Cam Thomas Is Vindication For Bucket Enthusiasts, If Not For The Nets
3:06 PM EST on February 8, 2023
To a certain type of squinting basketball reactionary, present-day NBA scoring is a travesty. Gone is the midrange artistry, they say. Bucket-getting is dead. The "analytics boys" have won, scooping out that delicious half-donut shape from the shot charts, leaving only those flavorless efficient looks at the rim or beyond the arc.
Let's pause to note that this claim is wrong and dumb on its face. As Seth Partnow laid out convincingly in his recent book, the league-wide decline in midrange attempts can be mostly be chalked up to a decline in the assisted midrange. On these catch-and-shoot looks, players have simply taken a few steps back to get behind the arc, exploiting the arcane knowledge that 3 > 2. Meanwhile, the unassisted midrange—the bucket-getting, if you like—is still alive, and arguably as vibrant as ever, because there aren't as many dudes loitering in the middle of the court to muddy the iso spectacle. The unassisted midrange attempt retains its primacy, especially in the postseason; it's just that these attempts have been delegated to the few players skilled enough to muster decent efficiency on these difficult looks. Teams won't permit any random oaf to waste a possession spelunking the depths of his one-on-one bag. If this is what the basketball reactionaries are clamoring for—more liberated oaves—then they are also clamoring for these oaves' teams to lose more games, which is fine, so long as we're all clear on that. Some people would lay down their lives for a middling microwave scorer.
Kyrie Irving has spent his whole career basking in a permanent green light, with a handle and jumper pure enough to spin consistent points out of what would be audacious straight-to-the-bench attempts for a normal player. Now, with Irving shipped to Dallas, and epochal bucket-getter Kevin Durant still out with an MCL injury, the Brooklyn Nets have allowed second-year guard Cam Thomas to try out the role. Thus far the results of this experiment read "not oaf." The 21-year-old has scored 134 points in his last three games: a win over the Wizards, then losses to the Clippers and Suns. He's now the second-youngest player ever to score 40 points in two consecutive games, after LeBron James, and the youngest ever to score 40 in three consecutive games. When informed that he'd joined LeBron in that first feat, Thomas joked that he was "a Kobe guy, though, so if you said Kobe I would've been a little more excited." One need only look at these charts to confirm this man's Kobestani loyalties:
Thomas stands just 6-foot-3, but pops high off the floor on his jumper and has a high release point as well, which allows him to get so many shots off despite never straying all that far from the nearest defender's outstretched arm. These latest gaudy feats confirm the scoring potential that's been evident since his time as LSU, and then throughout his rookie year with the Nets, in which he crossed the 20-point threshold 10 times. In his second season, 37 percent percent of Thomas's field goals have come after taking three or more dribbles, and 28 percent of them have come after seven dribbles, which are pretty hilarious numbers for anyone, let alone a teammate of KD and Kyrie. Thomas has been auditioning for this exact role for as long as he's been a basketball player in the public eye.
He's also expanding into new terrain. He scored his 44 points against the Wizards last Saturday while coming off the bench. By the end of his outing against the Clippers on Monday, Thomas was earning consistent double-teams, a first for him at the NBA level. Pull-up jimbos get much harder with Paul George and/or Kawhi Leonard flying out to help, and Thomas, visibly gunning for 50, stalled out at 47 points, a career-high. In Tuesday night's loss against the Suns, Thomas then proved his mettle as a foul merchant, going 18-for-20 from the free-throw line. In this three-game streak, he's gone 36-for-40 from the line.
Like every true microwave scorer before him, Cam Thomas can't really pass or defend, though he did make some recent strides on the former. He is wired to do this one thing—score—and he will do it pretty well, at least until the fatigue catches up to him, as he admitted it did after last night's Suns loss. If he can keep up this scoring, he will slot in nicely as a third option for the rejiggered Nets. And that was Joe Tsai's master plan, all along, right? Turn KD, Kyrie Irving, and James Harden into KD, Spencer Dinwiddie, and Cam Thomas—then profit.
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