Over the Brooklyn Nets’ last seven games, Cam Thomas is playing 28.5 minutes a night, just about doubling the 14.1 ticks he got during Brooklyn’s first 51 games. Yet, since the full-time arrival of the team’s deadline acquisitions, a span of three games, Thomas’ minutes are trending downwards. Maybe not enough to change his Instagram bio to “#FreeCT” once more, but he’s shown enough apprehension, whether from the bench or in post-game pressers, to prompt an ‘attaboy from Stephen A. Smith.
Does Thomas have a right to feel this way? Well, over that same seven-game stretch, he’s averaging 27.7 points a night on +7.2 rTS% (meaning his true shooting percentage is 7.2 points better than league average.) So, about a point-per-minute on excellent efficiency for a man whose job it is to get buckets. A small stretch, sure, but Cam feeling slighted isn’t hard to believe. The same month he became the youngest player to ever put up three-straight 40-point games, he watched the Rising Stars game from home. (On second thought, like most people, he probably didn’t watch it.)
In this sense, Cam Thomas seems like a normal 21-year-old. He’s made no bones about the fact that he prefers playing over sitting on the bench and, despite currently selling ‘ain’t sh*t funny’ merchandise on his website, could choose his words a bit more carefully. Instead, his uniqueness lies entirely on the court, as one of the most idiosyncratic players in the league. We know Thomas is a bucket, and we’ve heard it multiple times from multiple sources; NBA fans, much less Nets fans, aren’t even shocked by his 134 points over three games. Yet, that his playing time remains a question isn’t shocking either. Why are his strengths and weaknesses so pronounced? How does he put the ball in the bucket with such ease? Is his defense really that bad? Let’s look at the film (a lot of it) and find out.
I broke down Cam Thomas’ game into five sections, and there’s no better place to start than by analyzing how he gets his buckets, many of which are capital-T Tough. His scoring excellence is propelled by off-the-dribble jumpers, which are in turn propelled by the lift he gets on those attempts. His scoring heaters are so prolific, so hard to stop because he can rise up and get a look at the rim at any moment. This skill is not new news to Nets fans; just look at this fade-away two from his rookie season, where his feet are pointed about 60 degrees away from the basket upon release...
truly, maybe the most difficult shot I've seen made in the NBA this year pic.twitter.com/KbMuhM5Djq— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) November 25, 2021
That high-jumping tendency on his release is perhaps most valuable not in isolation, but when Thomas is weaving through a crowded defense, closer to the hoop. Creating mid-range looks out of thin air and making just under 44% of them (according to Basketball Reference) is nothing shy of impressive. Here is a collection of makes from Thomas, showcasing his silky touch, but his most exemplary attempt may have been this miss...
It is only due to Thomas’ elevation that he even sees the rim over a contesting Joel Embiid, much less gets a shot off.
Where Thomas can get into trouble, and a key area for improvement, is his shot preparation. The specifics of his unorthodox shooting motion mean that it’s much more natural for him to rise up after going to his left. Why? His guiding hand/elbow (left) sticks out to the side on his shot, which pulls him that way; thus, he must he compensate for that. How does he do it? Well, take another look at that pull-up miss above, for an example.
- Thomas loves to hop, rather than step, into his shot. That generates more elevation, elevation which doesn’t just mean he has more space from his defender, but also more time to align himself with the rim.
- His body rotates slightly towards the basket (his right) until he’s ready to fire.
- The ball follows suit, as he brings it up on the left side of his body, ultimately getting it to the right side of his head upon release.
In sum: There are a lot of moving parts, many of which dictate that his internal momentum goes from left -> right on his shot. Ipso facto, it’s easier to start that process after going left. So, what happens when he can’t? Sound on ...
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention one last piece of Cam’s bucket-getting portfolio: his foul drawing. Thomas is currently averaging 7.2 free-throw attempts per 36 minutes, despite just 19% of his shots coming at the rim, a 23rd percentile mark according to Cleaning the Glass. For reference, that 7..2/36 mark ranks just below DeMar DeRozan and Kevin Durant, and just above James Harden and Nikola Jokic, among other stars.
This is partly due to that absurd elevation on his jumper; it gives defenders ample opportunity to slide under Thomas and encroach on his landing space. However, he also deploys some serious craft. Here, Thomas recognizes Max Strus pressing on his body and rises up to draw the foul faster than a speeding bullet...
The free-throw shooting provides somewhat of a stable scoring floor for the one they call CT; on February 9th against the Bulls, he went a putrid 3-of-16 from the floor, but poured in 13 freebies to hit the 20-point mark.
