It was not the first time Cam Thomas scored 40 points in an NBA game. But it was, perhaps, the most promising performance of them all.
See, when Thomas notched his seventh career 40-burger against the Philadelphia 76ers on Saturday, it didn’t matter that the Brooklyn Nets were facing an opponent missing five rotation players. The particulars of Thomas’ stat-line didn’t matter much either, not the 14-of-26 shooting nor the five assists.
There were encouraging moments in isolation and as a pick-and-roll operator, including this timely read of the low-man as explained by The Dunker Spot’s Steve Jones Jr:
Good read from Cam Thomas here. Sixers switch the first screen, do not on the second. House is showing help, quick decision on the skip pass. Offenses are making the reads to punish any breakdown from defenses. pic.twitter.com/KFOaeNbcIw— Steve Jones Jr. (@stevejones20) February 3, 2024
That’s not what I’m here to discuss. As an initiator, Thomas made some nice plays, took some tough shots, and turned it over a bit more than we’re used to seeing from him. But we didn’t see a ton of Thomas the ball-pounder despite his gaudy stat-line, and the isolation possessions we did see were well-timed, coming either late in the shot-clock or on cross-matches after Brooklyn pushed the ball up the floor. Poor Mo Bamba:
Rather, Thomas was at his best on Saturday evening because he leaned into his top skill. That’s right, three-point shooting! Specifically, off the catch.
Thomas has always been an excellent jump-shooter no matter his play-style. We’ve all seen how he gets his buckets. But early in his career, questions of co-existing in a backcourt with fellow scoring machines and/or point guards like Kyrie Irving and Spencer Dinwiddie persisted. Thomas just didn’t seem comfortable as an off-ball offensive player, hesitating at the 3-point line to not only short-circuit Brooklyn’s offense, but to deprive himself of a good look.
Well, we still don’t know exactly who is an ideal back-court fit with CT, but this season, he’s broadened the possibilities. He’s shooting 43.9% on catch-and-shoot threes this season 2.6 attempts a game. Out of 165 players who have taken as many attempts as Thomas, he’s 25th league-wide in accuracy. Even after one (37.9%) or two dribbles (38.5%), he’s still a marksman; only after three-or-more dribbles does his accuracy dip (26.1%), per nba.com. In other words: Shoot the ball, and quick!
And his performance in Philly may have been the peak of newfound quick trigger. He shot 5-of-11 on 3-pointers Saturday, including this trio of makes...
There’s always going to be time for Thomas to dance with the rock, particularly with this supporting cast. This season, he’s in the top-30 in the NBA in isolation and pick-and-roll possessions per game. The Brooklyn Nets have indeed Let Cam Cook. And while he’s made various strides as on on-ball decision-maker, from the lob-throwing to the enticing skip pass at the top of the article, seeing him instill true fear into Philadelphia’s defense was a different experience.
Nick Nurse and the Sixers could not simply decide to trap Thomas or shade him to the left, two defensive strategies that have been effective in slowing the third-year guard this season. Not when he doesn’t have the ball in the first place. Instead, when Thomas was spotting up or relocating along the perimeter, he left Philadelphia defenders with one option: panic.
There’s nothing to do with an elite catch-and-shooter except to run them off the line. But when the Sixers managed to do that, Thomas consistently made the right play. His five assists did not include either of these two passes, drive-and-kicks to create open 3-point looks:
However, two of his 40 did come on this floater after scooting around a closeout with one easy dribble. leaving Terquavion Smith dead in his tracks:
Simple. There were step-back threes and fallaway-middies, but by and large, Thomas’ scored simple buckets and made simple reads against the Philadelphia 76ers. That’s why his 40-ball was so inspiring, not (solely) the result of catching a heater but sound decision-making, both playing off of — and enhancing — his teammates. The process seems quite repeatable.
Thomas may not shoot 5-of-11 from deep every game; heck, he probably won’t keep making damn-near 44% percent of his catch-and-shoot threes. But at this point in this season, we can confidently say CT is deadly from beyond. With the tremendous elevation on he gets on his jumper and the shot-making versatility he’s displayed through nearly three NBA seasons, how could he not be?
If Thomas continues to embrace that part of his game, both he and his teammates will reap the benefits. As his on-ball creation skills continue to be a work-in-progress — no shade to a 22-year-old who’s already set a career-high in minutes this season — here is an avenue to immediate production for Thomas. And what better time to produce than in the months leading up to his rookie-extension negotiations? (The Nets can extend him anytime through Opening Night in 2024-25 or wait a year when he will be a restricted free agent.)
While Jacque Vaughn was noncommittal on starting Thomas moving forward, Mikal Bridges had a different tone at Monday morning’s shootaround:
Mikal on Cam Thomas chemistry . “Him being in the starting lineup makes it easier.” pic.twitter.com/3oIzSid1xL— Sawce (@sawcegod15) February 5, 2024
The ex-LSU Tiger did not match his career-high with 40 points in Philadelphia. He’s handed out more than five assists in a game, and made more than five 3-pointers as well. You couldn’t look at the box score and make an argument that it was the most promising game he’s ever played.
But in dominating the Philadelphia 76ers, Thomas flashed star-potential on the offensive end. He took open shots, made quick reads, and ultimately broke the opponent’s defense.
Not everybody can turn the mundane into 40 points and a victory. But not everybody is Cam Thomas.