uncle, Tim Thomas, now with the Dallas Mavericks, pulled the 6-foot-6 Thomas out of Paterson Catholic in 2008 and that set in motion a chain of events that has led Shaq where he is now. On Monday night, he will face his old teammates when his NIA Prep team meets Paterson Catholic — No. 6 in the USA Today’s Super 25 and No. 9 in the PrepNation.com poll — in the Freedom Fighters Hoop Challenge at Paterson Eastside. “There’s not really a lot of emotions and stuff,” Thomas said Sunday night by phone. “I’m just trying to go out there and play my regular game and play basketball. At the end of the day it’s still a regular game. I’m going to go out there and play my game and the best team wins.” Cougars coach Damon Wright, whose team is ranked in the USA Today poll for the first time since the 1993-94 season, when the 6-10 Tim Thomas (pictured courtesy NBA.com) was the star, admitted it will be somewhat strange seeing Shaq on the other side.“The PC family has always supported Shaq but [Monday] will be different. We are looking forward to playing well, winning tomorrow, shaking Shaq’s hand and getting prepared for the next game,” he said. Since leaving PC in October 2008, Thomas has attended three different schools in two states. He first landed at Montclair High School because he lives there with his grandmother, Dorothy Thomas. But because he would have had to sit a year before playing basketball, he transferred to Beckley (West Va.) Mountain State. But that experiment ended after last season and Thomas landed at NIA Prep in Newark, where Thomas, originally a member of the Class of 2010, is now a member of the Class of 2011. “It was a tough transition going to different schools, meeting different coaches, different lifestyles, but I think I adjusted pretty well,” Thomas said. NIA features eight potential Division 1 players and has enjoyed success this year, winning the Battle of the Bay prep school tournament in Tampa, Fla. Dec. 18-20. “I think it’s an upcoming program, especially next year,” Thomas said. “We definitely like the program and the workouts.” One of the main reasons Tim Thomas pulled his son out of PC was because he was worried about his academics. “That’s really my main focus with Shaq, getting him on pace where he has to be education-wise and letting the basketball take care of itself,” Tim told me in 2008. After some academic struggles at his previous stops, Shaq says he’s finally getting some one-on-one attention at NIA. “It’s a school for kids that mess up in school and had bad grades,” he said. “It’s definitely helping me because at other schools like Mountain State I could do work by myself but sometimes I needed help with it. Here everything is one-on-one. I can get help one-on-one, so it’s helping me a lot academically.”On the court, Thomas starts at small forward and is averaging 14 points, 7 rebounds and 3 assists. Rudy King, the former Bishop Loughlin head coach who is now a head coach and recruiting coordinator at NIA Prep, said Thomas, has a bright future. “Shaq Thomas is one of the most talented small forwards in the country and is getting better and better,” King said. “He can shoot the ball, handle the rock and fly like a bird around the rim and has the ability to defend guards and bigs. “Right now we’re working on his overall body development and getting him to become more fundamental to expand his game to new levels. “Next season he will be a national treasure that all the heavyweights will inquire about. He talks about playing in the big time conferences in the nation and we always tell him it takes true dedication on and off the court to make the transition mentally, not just depending on his natural talent.” Thomas was once on the brink of committing to Syracuse, but Tim Thomas told him to hold off until his academics were in order. Shaq now says his recruiting is wide open and he looks forward to impressing the coaches next summer on the AAU circuit. He says he’s still in touch with his former PC teammates. Edwin has signed with Seton Hall. James has committed to Fordham. Trevor Clemmings will play football at Pittsburgh. “I’m still cool with them to this day,” Thomas said. “We’re still all cool, we’re good friends.” When he looks at all the success Paterson Catholic is enjoying this year, does he regret leaving? “Yeah, but no,” he said. “Everything happened for a reason. It was meant to be. Everything happened for a reason.” HITTIN’ THE LINKS: **Great story by Kevin Armstrong in the NY Times about St. Pat’s guard Kevin Boyle, who doubles as a stand-up comic. (Photo courtesy NBE Basketball) Follow Adam Zagoria on Twitter.