There was a shared moment of frustration amongst Raptors fans when Dwane Casey refused to dust off James Johnson and put him on Paul Pierce instead choosing to play Tyler Hansbrough. The infamous and consistent benching of Johnson is stuff of legends around these parts. It’s not at the same level as “the thirteen games”, but it’s a vivid moment in our history that has forever imbued Johnson in Raptors lore. Though not to the same frustrating degree (but perhaps so?), it rings similar to the calls of having Matt Thomas come off the bench to spread the floor against Boston in our time of need.
The similarities end there. Whereas Johnson was on his way out of town and had burned a bunch of bridges (certainly with Casey it seemed), Matt Thomas still has a part to play. All in all, I’m going to go long on the Matt Thomas stock.
Thomas makes contested shots. It’s as simple as that. There are spot-up shooters who need space and sight, and those where they are optional. Thomas is the latter because being a smaller three-point specialist playing against guys he was always conceding inches to, there was never time to get your mechanics fully set. They had to be set in advance of catch. These habits get molded into your system like reinforced steel. Situational awareness relative to the rim on a turn is where shooters like Thomas make their money, and the rookie showed enough to suggest that he has the requisites to play a part. Here’s every single three he made this season:
Shooting a 47.5% clip from three over 41 games and 150 attempts is impressive but it doesn’t earn him NBA credentials just yet. Celebrating that would be premature. All this season did for Thomas is earn the right to be given a chance next season. Like any player he’s going to elicit a response from NBA defenses and it is his response to that response that will ultimately slot his fate in the NBA. I’m going long on the stock not because I think he’ll survive that extra scrutiny, I’m doing it because the guy can handle the ball just well enough to add another dimension to his game.
His handle is tight enough that he’s able to evade defenders and reset the play if smothered, or even find a hockey assist against an aggressive defense. He doesn’t get trapped with the ball and is confident to put it on the floor even when cornered. Nobody’s expecting him to drop dimes but you’re confident that he’s not going to muck up the handle because he’s more than a one-dimensional player. The three-point shot will always be the bread-and-butter but he complements it with enough skills to allow him to take that three-point shot. He gets his own shot off even when people know exactly what shot he’s trying to get. For what it’s worth, his turnover rate (which somewhat accounts for usage) is best amongst guards on the team. All this to say he’s an able ball handler when pressured and not exclusively just a finisher.
It’s because of his handles that he can be used off-the-ball on the curl because he’s able to catch and cut aggressively without getting stripped. He may not always finish the play in those situations but to have a guy who the defense has to worry about darting inside is valuable. The most old-school bit about Thomas is that he’s not afraid to step into the mid-range game. Most times it’s a step-in, sometimes it’s a baseline floater and we’ve seen a pull-up or two as well, just to keep the defense guessing enough to buy some space outside. What’s old will be new again and once we articulate the statistical explanations behind it and someone somewhere, maybe even Nate Silver, figures out why it is so, the mid-range game will be so. Until then Matt Thomas will sharpen his saw and wait for everyone to realize it was so, and then guess who’s got something everyone wants? That’s right. Matt Thomas. 4y/100m? You wish.
Fred VanVleet took some timeout call Thomas’s general scoring ability out in a post-game interview and I was disappointed the label didn’t catch on as a nickname:
“He can shoot the ball. To be simple, you can’t leave him. He’s actually a good cutter, he’s just a good scorer, man. Obviously people love him for the three. He’s a really good scorer, he’s got a knack for getting his shot off and the spaces he cuts, he’s a one-man zone beater…they know Matt can shoot but he finds a way to get his shot off.”
Nurse’s confidence in him grew as the season progressed. He graduated from being a victory cigar to playing meaningful minutes during the regular season, to playing critical minutes against the Celtics (though not enough of them). There were countless nights where his shots were more than a token measure but carried the bench when offense was hard to find. He has in him the potential of a streak that coaches love to dab into.
In the February game against the Nets when Thomas went 6-9 for 15 points, Nurse pointed this out:
“Our assistant coaches and staff do a great job of keeping those guys ready. And he played great, he came in there and like always, every time he raises up (to shoot), you think it’s going in and he banged a bunch of them in.”
When the bench and the coach is raising their arms as you release the ball you know they’re good with you shooting. Despite being slowed by a fractured finger (non-shooting hand) he has fought through to earn that confidence. Not to harp on the issue, but damn man, he really should’ve played Game 7 more.
Unfortunately for Thomas, there is a lot of competition for playing time, especially with the emergence of Terence Davis. The latter is ahead of him in most rotations and also sports a three-point shot. Thomas can be a feisty defender and doesn’t get picked on but you can see why Nurse would prefer athleticism on most nights. His minutes will likely be spotty again but Nurse does go deep into the bench when experimenting with solutions. Thomas provides enough options not to be overlooked.
Squeeze the definition a bit more and that even looks like a rotation spot, or at least close to one that Matt Thomas would certainly take and probably deserves. But hey, (major The Wire spoiler)