This is the second part of our Nike Hoop Summit report, focusing on the World team. As with our Team USA report, the players are divided into tiers based on likely NBA potential.
Emmanuel Mudiay, Point Guard, Committed to SMU
The most important thing to understand about Mudiay is that he absolutely is a point guard despite being 6’5 in shoes with a 6’8.5 wingspan. He has a very solid handle and can execute advanced dribble moves and hesitations in the pick-and-roll, as well as create separation with his crossover. He has above-average quickness, although he is more a very good athlete than a nuclear Derrick Rose, John Wall, or Russell Westbrook type.
Mudiay was relatively unimpressive in some of the practices I saw, but his stated plan was to get his teammates involved more in practice before taking over in the game. That is ultimately what he did, shooting 8-18. That could have been much better had he not missed a few bunnies at the rim, but he certainly showed the ability to penetrate and push the ball for layups on the break even against the athletic Team USA roster.
The Congo native’s jump shot is not great, and his range at this point is much more midrange than FIBA 3. But his form is solid and he is beyond the point where players like Derrick Rose and John Wall were with their jumpers at an equivalent stage. Mudiay is going to SMU next year, where he will be coached by Larry Brown. That should help him smooth out the rough edges of his game, assuming he can get along with the demanding coach. Brown was the reason he went to SMU, so one would think it should work out well.
Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk, Shooting Guard, Ukraine
The 16 year-old Mykhailiuk was already covered in detail in the first practice report, and I saw little to change my opinion later in the week. The Ukrainian’s only weaknesses are his physical strength* and propensity to take a few bad jumpers. In the game, one fairly ridiculous attempt from behind the backboard in the right corner earned him a seat on the bench for much of the contest. In total he played only 13 minutes. This was a shame because even right now he is a much better player than either Jamal Murray (32 minutes) and Brandone Francis (19 minutes), and might have helped boost the World’s 82 offensive efficiency.
*He has already filled out quite a bit in the last year or so, as evidenced by the below video from when he was 15.
As it was, Mykhailiuk still had a chance to show off some nice passes against the US press and get a couple of deflections that illustrated his quick hands on defense, but he finished 1-4, 0-3 on threes. Ultimately, Mykhailiuk looked the part of a future lottery pick. He speaks excellent English, and there is a decent chance he comes to the US to start college in the fall as one of the youngest freshman in the country.
In the meantime, the dunk contest footage at the start of this video provides an excellent idea of his athleticism.
Make sure to also read: Duncan’s scouting report on the USA’s top players in the Nike Hoop Summit
Karl Towns, Center, Committed to Kentucky
Towns had a disappointing game relative to his performance earlier in the week, as he only managed 17 foul-filled minutes as a result of some questionable calls. But it was telling that his absence was a major factor, as the World team played the US evenly when he was in there. He had two impressive blocks of shots in the air, including a helpside swat of a Jahlil Okafor jump hook up near the square of the backboard. He frustrated Okafor’s attempts to post him up as well, showing off his improved strength. Towns and Okafor even got into it at one point before he was unjustly charged with his fourth foul. It is noteworthy how much Towns has improved his ability to mix it up inside over last year’s Hoop Summit.
Offensively Towns had a nice catch and finish and a solid postup for a one-footed hook coming across the lane, but missed a couple other hooks inside. He did not get much chance to play pick-and-pop on the perimeter, and did not shoot a jumper during the game. Nevertheless his length, movement and shooting ability make him a very intriguing long-term prospect even if he never develops into a one-on-one post scorer.
It really is a tough call between Towns and Okafor for best big man prospect in the class of 2015. Okafor has the better pedigree and feel for the game, and will be in the perfect four-out system to showcase his skills at Duke next year. Towns is going to what will be a very crowded Kentucky frontcourt, and John Calipari may not really use his shooting ability at all.* I fully expect Okafor to have the better year next year, but I may slightly prefer Towns as a long-term prospect at this point due to his shooting and potential as a rim-protector.
*He could conceivably deploy some enormous units with Towns at the 4 since he can shoot, then go with a massive zone defense, but that does not seem like Calipari’s style.
