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A steal but not a surprise: Cam Thomas showing what it means to be a shootist

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New York Knicks v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Michelle Farsi/Getty Images

Imagine, if you will, sometime in the future, a game where Ben Simmons and Cam Thomas are on the court together, one a premier facilitator and defender, the other a shoot-first guard whose confidence and calm are unparalleled. Sounds like a plan and one Sean Marks may have had in the back of his mind when he traded for Simmons ... and kept Thomas.

There were some rumors before the deadline that maybe Thomas could be used as a sweetener in a big deal, but reportedly Kevin Durant wouldn’t have it. And there’s no real indicator that Marks wanted to move him. Good thing. Fans would have rioted.

Thomas, of course, is more than a fan favorite. He is a scorer, what you might call a shootist. defined in a different context as a “person who shoots, especially one skilled in shooting, as a marksman.” Take look at the resume’...

  • At Oak Hill Academy, one of the best high school programs ever, Cam Thomas scored 31.5 points a game his senior year, the school’s highest ever.
  • In EYBL (AAU) that summer, Cam Thomas averaged 29.5, highest there too.
  • At LSU last season, Cam Thomas averaged 23.0, highest among NCAA freshmen.
  • In Summer League play last July, Cam Thomas averaged 27.0, leading league. was named co-MVP.
  • At Long Island, in his short (two-game) G League apprenticeship back in November, Cam Thomas averaged 39.5.

So how surprised should we be that he won two games this season, hitting a floater off a KD pass on January 9 to defeat the Spurs in overtime, then knocking down a 26-footer on February 16 to end a 28-point comeback at the Garden, as ballsy a shot as any this season?

“I think we know Cam lacks confidence, He is struggling out there at the moment,” joked Marks six days later in a talk with Michael Grady and season ticket holders. “He is becoming a bonafide NBA player, he has a long way to go and he will be the first to admit it, but he is like a sponge out there.”

On Monday, Alex Schiffer of The Athletic took a deep look at all that is Cam Thomas, pointing out that Thomas has been taking whatever he can from Durant, Kyrie Irving and Steve Nash.

Durant and Irving have quickly become invested in Thomas’ career; perhaps that’s because they see so much of themselves in him. Like Durant early in his career, Thomas has been perceived as simply a scorer. And like Irving, Thomas studied Kobe Bryant as a kid. (In fact, he’s wore the Mamba’s No. 24 both in Baton Rouge and Brooklyn.) Remember when Irving, fresh off his rookie season, told Bryant he could beat him one-on-one? It doesn’t sound so different from Thomas’ claim he handled Durant.

Nash, as Schiffer writes, played Thomas in those critical late-game minutes against the Spurs and Knicks, even letting him bring the ball up at the Garden in front of thousands of screaming Knick fans (and dozens of even louder Brooklyn Brigade madmen.)

“I think he has a deep belief in his ability,” Nash said after the Knicks game. “I think he seeks those moments. … He made the game-winner and all that, but he made a bunch of plays down the stretch. We went to him, a rookie carrying the load in a rivalry game like this in the Garden, it shows you what’s inside of Cam.”

Marks said something similar in his talk.

“We saw it as LSU. We saw it in the Summer League. I have to give his mother some credit. In talking to his mother, I know where his confidence comes from. She is ... military background ... and Cam better shoot that ball! Miss Les is amazing and we’ve enjoyed our conversations. So it’s going to fun to see Cam grow and get better.”

Indeed, as Schiffer also writes, Leslie Thomas is a mother extraordinaire. She saw his potential early and set him on the road to hooping at a high level, pushing him to play against kids who were older, challenging him.

For as long as Thomas can remember, he’s been playing against older competition. The idea stemmed from his mother, Leslie, who figured her son’s game could only grow from playing against kids two, three, four, sometimes five years older. In a world where top basketball recruits tend to reclassify to play against younger players, Thomas was an outlier from Day 1. It’s paid dividends in the NBA, where Thomas, just 20 years old, is a baby compared to the other players on the court.

Thomas himself spoke about his mom’s role in an Instagram posted by the Nets Sunday.

When Thomas got to Oak Hill, he was teamed with Cole Anthony who came from a different background, the son of an NBA star, former Knick Greg Anthony. He quickly saw the Mamba Mentality and his ability to get bucket after bucket. Schiffer spoke with Anthony, now with the Magic, Anthony got it.

After seeing him in an open gym workout, he quickly realized his new teammate could score like few at their age. Before he played against the Nets in Orlando recently, Anthony recalled Thomas telling him about studying Bryant all those years ago. “I can see it,” Anthony told him. “I see you both get buckets.”

As the Nets have gotten healthier and added Seth Curry, Thomas has moved back in the rotation but Nash, like Cole Anthony, understands what he has, what he can rely on. In a nine-game stretch between February 4 and February 17, he averaged 20 points a game including his 30-point game against the Jazz at the beginning of that two-week period, a 27 piece vs. the Wizards and four other 20-point games, including 21 vs. the Knicks.

“I wouldn’t have taken that shot,” Nash said after the Knicks game. “Having said that, holding my breath thinking, this kid might make it because I’ve seen him do it before.”

“I don’t really like to do what’s normal,” Thomas told Schiffer.

Durant, who reportedly pushed for the Nets to take Thomas at No. 27 on Draft Night, thinks he’s just at the start of a star trajectory.

“He’s growing as a player,” Durant said recently, as Schiffer notes. “We all look at him as a scorer, but I think he wants to expand this game and do more and more things on the defensive side of the ball and as a player initiator. I think he’s done such a great job this last month or so of getting more and more comfortable with the NBA game, and the sky’s the limit for him.”