When the Nets drafted Cam Thomas with the No. 27 pick in the 2021 NBA Draft, the team knew they were getting a prolific perimeter scoring machine poised with cardinal confidence. The former LSU Tiger, who led all NCAA D1 freshmen in scoring (23.0 points per game), has had a series of clutch moments during his one-and-done season. He has carried that big-moment instinct to Brooklyn.
The rookie guard had his biggest shining moment in Madison Square Garden Wednesday night. In a “Battle of the Boroughs” crosstown rivalry game against the New York Knicks, Thomas entered the fourth quarter struggling with his shot (2-of-11 shooting through three quarters) and his team trailing by 14 points. So, the young bucket-getter mixed in two approaches to get out of a shooting slump: getting to the basket and shooting his way out of it.
The 20-year-old then rookie put Brooklyn on his back, tallying a team-high 16 points in the final period. Thomas, who finished with 21 points off the bench, scored six-straight points to give the Nets their first lead of the contest with 3:58 left on the game clock. His job wasn’t finished. He was determined to lead until the final buzzer sounded.
Way to lead us tonight 24…— Kevin Durant (@KDTrey5) February 17, 2022
Out of a Nets timeout with 16.0 seconds remaining, he caught the ball in the backcourt and surveyed the floor. Instead of drawing up a pick-and-roll, Steve Nash and the coaching staff drew up a 1-4 flat (an alignment play along the baseline crafted to create a surplus of space for an isolation scorer).
Seth Curry and Patty Mills went to different corners. LaMarcus Aldridge and Bruce Brown went under the basket. Up the court, Thomas jogged past with the ball in those confident hands and went to the top of the key, meeting Knicks rookie, Quentin Grimes.
The play call, which the Nets head coach later (jokingly?) said was “exactly how we drew it up” allowed Thomas to gauge two options: blow past the Knicks rookie and get to the basket or settle for a difficult midrange jumper or take on Grimes and shoot a contested three.
Then, he launched and all but a very delirious section 217 in the Garden fell silent.
“I was actually trying to get to the basket. Get to the middy or whatever it was inside the two. I saw everyone loading up so it was just like, that’s a three right there,” said Thomas recalling what he saw on the court. “I took my chance with the three and thank god it went in.”
Thomas never fears the big moment. He owns them and he crashed a 29-foot step-back 3-point dagger to put Brooklyn up 109-103 with 7.7 seconds left. The shot had Kevin Durant and the bench celebrating on the other end of the floor while sending a large mass of the disgusted 18,916 fans on out on to Eighth Avenue where there was much weeping and gnashing of teeth. Killa Cam had struck again, this time in near Biblical fashion.
“It was 16.0 on the shot-clock. We just went into the backcourt and then when I saw Coach Steve tell everyone flatten out, I knew it was one-on-one time,” Thomas further recalled. “I went to my go-to move. Glad it went in because I was struggling tonight.”
It’s rare for veteran teammates — and any head coach — to put all their trust in rookies when a clutch play is need. Once the shot went up, Seth Curry, who has been Thomas’ teammate for all of five days, and Aldridge, 16 years his senior, both had a good feeling it was the beginning of the end of a historic 28-point comeback
“Spacing the floor for him. I was on the wing of the corner over there just watching him go to work. I knew he was in a good rhythm. I knew he had it going. I thought he was going to break him down and get to the midrange or something but felt good and finished the game off,” said a smiling Curry recalling Thomas’ 3-point dagger. “That was a great fourth quarter.”
“He takes tough shots all the time. He’s in a pretty good rhythm. He carried us back,” said Aldridge on Thomas’ play down the stretch. “I was setting the screens and letting him do this thing so when he let it go, I thought it was going in.”
The Nets head coach, who drew up and called for that 1-4 flat once Thomas took the ball past halfcourt, was holding his breath throughout the sequence. Nevertheless, in the back of his mind, he knew the trust he instilled in his 20-year-old rookie guard would pay off.
“Holding my breath. I wouldn’t have taken that shot. Having said that, I’m holding my breath thinking this kid might make it because I’ve seen him do it before,” Nash said. “It was a big shot and obviously proud of him for the shot, but more so with the way he handled the fourth quarter.”
Afterwards, he got rewarded in the locker room...
16 points in the fourth...— Brooklyn Nets (@BrooklynNets) February 17, 2022
Had to cool the rook down after that! pic.twitter.com/JQ7iqLVYLh
The Dagger at the Garden is yet another big-time shot added to Thomas’ rising rookie resume. In the mind of Nash, who had his fair share of clutch plays and 18+ seasons of NBA experience, sees an “innate talent” in his rookie.
“It was the game-winner. We know that about Cam. We’ve seen it in Summer League. We’ve seen it at times this year. He loves those moments,” Nash said. “There’s a gene in there somewhere and he has that.”
“I think he has a deep belief in his ability. I think he seeks those moments. That’s something that’s inside him that is rare. That’s an innate talent,” Nash added. “I think his teammates have belief in him. That allows his belief to be fortified. I thought the way he played down the stretch; he made the game-winner and all that but he made a bunch of plays down the stretch. We went to him and a rookie carrying the load in a rivalry game like this in the garden shows you what’s inside of Cam.”
A few weeks after draft night, Thomas quickly sprung onto the scene showing fans a glimpse of the type of contributor he could be on the title-contending Nets. The then 19-year-old guard excelled in Summer League, earning Co-MVP honors and hitting his first game-winner in a Nets uniform. Thomas nailed a side-step left wing three in the closing seconds of overtime to send the contest into another period of bonus basketball and followed it up with a sudden death three off a broken play for the win over the Washington Wizards.
WOW CAM THOMAS! UNBELIEVABLE! pic.twitter.com/DI8sUbP982— NBA Summer League (@NBASummerLeague) August 12, 2021
Fast forward to January 9th against the San Antonio Spurs, Thomas added another game-winner to his belt, this one for real. In the closing seconds of the overtime win over San Antonio, Durant was doubled, forcing him to pass to the rookie guard on the right wing. The rookie didn’t shy away with the game clock trickling down, blowing past his defender, and elevating for a deep floater at the nail with 1.4 seconds left. Winner.
It’s certainly not common for a rookie to have a surfeit of game-winners to choose and rank in a season that hasn’t yet hit the All-Star break. Out of the three game-winning buckets during his short professional career as a Net, Wednesday night’s ... from deep ... against the Knicks ... at Madison Square Garden ... had to be and is atop of his personal list.
“It’s up there for sure because it’s in the NBA at the Garden so definitely up there. I’d probably say as of right now, that’s my top-2 favorite shot,” Thomas said. “Summer league shot, that was pretty cool for me too. Spurs, No. 3. Everything in the NBA is up there for me, so I’d say this is No. 1 though because 28-point comeback, it was the top of the key, kinda like one-on-one really so it’s up there.”
The morning after, it was hard to disagree.