Potential NBA Rotation Players
Trey Lyles, Power Forward, Committed to Kentucky
In other settings, such as the U-19 World Championships last July, Lyles was able to use his strength and footwork to get buckets inside. But this was not Lyles’ best week, as he proved unable to get much going during practices or the game. He was usually matched up with Towns in practice, and proved unable to overpower him or really get clean looks off against his length. He had to resort to a lot of fadeaway jumpers, which predictably did not convert at a high rate. He had similar problems finishing inside against Team USA’s athleticism during the game, as he shot 3-11 despite taking all of his shots in the lane. Lyles did finish with 11 rebounds, five offensive, in his 25 minutes. His jumper was not really falling this week, but he has solid form and looks comfortable enough shooting in the 15 foot range.
Lyles moves well laterally for his 250 pound size, playing at the top of the World’s 3-2 zone that pressured upcourt to take time off the shot clock. He also has a solid rebounding mentality and hits the glass hard. He too has been compared to Carlos Boozer, but I think he has more quickness and a higher skill level at this point than Boozer did, as well as much more length with his 7’3.5 wingspan and 6’10 height in shoes. He does not really block shots, nor is he going to dunk on people, but he is by no means a bad athlete either. These attributes mean that Lyles should be able to at least avoid being a defensive liability in the NBA.
In Related: Basketball Insiders’ NBA Draft page
Damien Inglis, Combo Forward, France
The French small forward has an NBA body and then some at a chiseled 6’8, 240, with a 7’3 wingspan and huge hands. Unfortunately, he does not play with the greatest intensity, so a lot of his athleticism doesn’t quite translate. At no point during the week would one have described him as playing particularly hard. The effort was not bad, but it did not stand out either. The contrast between he and the American wings one year his junior was striking. That was exacerbated by the fact he did not appear to have much feel or many moves aside from simply a three point set shot.
That shot does appear to be a weapon though. He has a very compact release and has clearly worked on not bringing the ball down to his waist before shooting, although he doesn’t have the highest release point. He is shooting 40 percent on threes on limited attempts in French Pro A competition, and while he may not become quite that level of shooter in the NBA he should at least be a threat from beyond the arc. He does not turn 19 until May, so he has plenty of time to work on his skills.
Because he is not a particularly gifted scorer or ballhandler, Inglis is perhaps most intriguing as a small ball spotup four. He should be able to hold up strengthwise at that position, and did not get taken advantage of under the basket at the bottom of the World’s 3-2 zone. He is not really a shotblocker though, nor did he particularly impress on the boards.
If Inglis can up his intensity level and prove he can hold up as a four, he becomes a much more intriguing prospect.
Fringe/Second Round NBA Players
Clint Capela, Center, Switzerland
Capela was being talked about as a lottery pick before the week started, but that would be a major reach in my opinion. This is now the second time I’ve seen him in person after the 2013 adidas Eurocamp in Treviso, and he did not stand out in either setting. Lyles, Towns, and Inglis started over him, and rightfully so based on their practice performances.
At 6’11, 222 with a 7’4 wingspan, Capela’s skills are limited to blocking shots and finishing alley oops around the rim.* He has a herky jerky jump shot that actually went in a few times, but it did not look smooth enough to be a major weapon for him. He looks like his skill level is always going to be more center than power forward, and that is a problem given how thin he is.
*He did have one nice layin finish from behind the backboard during the game, but that was an aberration.
Most concerning is Capela’s lack of feel overall. He was the most likely World player to make mental errors, although there may have been a bit of a language barrier involved there as well. During the game, he picked up four fouls in the first half with some silly over the backs. Throughout the week he did not prove particularly adept at finding creases for guards to give him dumpoffs, and his few postups invariably resulted in wild misses or turnovers. He also is very weak right now. In a 2 on 2 drill in which the defense switched the pick and roll, Capela proved totally unable to post up even against guards.
Capela has some potential due to his length and solid if not outstanding jumping ability, measured at 31 inches at the 2013 Eurocamp. However, his skill level and feel leave a lot to be desired. I do not see him as better than an early second-round prospect at this point.
