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Following explosion vs. Los Angeles Lakers, Cam Thomas ‘too important not to play’

Brian Lewis takes a look at Cam Thomas growth and of course his game continues to polarize.

Brooklyn Nets v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images

It’s possible Cam Thomas will always be polarizing. He was polarizing at LSU, polarizing in the lead up to the NBA Draft in 2021 and certainly polarizing during his three years with the Brooklyn Nets. It’s not his personality. Far from it. He is quiet and unassuming, even shy, off the court ... unless you’re talking about how he’s been dissed. It’s his style, his prioritization of bucket getting above the game’s other aspects.

After a virtuoso performance vs. the Lakers on ESPN Friday night — 33 points on 13-of-18 shooting, including 4-of-7 from deep plus four assists, he was ready to unload on those who have found fault with his game, doubt him.

“Honestly, I feel like the goalposts always move for me from everything I watch,” Thomas said Friday night after scoring a game-high 33 points to beat the Lakers and end the Nets’ four-game skid. “Like, when people now score all these points, it’s all praise. But when I used to score all the points, it’s always a knock: ‘Oh, he can’t play defense. Oh, he doesn’t pass.’ But when I see other people doing the same thing, it’s praise.

“…I just know what I do and what I bring to the team and how it’s appreciated on the team. So really just staying true to myself and not letting trolls or anything get in my head about stuff like that.”

The 22-year-old did not identify his accusers but there have been so many, less in number than his supporters, but still out there. He also lobbied to get back in the starting lineup.

“Yeah, obviously the consistent part of my game is not going to be as it was early in the year because I was starting, so you can’t really expect too many 20-, 30-point games from me coming off the bench with these kind of minutes,” Thomas said. “So I’ve just got to get how I fit in and just try to start off very efficient, very high, so it can rub off on my teammates. I feel like when I start off well, we have good energy, we all get pumped up. So I’ve just got to find a way to lock in.

“Maybe it’ll change soon. I get back in the lineup, then you can see more consistency from me in the scoring part. But I’ve just got to do my job, man. Whatever he wants me to do. He wants me to come out of the bench, I’ve got to do that. If he wants me back starting, I’m more than open to do it. But it’s kind of tough, but I’ve just got to do my job.”

There’s plenty of data on both sides of the issue, culled from the Nets performance following Jacque Vaughn’s decision to start Dorian Finney-Smith over Thomas at the end of December, hoping to get more rebounding and defense. Brian Lewis posted his data on Sunday in his Sports+ feature.

Thomas is averaging 15.7 points on 38.6 percent shooting in 25 minutes over the past 10 games as a reserve, compared to 22.8 points on 45.3 percent shooting in 30.3 minutes in his first 22 games.

Our analytical guy, ProfessorB, provided his to us in an email.

The Nets’ most frequent 5-man lineup is Dinwiddie, Bridges, Johnson, DFS, Claxton (+4.7 in 265 minutes). Second most frequent is Dinwiddie, Thomas, Bridges, Johnson, Claxton (−21.4 in 164 minutes). The next most frequent lineup is 59 minutes.

But as Lewis noted, “But whether he’s starting or coming off the bench, his scoring prowess has made him too important not to play.”

Vaughn, who many Nets fans accuse of thwarting Thomas’ development, admitted that without Thomas spark, the Nets would be going into Sunday’s game vs. the Clippers 0-1 in L.A. instead of 1-0.

“Well, he saved us in that first half, for sure, his ability just to get us open looks,” Vaughn said. “They got to a point where they started trapping him, and then we got some looks out of that. … His ability just to make the right play, he’s just growing.”

His teammates agreed. Dennis Smith Jr., echoing what Mikal Bridges said when he joined the team last February. Thomas crazy shot-making is the product of practice, practice, practice.

“That boy’s good,” Smith told Lewis. “Training camp, I’m looking like, some of this s–t he’s doing is unbelievable. But it’s an everyday thing. He comes out, he gets rolling. And the good thing about CT — what people don’t know — is he’s going to be himself whether he’s on [or not].

“He’s rarely not making shots, but he’s still going to come out and compete. And he’s really doing a good job of making the next play. They started sending two at him, he’s making the read. And even to the point where he passes it to you, the next guy is going to make the right read telling them in a productive manner, do this, do this. So he’s taken some big strides.”

“That boy can score, man, I tell you, so I’m very blessed to have someone like him, especially [because] he’s only 22 years old, which makes it even crazier,” Lonnie Walker IV added. “The sky’s the limit for him, and the best is yet to come.”

Despite all the controversy over his defense and playmaking (which is slowly dissipating), Thomas is out-performing those NBA players who are his same age and in his same draft class. As we’ve noted, there are only two players younger than Thomas who are averaging more than he is (20.6 ppg) this season: prospective All-Stars Alperen Sengun and Paolo Banchero.

Similarly among those in his 2021 Draft class, he’s among the top scorers despite lasting till No. 27 in the first round, outscoring all but two players in his draft class: No. 1 overall selection Cade Cunningham (22.8) and No. 8 pick Franz Wagner (20.9). Thomas said Friday he’s still motivated by the disrespect he got that night when he was the last of 20 players from the Draft’s “green room” who was taken. Indeed, if the Nets hadn’t taken him, hadn’t shown faith in him, Thomas would have likely fallen into the second round.

“But yeah, obviously the draft, obviously I still carry that chip on my shoulder. Even now. So whatever it is, every team that picked ahead of Brooklyn, I just try to go out there and try to kill them every time. So just try to show everybody they made a mistake.”

Thomas has had some rough going this season, missing nine games to a sprained ankle in mid-November and going into a shooting slump in January, missing 20 straight shots after going to the bench. “Oh, yeah, it’s a first, but I think people forget I’m human,” said Thomas at the time.

Human he is, but he is also a bucket-getter and at the end of the day, that is what the game is about.

That said, the polarization will likely continue. The Nets have until next October to extend him beyond the end of his rookie contract in June 2025. They could delay deciding if they wanted — or he could reject their offer sheet — which would postpone a decision for a year but if that happens, Thomas, then 24, would be a restricted free agent ... and more than likely a trade piece.