Take A Moment To Appreciate Cam Thomas Before He Returns To The Vault
12:12 PM EST on February 15, 2022
The Brooklyn Nets ended that nightmare 11-game losing streak Monday night with a decisive 109–85 win over the Sacramento Kings. Improbably, the win came in Brooklyn, where the Nets must still go without the services of the unvaccinated Kyrie Irving. Had they not been playing the Kings, who for the better part of two decades have existed primarily to end other teams' losing streaks, you or I might wonder in earnest how the Nets pulled it off. Let's pretend! Let's simply proceed as if the Brooklyn Nets snapped their skid Monday night by beating a normal NBA team.
What the Nets had Monday night that they have not had since Kevin Durant went down to a knee injury in mid-January is fresh reinforcements. Seth Curry, acquired in the James Harden Deal Zone mega-trade, started at shooting guard; Andre Drummond, another Deal Zone acquisition, stared at center, pushing LaMarcus Aldridge to the reserves and Nic Claxton to the end of the bench. Head coach Steve Nash, deploying his league-leading 32nd starting lineup of the season, reshaped the rotation, among other things relegating Blake Griffin to mop-up duty. The new-look Nets had better defensive versatility, better floor spacing, and massively better vibes. Curry, moonlighting as the Main Guy in his first appearance in a Nets jersey, put up an efficient 23 points on 31 percent usage to lead the way, and Brooklyn's offense had a pleasingly orderly shape for an outfit featuring two new players and a bunch of reserves. Simply do not remind me here that they were playing the Sacramento Kings! Never speak of that!
Rookie guard Cam Thomas put up 14 points in 26 minutes off the bench for the Nets. Thomas, selected out of LSU near the end of the first round in the 2021 draft, has seen a big jump in opportunities and productivity over the last six games, as Brooklyn's roster fell apart following Durant's crabbed knee and James Harden's hamstring injury/boredom crisis. If you are the sort of sicko who would rather watch a precocious rookie try to Go Legendary in a loss than a bored and affectless Harden yawn his way through a forgettable win, these have truly been epic times. If, on the other hand, you particularly give a rip whether the Nets escape the play-in, possibly you have seen more of Thomas than you can stand. For all that we now know of Harden's unhappiness in Brooklyn, and for how easy it is in hindsight to appreciate the cloud of misery enveloping the Nets during this aborted Big Three era, it's important to note that even with all its dysfunction, the formula was working, right up until injuries wrought the devastation that bad chemistry could not. Prior to tip-off Monday night Brooklyn had gone 18–9 this season in games where their leading scorer was Durant, and 9–6 when led by Harden, and 2–15 when led by anyone else.
If there's a silver lining to three weeks of uninterrupted losing, it's been the play of Thomas, who has been on a fun scoring tear over Brooklyn's last six games. It started with an efficient 30 points against the Jazz in Utah on Feb. 4, then continued with 20 points in Denver, and 17 at home against the Celtics, then 27 in Washington, and then 22 in Miami. What all of those games have in common is that they were losses, and several of them were brutal losses, but Brooklyn's roster has been in horrendous shape, and anyway the point is that Thomas is very fun to watch play basketball. He's a streaky shooter of deeply irresponsible pull-up jumpers, a fearless show-off in isolations, and he's got a surprisingly deep arsenal of finishing moves around the basket. When he sees a jumper or two go in he becomes a heat-checking maniac, which can be problematic for everyone involved but lately tends to be more terrifying for opponents than teammates.
Thomas is having an inefficient season, which is to be expected of a rookie volume scorer playing spotty minutes for a veteran-laden would-be contender. But recent returns suggest he might be cracking the code, which is enormously exciting: Over this recent spurt, Thomas is averaging more than 22 points a game on 60 percent true shooting, dishing three assists for every turnover, and using a healthy 26 percent of Nets possessions during his minutes. Most importantly, the Nets are starting to compete more consistently with him on the floor, which is why he led Brooklyn's reserves in minutes Monday night. Thomas can be chaotic on defense—again, he's a rookie—and guards as lowly as Raul Neto have recently made headway just attacking him off the dribble and in pick-and-roll, but a guy who can manufacture efficient offense against NBA defenses will get plenty of opportunities to iron out the kinks in his game. Thomas is quick and well-built and competitive as hell, and playing around a bunch of championship-or-bust veterans should eventually help him channel his gifts into reliable (or at least not catastrophic) on-ball defense.
The Cam Thomas experience will be fun while it lasts this regular season, which may not be too much longer. A time is coming, and soon, when Ben Simmons will join Brooklyn's rotation and immediately vault over Thomas in the ball-handling pecking order. Durant will heal up and return to action, making Thomas's flair for bold shot-making all the more inessential. And eventually New York City will lift or modify its vaccine mandate, and Kyrie Irving will return to full-time employment as Brooklyn's starting point guard. The Nets, when healthy, are deep with useful guards and ball-handlers, and as the playoffs approach Nash's rotation is likely to tighten around his team's proven veterans. Anyway rookie bench heaters generally do not earn much playing time in games of real consequence. The Nets are hunting a championship; if they've still got 20-plus minutes a night for Cam Thomas three weeks from now, in all likelihood it will mean that something has gone spectacularly wrong.
Which is fine. At 20 years of age, Thomas has plenty of time left to make his mark. It's been a fun few weeks of discovery. Thanks to injuries and bad chemistry and vaccine stubbornness, hoops fans have had a long look at a fearless, slick-handling, deep-bombing microwave scorer who might've otherwise been tucked away on Brooklyn's bench, out of sight and out of mind. Thomas has now shown what he can do with a real role on an NBA floor, and even if he must head back to the bench as Brooklyn's roster recovers, guys who can fill it up are never very far from the action. Nash put it best, after another scintillating scoring performance from his hotshot rookie, back in January: "We know he knows where the basket is, and can score the ball."