Jamal Murray, Combo Guard, Canada
Murray goes 6’4.5 with a 6’8 wingspan, weighing in at 195 pounds. His best attributes are his shooting ability and his February 1997 birthday, making him a year younger than every player in the game but Mykhailiuk. He is very steady for his young age, earning a game-high 32 minutes.* And he also is an excellent shooter for a high school junior, with easy range out to the FIBA line. During one impressive sequence, he drained two consecutive threes as the pick and roll ballhandler when his man went under the screen. Murray is not really a point guard, but can handle the ball and bring it up in a pinch. He largely handled the ball for the World team as the closest thing to a point guard when Mudiay sat.
*This may have been aided by the fact that coach Roy Rana is also the coach of the Canadian junior teams.
The Canadian’s biggest weakness is a lack of athleticism. He does not appear to be a particularly good leaper, nor does he create separation off the dribble without a screen. He could certainly stand to improve his defense, which is a worry given his lack of elite quickness. Murray was guarding Tyus Jones at the end of the game and got torched a couple of times by him one-on-one as Team USA put the game away in the fourth quarter.
It is hard to give Murray a high ceiling due to his lack of athleticism, but he should make a nice college player with his shooting ability. An NBA future may be too much to ask unless he can develop into a J.J. Redick level shooter and improve his quickness.
James Birsen, Small Forward, Turkey/Fenerbahce
I first saw Birsen at the 2012 Eurocamp, when he was still 17. Since then he has grown to 6’10 and gotten a little stronger, but he is a below average athlete and probably always will be. He has not improved as much as one would have hoped in the last two years, despite the fact he plays in the Euroleague for Turkish powerhouse Fenerbahce. He has nice vision and willingly takes FIBA threes with solid form, although these did not fall at a particularly outstanding rate for him during the week.
Birsen can put the ball on the deck but lacks the quickness to get by his man, often having to settle for a contested jumper near the free throw line with his man still in front of him. He will throw the occasional incisive pass and willingly moves the ball, but his lack of explosion really limits his upside. He seems to fit the stereotype of the old school Euro small forward: someone who is tall and can shoot but lacks the athleticism to play on the wing or as a big. He logged a number of minutes as a smallball four with the World big men in foul trouble, but it is not his natural position.
As a smart player in a good program who already has some high-level experience, Birsen might be worth a draft and stash late in the second round whenever he eventually comes out. If he becomes an absolute money shooter and gets strong enough to mix it up inside, it’s possible he could find a role in the NBA. But it is likely that his limited physical profile will prevent that from happening.
Nikola Jokic, Center, Serbia/Mega Vizura
Jokic might have been the most skilled big man at the Hoop Summit when you consider his outside shooting, but his complete lack of strength and explosion really limit his NBA future. The 19 year old was reportedly very solid in the first two practices, and he showed flashes of that later in the week. He is deadly in the post when he gets a smaller player switched onto him, and is an excellent shooter out to the FIBA arc, even on pick and pops.
But it really is hard to see him surviving on the interior in the NBA. Although he somehow weighed in at 253 lbs, he sure doesn’t look it. He is thin, but also has zero muscle definition and can’t jump at all. At 6’11 with a 9’3 standing reach, he still is barely able to dunk even when wide open. And challenging shots is not his forte either; for comparison, look how much higher Towns gets on this dunk despite their similar standing reaches.
Jokic was also totally overmatched in post defense against Jahlil Okafor during the game.
Perhaps this sounds harsh, but Jokic is being talked up as an NBA prospect and it is hard to see how he gets there unless he can really improve his athleticism. Given how his body looks, that does not seem to be in the offing even if he does hit the weights.
Gao Shang, Wing, China
Gao was somewhat superior to recent Chinese prospects at the Hoop Summit, as he at least did not look totally out of place in the practices. He has a nice release on his jumper and can drain international threes. He earned the nickname “G-Money” from the coaching staff since he compiled the best record in the shooting drills. At 6’7, 220 he is muscular and doesn’t get pushed around.
