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FILM STUDY: Cam Thomas has arrived ... and is here to stay

Cam Thomas is lighting the world on fire, but don’t expect him to come crashing back to Earth just yet.

Brooklyn Nets v Charlotte Hornets Photo by Kent Smith/NBAE via Getty Images

It’s time to ask different questions about Cam Thomas. The Brooklyn Nets’ 2023-’24 season is just three games young, but we already know that Thomas’ scoring ability is enough to keep him on the floor, regardless of where his defense may or not be. Same goes for his decision-making, or any other facet of the game that can’t distract from his bucket-getting. We now know that the Nets are going to rely on Thomas for the rest of this season.

But, like, is this guy going to be an All-Star now? Do the Nets have to start planning to give him a max-scale rookie extension before next season tips off? Thomas has at least 79 games to go in his third-year campaign, but look how he’s started it.

  • Most points (36) off the bench on Opening Night in NBA history
  • Leading the NBA in free-throw attempts per game (10), and shooting 70.4% from two
  • Second-youngest player ever (Shaquille O’Neal) to score 30-plus in his team’s first three games

He accomplished that final feat with a smooth 33-point performance on Wednesday night in Brooklyn’s victory over the Charlotte Hornets, their first of the season. Despite a 1-2 record, the Nets have looked not just fun, but quite encouraging. Devastating losses in which they held multi-possession leads with under two minutes left against two likely playoff teams sent them to 0-2, so they rolled into Charlotte, down two starters then quickly losing a third in Spencer Dinwiddie, and smoked a subpar Hornets team that never got closer than seven points after the first quarter. Crunch-time execution must improve, but that’s how good teams operate.

Thomas has been at the center of it all, as Brooklyn’s leading scorer in all of those contests. And while the LSU product won’t average 33 points this season — I think— he’s going to score a lot this season, and the Nets will need it.

His scoring outbursts start with special explosiveness, just not in the way we typically term it. See, Thomas doesn’t often dunk on people, nor does he have blinding speed when pushing the ball up the court; his first step is nothing to scoff at, it’s not in rarified air. But there is dynamite in those legs. Look at this step-back on his most crucial bucket of the young season, a game-tying, isolation jumper in Dallas. Look at how much ground he covers on the gather, nearly from the free-throw line to the arc:

Thomas leaps so-so-so high on his jumpers and fires at the top, giving him a high release point on top of the natural space-creation ability he possesses. He can get his off from anywhere, even hanging in mid-air to adjust his body, but we’ve known that since his rookie season:

So, has anything changed this season? Or is Thomas just the recipient of increased playing time, in part due to a barrage of injuries? I’d argue it’s more of the former, though Thomas no longer having to look over his shoulder at the scorer’s table at every dead ball certainly helps.

Thomas is attacking the paint relentlessly to start the season, not only averaging those NBA-leading ten free-throw attempts a game but shooting, wait for it, 100% at the rim and 70.4% from two overall! His scoring feels more well-rounded to start 2023-24; instead of exclusively relying on tough jumpers, Thomas is leveraging those into shots at the rim and/or at the line. And as Mikal Bridges told Paul George over the summer, Thomas practices those acrobatic shots.

When Thomas started the Dallas game shooting 2-of-6, it appeared he was going to follow his Opening Night magic with a dud. But after couple lay-ups and six quick free-throw attempts re-ignited the flame, he ultimately finished shooting 12-of-19 to score 30 points. Should Thomas create some easy looks at the rim and the line for himself, his scoring floor feels quite sustainable.

In past seasons, Thomas likely fires up a step-back going left over Evan Mobley here, but not in Year 3. The NBA’s 2nd-leading scorer recognizes that Brooklyn’s in the bonus and, yes, he does have Mobley beat to the spot. So, he heads right down the lane and ends up with two freebies:

So, it’s not only explosiveness and shooting touch that Cam Thomas is scorching defenders with this season, but a veteran sensibility that is worth about 4-6 points a night. It’s Thomas knowing that although he can make any shot on the court, sometimes he doesn’t have to.

