When the news was announced that Kyrie Irving would be away from the Nets for the foreseeable future because of his resistance to the COVID-19 vaccine, the logical next question was how would the Nets replace his impact? And truthfully, just shy of 27 points per game on 50/40/90 mega-efficiency is, as the song that ruled my childhood goes, irreplaceable.
The natural next step would be to simply insert Kyrie Irving’s backup in his place. But Patty Mills is best used as an off-ball dynamo; he’s not your typical “hand over the offense” type of lead guard, running the pick-and-roll at a very average rate of 0.86 points per possession, which sits in the 52nd percentile. Jevon Carter did not exactly thrive after being thrust into the driver seat during Brooklyn’s first preseason game against the Los Angeles Lakers.
That leaves us with rookie sensation, Cam Thomas, who has already captured the hearts of Nets Nation with a plethora of shots worthy of Sam Cassell celebration. On the outside looking in, Thomas is the natural heir to Irving’s shoot-first (and sometimes second) mentality.
But there is a great deal separating these two players, duh, cold take alert, and seven All-Star selections is a great place to start. So this isn’t to suggest that Thomas can just straight-up become a 1-for-1 replacement for an all-time shotmaker. In fact, projecting ahead, at best Thomas could set nylons ablaze in 12-to-15 minutes per game while sharing the floor with one of Brooklyn’s stars to simplify his decision-making.
It appears I’m not alone in that thinking. Preseason takeaways are fickle, if not foolish, but after Thomas’ dynamic shotmaking in what was basically competitive garbage time of Brooklyn’s second preseason game versus the Milwaukee Bucks, the newly 20-year-old guard was Steve Nash’s eighth substitute off the bench in the very next game against the Philadelphia 76ers alongside Paul Millsap — ahead of the likes of DeAndre’ Bembry, Jevon Carter, and James Johnson. Then, after Thomas’ second stint from the 2:48 mark in the third quarter to the 5:31 mark in the fourth quarter in Philadelphia, Cam was again subbed out in tandem with Paul Millsap, a player who assuredly is looked at as an integral part of Brooklyn’s rotation this season.
What I’m saying is Cam Thomas is already getting substituted in-and-out of preseason games like a low-end rotation player. Does this mean anything? Probably not; preseason is typically pretty meaningless (see: Taurean Prince’s 2019-2020 exhibition numbers). But there is that very small chance that we could be getting a glimpse into Steve Nash’s planned substitution patterns with the electric LSU product. In 20 total minutes of play in his last two games, we got a pretty good appetizer for what Killa Cam brings to the table.
A great place to start is Cam’s backbreaking three against the Milwaukee Bucks. The between-the-legs dribble into a hesitation move (sometimes known as a “tween hesi”) is one thing, but what I noticed is that Thomas specifically called Nicolas Claxton into the play to set a screen, thereby switching Jordan Nwora, Milwaukee’s leading scorer at 30 points, onto him before splashing the pull-up three. That’s who Cam is. He’s a killer. He wants to expose the other team’s best player. He takes these matchups personally.
That shatterproof confidence can sometimes get Cam into dangerous territory. How dangerous, you may ask? Well, looking off the Nets’ franchise player, better yet, the best player in the world to take a closely contested pull-up three with 19 seconds on the shot clock is, well, audacious stuff from the young gun.
(It should be noted, Thomas was immediately yanked from the game after hoisting this one up.)
Personally, I haven’t found Thomas to be a particularly adept pick-and-roll orchestrator; he’s more of an expert isolationist, and placing Thomas at the top of the key to make decisions for the entire offense has been a lumpsum loss thus far in the preseason. Reading help defenders and mapping out the floor is not in Thomas’ wheelhouse just yet — yes, yes, I hear you... we’re talking about a minuscule sample — and that’s been compounded by a handle that’s missing certain components.
Ball security has been a thorn in Cam’s side in his last two exhibition games. He’s recorded just two assists and five turnovers, and opponents have had an easy time swindling Thomas when he puts his head down to drive. It’s hard to envision Cam replacing even a fraction of Kyrie’s on-ball impact if it's this easy to dislodge his dribble.
That’s not to say that I believe Cam Thomas is a “bad dribbler” or anything. Rather, there are certain elements he can improve on as a ball-handler, a great example being his pickup point. In the play below, Thomas gets by his man, Paul Reed, blasting off with his explosive first step after a hesitation dribble. Things begin to go wrong when he picks up the ball early after his second dribble. With the basketball sitting right freaking there for the taking, this is easy pickings for Sixers backup center, Andre Drummond, who “digs down” and pries the ball loose from the eager rookie’s hands.