Gao is not a particularly skilled dribbler or passer, and was not really able to finish inside either. He moves his feet pretty well, but still has below-average NBA athleticism. Unfortunately, he required an interpreter which did not help in picking up some of the schemes, and he only played three minutes in the game. Nevertheless, one NBA scout remarked to me that he killed the World team’s momentum early in the fourth quarter as the US broke away from a 61-61 tie at the end of three. Gao is not really an NBA prospect, but should have a reasonable international career.
Brandone Francis, Shooting Guard, Committed to Florida
Francis turns 20 in September, but the Florida commit was not really able to make an impact here. He is a shooting guard with good form on his jumper, but does not appear to have FIBA range yet. That jumper is his best attribute, as his body is a little doughy at 6’4.5″, 208. He doesn’t have a lot of explosion or ability to get by guys off the dribble, nor did he really make any great passes during the week. He should have a nice college career, but an NBA or even high-level international future would be a major surprise.
A Cautionary Note
It is important to remember that we are dealing with just a few practices here, and thus a rather small sample size. For instance, I wrote earlier that Justise Winslow struggled to finish non-dunks inside. This was based on a sample of about eight shots over the course of the week. Obviously, much more evaluation is needed to arrive at a definitive evaluation of these prospects, especially in separating out the upper echelon.
Nevertheless, in-person scouting trips like this prove quite valuable to gauge players’ athleticism, see their work habits and how they respond to coaching in practice, and get a sense of how they interact with their teammates.
NBA Daily: Kobe’s 81 Is An Untouchable Feat
Of Kobe Bryant’s lengthy list of accomplishments and records, his 81-point game is the one that has no peer.
Of Kobe Bryant’s lengthy list of accolades, accomplishments and records, the most obvious of them may also be the most under-appreciated.
NBA fans can cite Kobe contemporaries that can match his five NBA championships. In addition to Tim Duncan and Steve Kerr, LeBron James is at No. 3 and still counting. And of course, James passed Kobe’s 33,643 career points just this weekend, moving into third all-time.
Continuing to move the game forward @KingJames. Much respect my brother 💪🏾 #33644
— Kobe Bryant (@kobebryant) January 26, 2020
Kobe’s career-high 35.4 points per game in 2005-06 falls short of James Harden’s current stretch, averaging 36.07 this season and 36.13 last year. In fact, Harden’s career average of 24.97 points slots just behind Kobe’s 24.99, both behind LeBron’s 27.10 and Kevin Durant’s 27.02.
But no modern player has come close to Kobe’s legendary 81-point game during that 2006 season. Sure, Devin Booker tallied 70 three years ago and David Robinson got to 71 back in 1994, but neither were actually that close to Kobe’s iconic torching of the Toronto Raptors.
When Booker poured in 70 against the Boston Celtics, he needed 40 field goal attempts to do it. At his shooting rates that March night, he would have needed to take another seven shots to reach Kobe’s 81. If he didn’t attempt more free throws, then that number ticks up to 10 more attempts.
Sticking to that math, Robinson’s 71 would have needed six more hoists to beat Kobe to 81, a total of 47 hypothetical attempts.
By no means was Kobe the epitome of efficiency when he outscored everyone but Wilt Chamberlain by going 28-of-46 and 7-of-13 from deep – supplemented by an 18-of-20 performance at the free throw line. Nonetheless, he was hardly detrimental to the Los Angeles Lakers’ offense.
In the last 40 years, only five players have come within 20 points of Kobe’s singular feat while shooting at rates such that they could have theoretically gotten to 81 points on fewer than his 46 field goal attempts. Two of those, naturally, came from Kobe himself.
|Player||Date||Points||FGA||Total FGA needed to reach 81|
For someone long-criticized for his shot volume, Kobe was the definition of an efficient mass scorer more often than anyone else, to such a degree he has essentially been without a peer for 30 years.