The best companion for Thomas’ apparent progression in his third season might be New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley, who can seemingly cover half the field on a jump-cut to bounce a run outside. And while that’s exhilarating to watch, with successful attempts turning him into a fan favorite, it can be more fruitful to patiently follow the blocking scheme and gain six easy yards:

Perhaps Thomas was thinking about that bucket in particular when YES Network’s Meghan Triplett asked him about the key to his early-season success: “Just my patience. Reading the defense, letting everything come to me, not forcing anything or rushing anything because that’s how you get in trouble.”

But patience doesn’t mean the absence of force, and that’s a balance Thomas has struck wonderfully to start the season, not pre-determining his reads but reacting. In his words, letting the game come to him.

Jacque Vaughn sees Thomas’ production similarly. “We know he has the ability to score the basketball, but it’s not forced. It’s within the flow of our offense,” said Vaughn after Brooklyn’s victory over Charlotte. And it’s hard not to agree with the head coach, particularly when you see plays like this, where Thomas resuscitates an advantage that’s nearly dead by catching and going against a defender that’s not quite set:

According to Nekias Duncan of the Dunker Spot podcast, Thomas has logged 40 shot attempts this season, which doesn’t seem like anything out of the ordinary. He’s made just 45 total passes. And while this hilarious stat may seem like ammo for pessimists, it’s not reflective of Thomas’ season to this point, process-wise.

Here was Jacque Vaughn’s next sentence after praising his young guard for playing in the flow of the offense: “And then at certain times, we need him to get a bucket, and he’s capable of doing that also.”

When helpless Cavaliers like Georges Niang or Damian Jones switch onto Thomas on the perimeter, it’s time for him to go get a bucket, as Vaughn mentions. We have enough evidence by now to deem Thomas as a professional scorer; when defenses send their weaker perimeter defenders at him, the Nets have already won the possession. It seems Thomas’ teammates recognize this too:

Said Vaughn: “He’s really gaining the trust of his teammates.” Well, that and the dread of his opponents.

Eventually, teams will stop switching their slow-footed bigs onto a scorer who packs as much lateral explosion as Thomas does. The step-backs will lead to looks on an island, and the drives will only be stopped by hacks. Better yet, Brooklyn is now hardly worried about their microwave scorer making the right decision. Thomas has been both aggressive and patient, measured but assertive when attacking the lane. How else do you shoot 10 free-throws a game and 100% at the rim, regardless of sample size?

There will be 4-of-15 nights from Thomas (right!?), or even games with four turnovers, especially if Spencer Dinwiddie, Cam Johnson, and now Dennis Smith Jr. (doubtful for Wednesday’s contest vs. the Miami Heat) miss more time. Teams may even start trapping him on the pick-and-roll, possibly going under screens with Thomas starting the year just 4-13 from deep. (Fighting over screens invites him to a free floater, and switches, well...)

Now that the third-year bucket will be a focal point of defenses, he’ll have to make adjustments. But Thomas won’t lose the ability to separate, he won’t forget how to leap on his jumpers, and he won’t lose the special touch he relies on. Through just over two seasons of NBA ball, he’s shooting 48.1% between 3-and-16 feet out, which would have been good for a top-10 mark last season (Basketball Reference).

It's a safe bet to assume he’ll keep hitting these shots, and, at least in the meantime, Brooklyn really needs him to. Here’s a epic bit of small-sample-size theater through three games, per Cleaning the Glass:

  • Nets offense w/ Cam Thomas: 127.8 offensive rating, 100th percentile
  • Nets offense w/o Cam Thomas: 102.0 offensive rating, 7th percentile

Now, almost none of the numbers mentioned in this article will sustain. Brooklyn’s offense won’t be 93% better when Thomas plays vs. when he sits. He won’t league the lead in free-throw attempts this year, or make every single shot at the rim, or average 33 points.

But it's not about the numbers right now. It’s about the process, and not only is Cam Thomas’ process fantastic right now, but it’s sustainable. No matter if he pushes for the All-Star game this year, or if he averages 25, or if he’s worth a max-scale extension in 365 days, the Brooklyn Nets need Cam Thomas to score the rock right now. And that’s what he’s doing.