And that is the full picture of Cam Thomas, the microwave scorer. He has excellent touch in that intermediate area, and the ability to get a shot off at anytime. So, his scoring may always come in bunches, especially as he continues to figure out the free-throw game, which he’s already excelling at. But while 44% on mid-range shots is a positive number in and of itself, he doesn’t couple that with too many rim attempts or threes, putting a cap on just how effective Thomas can be as a primary scorer. For me, it’s that lack of rim-scoring that stands out. Why? Because we know he has the tools to get there.
Part of the explanation as to why Cam Thomas’ rate of attempts at the rim is that low is his mindset: He’s trying to get to a mid-range pull-up, all the time. Just look at this table from Cleaning the Glass, outlining his shot frequency, not accuracy, in his first two seasons. Over half of his shots this season (56%) are classified as neither threes nor rim attempts; in this day and age, that’s completely nutty, no matter how soft his touch is.
Yet, it’s not because he can’t get downhill and into the paint. In fact, Thomas’ legs are lively, particularly moving on the ground. The same legs that create so much space on his side-steps and step-backs can propel him past defenders. This isn’t the best defense from the old-look Phoenix Suns, but just look at the initial burst from Thomas when he sees a lane to the basket (and the high finish)...
Thomas also has the physical attributes to make hay once he picks up his dribble. Yes, those explosive legs, but he also packs 210 pounds into just a 6’3” frame, and that’s if you trust official measurements. Even if you don’t, he looks the part, with a broad chest, thick legs, and video evidence of defenders bouncing off of him. All of these buckets feature strong gathers where Thomas remains unfazed by contact on the way to the rim after he’s picked up his dribble...
So, why isn’t he taking may lay-ups, aside from the fact that he really likes shooting those middies? Well, like a whole mess of young players before him, Thomas can be especially quick to pick up his dribble, whether due to a slight dig from an opponent or simply because he feels his defender on his side. I don’t think it’s a lack of confidence in his handle — I can’t imagine Cam Thomas being less than confident about anything in his game, and we’ve seen him use downhill dribble moves to get to the paint (here) - but rather it’s instinctual, perhaps a symptom of his understandable desire to get to the nearest pull-up jumper. But on these three drives, ask yourself if you think CT could have gotten all the way to the rim, or at least put more pressure on the defense:
Right now, Cam has the tools -- handle and athleticism — to get to the rim far more than he does. It’ll, again, be a huge building block in the offensive game of a young player who has not logged a ton of NBA minutes, certainly not consistent ones. There is obviously room for optimism, but it’s vital that we start to see Thomas probe further into the paint.
In this section, I’ll go over the offensive process Cam Thomas displays when he’s tasked with being a primary ball-handler, AKA a star, the ultimate hope after recent scoring explosions. His ability to get downhill could certainly be lumped in here, but I’m less interested in how and if he accomplishes what he wants to do on the floor, but rather what he wants to do on the floor. As you probably know, most of the time, that’s not passing.
It’s not that Cam can’t pass the ball when the reads are there: Here’s a scripted play that Brooklyn runs out of their time-out, which succeeds in simplifying the read for Cam with a cleared-out weak-side. The result? An on-time, on-target lob...
This was never the worry with the ball in Cam Thomas’ hands. But what happens when he has to react to multiple defenders? Can he simultaneously keep his dribble alive and determine what the guy helping the helper is doing? Right now, a ton of work remains to be done.
Thomas often makes his initial read and sticks with it, not accounting for how much time it will take for him to execute that read, nor how realistic his desired passing angle is. Here’s what I mean, sound on...
Unfortunately, this has been a recurring theme for Thomas when he gets pick-and-roll reps. Because of this, a common strategy for teams defending him, particularly when he’s been the only ball-handler on the floor, is to double him. The read to the open man either takes him long enough to allow the defense to recover, or, more frustratingly, he doesn’t see it at all. You almost wish his turnover rate was higher, that he would take more chances trying to exploit a double-team rather than turning his back to a potential advantage, which is an unfortunate habit Thomas has right now...
This is the most necessary (and wide-spread) area of improvement for Cam Thomas, not just as it relates to his career, but for the immediate success of the Nets. Brooklyn has Spencer Dinwiddie and no other primary ball-handlers on the roster, though you can be sure Mikal Bridges will get all the opportunity in the world to expand his game. Regardless, when Dinwiddie goes to the bench, and particularly if Bridges joins him there, the Nets offense cannot afford to stall completely with Thomas running the show. He cannot turn the ball over due to his penchant for jump-passing, seen here, but more importantly, he cannot let the rhythm of the offense die when opponents put two on the ball.