Aside from Thompson, the obvious nominee of who might match Kobe is a healthy Stephen Curry, even though he has never scored more than 54 points in a game. When Curry reached that mark at Madison Square Garden in 2013, he would have needed to take another 14 shots to have a genuine chance at 81, for a total of 42 attempts. His 53-point effort in 2015 would have also needed to get to 42 attempts to be on pace to match Kobe.
There is, however, another volume scorer to watch, one who came within 20 points of Kobe’s best just last week. Damian Lillard’s week warrants Kobe-esque notice.
Last Monday: 61 points on 17-of-37 shooting against the Warriors; would have need 50 shots to catch Kobe.
Thursday: 47 points on 16-of-28 shooting against the Mavericks; would have needed 49 shots to catch Kobe.
Sunday: 50 points on 14-of-23 shooting against the Pacers, would have needed 38 shots to catch Kobe.
To wit, take last night as an example: Lillard scored 50 points in an impeccably efficient matter, but if he had somehow not missed a single shot, he would have scored only 74 points.
Fittingly, a monomaniacal guard with a penchant for game-winning shots is the one scoring in bunches in ways that can be compared to only Kobe – yet the Portland Trail Blazers’ guard remains far short of the 81-point standard.
But that just goes to show how amazing Kobe’s night on Jan. 22, 2006 really was.
The five-time champion, first-ballot Hall of Famer achieved many things and left an imprint beyond our grasp this tragic week, but his one night of heaviest binge scoring may be the least likely piece of his career to ever be repeated.
It has no modern peer and even those the closest to matching it have tended to fall a dozen shots and 20 points short.
But that day? In today’s modern NBA landscape, that’s a great chance we’ll never, ever see something quite like it again.
Kobe Bryant, a legend and icon in so, so many ways.
NBA Daily: Deadline Dilemma In Toronto
After winning the 2019 NBA Championship and losing Kawhi Leonard, the Toronto Raptors have defied the odds, winning 30 of their first 44 games this season — but Drew Maresca argues that conceding this season in hopes of building an even stronger future roster is the smarter long-term move.
The Raptors have overachieved in a ridiculous way in 2019-20. They were +700 to repeat as NBA champions prior to the 2019 free agency period, according to the Draft Kings.
Immediately after Kawhi Leonard fled West, the Raptors’ odds grew to +2200 to repeat – tied with the Celtics, who just lost Kyrie Irving, and the Nets, whose best player was set to miss the entire year. And yet through 44 games, the Raptors are third in the Eastern Conference with a 31-14 record and only one-and-a-half games behind last year’s pace (32-12).
But what’s in a record? There’s more to unpack than just wins and losses, especially when success has almost certainly been redefined in a city that just experienced its first NBA championship ever. So a logical test is how well you’re playing against the crème de la crème. And in that regard, the Raptors haven’t fared too well. Including their home win against Philadelphia on Wednesday night, the Raptors are still only 7-12 against winning teams with a net rating of minus-37 in those 19 games.
Very few teams would be terribly upset to be in a similar situation as the Raptors. In fact, most teams would be thrilled to be third overall in their conference. But the Raptors are barreling toward an interesting decision: embrace the opportunity to continue to gain playoff experience (and additional playoff revenue) or expedite a miniature rebuild. This writer’s thoughts on the matter are well documented in our 2019-20 Toronto Raptors Season Preview and our recent Atlantic Division – buyers or sellers piece. But let’s officially build a case supporting the Raptors trading some of their veterans in an attempt to add assets prior to the Feb. 6 trade deadline.
The Raptors’ most valuable trade chip is also their longest-tenured player – starting point guard, Kyle Lowry. Lowry is 33 years old and experiencing a career resurgence after taking a back seat to Leonard last year. Lowry is averaging a near career-high 37.1 minutes per game, in which time he’s scoring 20 points per game – more than he’s scored since 2016-17 — and dishing out 7.5 assists.
But Lowry is probably the last guy the team wants to move. He’s a fan favorite and has been with the team for eight consecutive seasons; Lowry is currently third overall for games played in franchise history. But if they chose to dangle Lowry on the trade market, they would certainly get a good amount of interest from teams like the Lakers, HEAT, 76ers and maybe even the Jazz and Nuggets. What interested parties would offer is an entirely different story, but it would have to be pretty aggressive to get the Raptors to part with their franchise player.