Here’s an even better example. Thomas comes off a side pick-and-roll, resets at the top of the key, and then charges downhill toward the rim. After his second dribble (notice a trend?), Thomas picks the ball up to avoid the nearby defender, Georgios Kalaitzakis, who “digs down” for the steal. But wait, check out where Thomas decides to halt that live-dribble — he’s practically at the free-throw line, 14 or 15 feet out, with two defenders surrounding him and just two more steps (well, three counting his gather step) at his disposal to create something for himself. Here’s a screenshot. He’s way the heck out there!
It shouldn’t be incredibly shocking to learn that what results from this less-than-ideal situation is an off-balance runner in which Thomas’ momentum practically carries him behind the hoop, and the shot clanks short off the rim. Again, situations in which Thomas is reading more than one defender have proven to be precarious, and he’s prone to way-too-early pickup points should a help defender stick an arm in for the steal.
I prefer Cam Thomas next to one of Brooklyn’s stars rather than running the show himself. Brooklyn’s “Big
Three Two,” Kevin Durant and James Harden, are elite at creating advantages for their teammates by drawing in help defenders, and for a guy like Cam Thomas, who thrives at beating his defender in mano-e-mano situations, this is practically nirvana. Attacking a bent defense is a cheat code for young Cam.
Below, Philadelphia's offense is keyed-in on halting Kevin Durant and James Harden, so when the ball finds Cam in the corner after some swing-swing action, the nearby help defenders, Georges Niang and Danny Green, are far too preoccupied with the 7/13 duo flanking the perimeter. Thomas takes on the (much easier) role of play-finisher — and still gets the same amount of credit on the stat sheet as if he was generating opportunities for himself.
Of course, running the offense doesn’t just come down to individually scoring every single time down the floor. There are, after all, four guys flanking lead ball-handlers for a reason; tactically involving one’s teammates in an interconnected web is the key to achieving substantial synergy.
And this, my friends, is another area of growth for young Cam Thomas. Preseason isn’t the first time he’s recorded more turnovers than assists. In Summer League, Cam tossed out an average of two assists and 3.8 turnovers in his four total games. At LSU, that trend continued with 49 turnovers and just 42 total assists.
The rookie guard thrives when the passing read is directly in front of him. During this semi-transition possession against Philadelphia, Thomas keeps his head up while pushing the pace and spots Paul Millsap tip-toeing around the dunker spot. This Chris Sale-esque sidearm pass is simple, yet effective.
However, when it’s necessary that Thomas spots the passing read in the periphery of his vision, that is where things tend to go awry. Below, Cam “rejects” Nicolas Claxton’s screen and rampages downhill into the teeth of the defense. While this is happening, David Duke Jr. rises up the wing for some “shake action” to create additional room for a passing window. Here’s a screenshot to illustrate just how open David Duke Jr. was.
Yet instead of making the kick out to Duke Jr., who could either shoot or slash toward the rim himself, Thomas elects to heave one up in the midst of three active Bucks defenders. Look, I get it. Duke Jr. may err more on the side of being a “theoretical spacer” than a proven sniper, and Cam Thomas is, simply put, a walking bucket; but it’s important for Brooklyn’s decision-makers to make the right play as many times as humanly possible, and here that means a pass to the open player on the perimeter.
Similar to his scoring, there are technical things for Thomas to work on as a passer. On this empty corner pick-and-roll with Claxton, he’s a second late with the bounce pass, leading to the turnover.
Did you catch it? Hold on, give me a second... ENHANCE IMAGE.
Do you see it? Right there! There’s a window for Thomas to slip in a one-handed wraparound pass to the rolling Clax. Instead, Cam forces it in two-handed style, late, and with a little too much mustard.
Cam Thomas can immediately compete for minutes, especially with Kyrie Irving gone. He’s got that unteachable trait of big-time shotmaking, which as trite as it may seem, does matter. You need guys that can stand strong in crucial moments and not whittle away into nothingness. Moreover, the 20-year-old has got a history of putting up points. He’s already an upper-tier one-on-one player in the league. Yeah, I said it.
Like any young player, Thomas comes with his warts. The passing is one thing, but his handle has been prone to mishaps in the face of secondary defenders. Creating an environment free of complications is paramount for Cam Thomas at this stage of his career, and fortunately, he plays alongside two all-time offensive talents that can ease Cam’s load and allow him to do what he does best — score.
Sharing the court alongside James Harden and Kevin Durant, picking their brains and learning the tools of the trade, and creating for himself as a “second-side” destroyer... THAT is the ideal role for the supersonic first-year scorer. Sure, he’s by no means a Kyrie Irving replacement, but Cam Thomas can certainly contribute to helping share the burden.