This isn’t to say Thomas is an unwilling passer, though he does have moments of total tunnel-vision, like here. But those are more hiccup than ball-hog. He’s on the floor to score, so that’s what he’s trying to do, but he’s rarely going to look off an open teammate. He can handle two-on-one situations and make the easy pass, particularly when his drive is headed there anyway. But ask him to navigate more complex situations, and it gets a little dicier. His future as a potential primary ball-handler is certainly murky, but considering we are still in the first month of consistent NBA minutes for Cam Thomas, it is far from too late to see growth.
Playing off the ball
So, what about when Cam Thomas doesn’t have the ball, when and if he’s playing next to Dinwiddie for example, or even if he draws a regular old close-out. I mean this was the bug-a-boo of his time with the now-defunct Clean Sweep Era Nets, that a lack of value off the ball meant an unsavory fit next to the stars.
Well, those problems haven’t entirely gone away for Thomas; the 41% he’s shooting from three is largely thanks to that recent heater he went on, which was filled with off-the-dribble attempts. That complex shooting motion I went over certainly contributes to why he has more difficulty on what most consider the easier portion of the job. (Again, full of quirks, his game.)
A quick look at that catch-and-shoot game, sound on...
What’s more worrying, though, is Thomas’ occasional hesitation in either taking these shots or driving the close-out. Instead he’s prone to a soft-pump fake and holding the ball, thus killing an advantage for Brooklyn...
However, there’s more reason for optimism about this part of his game than some other areas he struggles with. That first-step burst of his, showcased in the “getting downhill” section should translate to attacking close-outs, should Thomas just commit to doing so. A few areas he struggles in offensively can be traced back to apparent overthinking and hesitation, like the above play vs. Lonnie Walker.
Cam Thomas has more than enough juice to whiz past even soft closeouts into a pull-up jumper. He's not far from being a viable off-ball player, despite the troubles his shooting motion may present on stationary opportunities. One option for Thomas is to start loading up before receiving the ball and commit to being a menace off the catch. Make defenders consistently have to rotate, face the ball, and start closing out to a guy committed to attacking them at full speed. The other option is to juice his catch-and-shoot attempts just enough to force defenders to make respectful closeouts, and then take it from there. His percentages have never been the problem, it’s been the frequency.
Regardless, there are viable paths with the tools Thomas has to becoming a productive off-ball player. Thankfully, it’s silly to believe a 21-year-old is incapable of re-adjusting how he’s wired, because in order for Thomas to become a productive off-ball player, that wiring will need some re-adjusting.
Cam Thomas is a poor defender, and that, more than anything else, is deflating his minutes. Brooklyn has built this team full of rangy wings, and appear to be building their defense around length, activity, and consistently making smart, timely rotations. If these rotations don’t get made, the integrity of the defense collapses, and right now, there’s only so much trust you can put in Killa Cam...
There are more examples in more diverse situations of Cam’s defense being porous - the Phoenix Suns targeted him relentlessly in their matchup with Brooklyn on February 7th, putting him in their patented “Spain” action numerous times to fruitful results. Bottom line, Thomas isn’t ready to navigate complex situations on defense just yet, and that is going to have major playoff implications in Brooklyn’s rotation.
It’s not that he’s a horrid defender man-to-man, although he can occasionally get caught flat-footed on the perimeter -- fixing that should be his most immediate focus on the path to becoming a better defender. Rather, it’s the scramble situations that give him the most trouble right now, situations that require awareness and consistent communication, like in transition. This one was tough to watch, even in real time...
There is not much more to say, no need for more clips that illustrate that Thomas can not only be a poor defender, but a detrimental one to a team whose identity is now built on having no weak links. There are flashes of solid team defense here and there, but with Durant’s departure, Brooklyn is left with just one defender who adds much value as a rim protector, and that guy, Nic Claxton, can often be found switched out onto the perimeter.
There is less room for error now, and that may determine Thomas’ fate for the rest of the season, particularly in the playoffs.
It would seem patently insane to an outsider that a young player capable of putting up three straight 40 burgers isn’t guaranteed playing time in pressure-filled settings. Especially considering that this Brooklyn Nets team is going to struggle with shot creation against playoff defenses. But such is the case with a player whose strengths and weaknesses both stand out to this extent.
Cam Thomas, as everyone from Dorian Finney-Smith to myself to Ian Eagle has noted, is a bucket. But he’s so much more than that, both good and bad, full of both potential and teeming with warts. It feels ludicrous to suggest anything but more playing time for the only truly promising, truly young player on a Nets team that is suddenly far from contending for a championship, but it would be understandable if you did.
He is, perhaps, the most idiosyncratic non-star in the NBA. And now, unconcerned with championship hopes, Nets fans can hitch their wagon to him, and live and die during every game seeing how he responds to double teams, if he starts making the correct rotations, how many catch and shoot threes he takes. These details will establish just how high the ceiling is for Cam Thomas’ game.
But that’s only because we already know he can drop forty.