But there are other guys who make more sense in a trade.
There’s Marc Gasol, their soon-to-be 35-year-old center. Unlike Lowry, Gasol is not experiencing a career renaissance. He’s missed 12 of their 44 games, with down years in scoring (7.8 points per game compared to his 14.7 career average), two-point shooting (44% compared to his from 49.7% career average) and rebounds (6.4 rebounds compared to his 7.6. career average). But he still has a good amount of utility in him. After all, he leads the Raptors in defensive plus/minus, per Basketball Reference – something that he’s prided himself on throughout his career and an attribute that would be a welcomed addition to most contenders.
There’s also Serge Ibaka, their 30-year-old sometimes-starting, sometimes-backup big man. Ibaka is actually outpacing career averages in scoring (14.9), rebounds (8.4) and assists (1.3). Ibaka is still widely viewed as an above-average and versatile defender, and the fact that he’s shooting 37% on three-pointers makes him all the more valuable to teams like the Boston Celtics – who lack a true big man who can stretch the floor.
Gasol and Ibaka’s standing in Toronto is especially vulnerable since both will enter free agency this summer — whereas Lowry signed an extension last year that runs through 2020-21, when he’ll make $30.5 million. The Raptors could choose to keep Gasol and/or Ibaka, but either or both could walk without returning any assets as soon as this July. Further, the team is unlikely to break the bank for either considering they’ll have to make a generous offer to retain soon-to-be free agent guard Fred VanVleet – who is having a breakout season, averaging 18.7 points and 6.7 assists per game while shooting 38.8% on a career-high 6.9 three-point attempts per game. VanVleet is only 25 years old and fits alongside Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby and the team’s young role players like Norman Powell far better than Ibaka or Gasol.
As it stands, the Raptors have about $85 million in salary commitments for 2020-21 with $3.8 million in a player option (Stanley Johnson) and another $1.5 million in a team option (Terence Davis). The cap is projected at $116 million with the luxury tax kicking in at $141 million. They can (and should) invest between $20 and $25 million per year in VanVleet, which brings them up to about $110 million. If negotiations begin creeping north of $25 million per year, the Raptors will have to make concessions elsewhere if they hope to retain VanVleet – Ibaka would theoretically be among those concessions since he’ll probably be looking for at least one more generous payday. It’s unclear what Gasol would seek in a new contract.
All three of the aforementioned Raptors have at least one thing in common – they are the only three Raptors born before 1990. So whether they like it or not, the Raptors have turned their roster over quickly and effectively to the extent that they have a talented young core with the framework of a contender in the making.
All three veteran players can definitely continue contributing for at least the remainder of this season – and to varying degrees, well beyond it. But their impact will be more profound on a contender looking to add quality veterans. And despite what their record tells us, that’s just not the Raptors right now.
Instead, the Raptors are a team in the very fortunate position of being able to reload relatively quickly around a blossoming young core. Yes, they’re significantly better than average, but which would you prefer: a team that qualifies for the conference semifinals in 2019-20 or a team that loses in the first round of the 2019-20 playoffs, but adds additional assets — some of whom help the team remain competitive for years to come?
Granted, dislodging Lowry from Toronto requires a monster offer and would result in at least some backlash; but neglecting to trade Gasol and/or Ibaka is likely to result in one or both leaving to pursue more money and/or additional championships – neither of which can the Raptors offer. The Raptors and team president Masai Ujiri have made bold moves time and again. There is no reason to hold off on moving either Gasol and/or Ibaka before Feb. 6 – and if a sweetheart offer comes in for Lowry, then him, too.
Regardless, the Raptors are fairly well set up for the future, so it is unlikely that this move (or lack of it) is analyzed too aggressively in the future. And also, there is certainly a fine line between being opportunist and greedy. But trading one, both or all veterans allows the team to add additional assets to a cupboard that already looks pretty well stocked.
And it’s probably one of the final opportunities to add talent before their core takes its final form — and if that form results in future championships is partially dependent on how the Raptors proceed before the 2020 trade deadline.
NBA Daily: Raptors’ Thomas Patiently Perseveres
It took a tight family, two years in Spain and a broken finger, but Matt Thomas’ chance to showcase his shooting on the biggest stage might be finally just around the corner.
Matt Thomas’ long-awaited break was disrupted by a more literal break. After the shooting guard spent two years impressing in the Liga ACB in Spain, Thomas’ first season with the Toronto Raptors was supposed to be his chance to prove himself NBA-ready.
And as the Raptors suffered injury after injury in November, that chance looked like it could grow into a full-blown role, if only on a temporary basis.
“He’s shown he can play at this level, where we can come out there and run stuff for him and he can do work,” Toronto head coach Nick Nurse said. “He’s a really good team defender; he’s much better defensively than maybe people give him credit for.”
Instead, Thomas joined the walking wounded with a broken finger, the first injury to force him to miss extended time in his professional career.
“Anytime you’re injured, it’s hard,” Thomas said. “As a competitor, I want to be on the court, especially we had so many injuries. There was a big opportunity on the table for a first-year guy like myself.”
Thomas had hit 14-of-26 threes at that point, 53.8 percent, already arguably the best shooter on the Raptors’ roster, albeit in limited minutes. The Iowa State product was making the most of his break until his break.
He had waited for it since finishing his four-year career in Ames and Thomas seemed on the verge of reaching the NBA right away in 2017. He spent that Summer League with the Los Angeles Lakers, knowing the Raptors were keeping a close eye. In time, though, Valencia beckoned, a tough decision for someone exceptionally close with his family. Up until that point, the closeness had been as literal as figurative, with Iowa State a four-hour drive from Thomas’ hometown of Onalaska, Wisconsin.
“I wanted to spread my wings and get out of my comfort zone a little bit,” Thomas said of his two years in Spain where he averaged 13.3 points and shot 47.2 percent from deep. “The distance is tough. The time change is the other thing. It’s a 7-to-8 hour time difference, so you really have to coordinate when you’re going to talk to people.”
That was frustrating for a brother intent on keeping up on his sister’s college career, now a senior at the University of Dubuque. Moreover, it was an even bigger change for a family that had been tight-knit since Thomas lost his father in fifth grade.
Thomas’s mother, brother and sister did manage to visit him in Spain, but watching games stateside is obviously much easier. At least, in theory. When the Midwestern winter dumped five inches of snow on the highways between the Target Center and his hometown about 2.5 hours away, that recent trek to see him became that much tougher.
Nonetheless, about four dozen Thomas supporters filled a section above the Raptors’ bench. They were most noticeable when Nurse subbed in the sharpshooter with just a minute left in the first half.
“It’s special because I have a really good support system,” Thomas said. “I’ve had that my entire life . . . It’s just really special to have so many people make the trip, especially given the weather conditions. I was talking to one of my cousins from Iowa; he was driving 30 on the highway. He got here in six hours, it would normally take maybe three.”
If anyone could understand that Midwestern stubbornness, it would be Nurse, himself from just four hours south of the Twin Cities. When asked why his fan club was not as vocal as Thomas’, Nurse joked his was stuck “in a snowdrift somewhere in Carroll County, Iowa.”
It might not have been a joke.
Nurse did not insert Thomas just to appease his loyal cheering section. The end of half situation called for a shooter — he had gone 7-of-18 in his four games after returning from the broken finger. Of players averaging at least two attempts from beyond the arc per game, Thomas leads Toronto with a 46.7 percentage.
“It’s too bad that he was one of the guys out when we had everybody out because he could have logged some serious minutes,” Nurse said. “Now he gets back and everybody’s back and he kind of gets filtered in.”
That close family, that time in Spain, that broken finger and now that filtering in have all been a part of Thomas getting a chance to prove himself in the NBA.
If he has to wait a bit longer before seeing serious minutes, so be it.
The Raptors did, after all, give him a three-year contract. He has time on his side.