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NBA Daily: Beilein Ball Resonating With Confident Cavaliers

Why are the Cleveland Cavaliers off to a better start than many had anticipated? Spencer Davies takes an in-depth look at a few of the reasons.

Spencer Davies

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After rolling the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden to the tune of a 108-87 final score, it wasn’t the Cleveland Cavaliers who received praise.

Instead, local and national pundits destroyed the defeated franchise that got blown out on its home floor by a “hapless” rebuilding team. Of course, when you play in such a sizable market, haven’t had real success in nearly a decade and put forth an unacceptable effort for your fans, that should be expected.

But maybe, just maybe, the Cavaliers shouldn’t be considered as “directionless” as some may have thought before the season started. Maybe, just maybe, this is a team that has heard the noise and wants to stick it to those who have laughed. And maybe, just maybe, other teams shouldn’t take them so lightly because of that.

At the 10-game mark of the current campaign, Cleveland has a 4-6 record. With a pair of victories at home and on the road, the efforts have stayed consistent and the resilience has remained — regardless of where the games have been played. There’s been a game-to-game progression, with head coach John Beilein taking out small victories from each one.

For an organization reinventing itself with a new coaching staff, this kind of competitive start is welcomed. The question to ask is whether or not it is sustainable to continue at this pace, which if accomplished would result somewhere around a 30-win year.

That is looking ahead, though. Staying in the now, the Cavaliers are oozing with confidence and having fun — and there are many reasons why.

Leaders Lead

Raise your hand if you thought Tristan Thompson would Cleveland’s top two-way player before the season started. Bueller?

In all honesty, it wouldn’t have been an implausible prediction; few expected *this* kind of production, however. Beilein is running his offense through Thompson and Kevin Love, his veteran big men, and they’ve bought in. They are at the peak of the team list in passes made and top three in assists.

While Thompson and Love dominate the two-man game on their own, it’s the impact they make on the others that stands out. Of the nine teammates they’ve shared the court with, eight of them have a plus-8.7 net rating or higher, per NBA.com. Jordan Clarkson is the only player with a negative net — and even if that’s the case, his true shooting percentage is a blazing 72.1 percent playing with them.

Each member of the Cavaliers’ championship frontcourt duo brings something different.

Love is more of your stretch-four type that spreads the floor and positions himself on the block. He’s been a little off from distance and turning the ball over more than usual, but his 51.7 percent conversion rate in post-up situations is good for the best in the NBA (min. 40 possessions). Defensively, he’s been outstanding guarding the roll man in pick-and-roll situations. That whole gobbling-up-defensive-rebounds thing is important, too.

Thompson is the middle man who has his back to the basket, hands off and creates for others by using his body like a brick wall — in fact, he is averaging 5.6 screens and 12.3 points created off of those per game, both ranking in the league’s top five. For the majority of his career, he has been a cleanup man on the offensive side and a reliable presence as a defender. Maintaining that reputation, he’s taken his game to new heights thus far.

Over the last two summers, Thompson has put an emphasis on fine-tuning his handle. We’re seeing that work pay off in games. Whether it’s been in isolation situations or even running the break, he’s taken good care of the basketball and made things happen.

As a scorer, the touch on his jump hook is as impressive as anybody’s. And of course, we can’t gloss over the fact that he’s knocked down three triples and recorded the first multi-three game of his career in Philadelphia.

With these two playing at the level they have, the trade chatter will only get louder as the days pass. Why wouldn’t it? Thompson is in a contract year making strides we’ve never seen before, and Love is an All-Star big man who can provide size and spacing — a commodity that’s currently scarce in the market — to a team trying to add that missing piece. It’s completely feasible that Cleveland’s front office hears an offer it can’t refuse and goes that route, too.

Be that as it may, keeping them around might be the smartest play. Nobody likes to be in basketball purgatory, but what some seem to forget about a rebuild is there has to be a voice in the locker room that knows the ins and outs of the league. Going full speed ahead with guys who have little experience and nobody to lean on won’t help them learn. It’s counterproductive to what you’re trying to accomplish — giving valuable minutes to guys who haven’t had much time at this level and showing them hands-on what it takes to win.

The importance of that winning feeling for development cannot be understated. Thompson and Love have stepped up as those vocal leaders who have essentially played the player-coach role in all of this. Beilein knew he would have to count on that as even he makes his transition to the NBA, and they’ve delivered on that promise.

A postgame quote by rookie guard Kevin Porter Jr. after a win in Washington says it all.

“Without them, we wouldn’t win a single game,” Porter said. “They’re our head of the snake and they just keep us all level-headed… They just pave the way for all of us.”

Running With The Young Bull

Ask Collin Sexton how much a year of NBA experience can do for you. At this point last November, there were many — including teammates — piling onto the former Alabama guard for a plethora of reasons. He was taking ill-advised shots, driving into trees without finishing and getting minced by nearly everyone he was tasked with defending. There was pressure to be ready with a mixed roster of leftover glory and young guys on their second or third chances — and he wasn’t quite there.

Fast-forward to now, carrying over momentum from the second half of his rookie season, and Sexton’s play has indicated that a sophomore surge may be in store in lieu of the dreaded common slump. Combine the fact that his work ethic is second to none and Beilein’s staff has put him in a position to succeed, and that’s a recipe for success.

Let’s start with the defensive end, an area Sexton struggled mightily with during his first year. Beilein believes he’s grasping his assignments’ tendencies better, along with the opponents’ different styles of play. Having once gone below screens in pick-and-roll situations frequently before, the Cavaliers are having him rather fight through and go over them now, at times denying handoffs and causing disruption to the ball-handler.

Sexton put on muscle this summer to adhere to said strategy, and he’s gotten results from it. Using NBA.com’s matchup data, he has held his opponents he’s guarded for at least three minutes to 38.7 percent from the field. Among those assignments were All-Star guards Kemba Walker and Bradley Beal, who combined to shoot 2-for-9 from the field. In addition, Knicks rookie RJ Barrett turned it over three times and was held scoreless by the feisty 20-year-old.

Though he’s done well closing out on shooters, he still needs work defending handoffs. Still, the drive and determination of Sexton won’t allow him to back down from any challenge — and that’s the kind of attitude it takes to become a reliable defender in the NBA.

Switching gears to offense, Sexton hasn’t lost an ounce of aggressiveness, he’s just smarter about it. Slowly, but surely, he’s cutting down those overdrives where he puts himself in no man’s land, turns it over and gift wraps points going the other way, occurrences that Beilein refers to as 50/50 plays.

By letting the game come to him, Sexton is understanding the opportunities that are presented by moving without the ball and thriving off his dual-threat game. His 1.58 points per possession average on spot-ups is good for No. 1 in The Association (min. two possessions), so opponents are going to close out hard when he’s taking threes. Using his quickness, he’s a slight pump fake away from zooming into the paint and either finishing or finding a teammate.

Remember those long twos last season? Those are essentially gone. Sexton is much more cognizant of his shot selection and, now that he’s positioned on the elbow, can operate more smoothly within a free-flowing system. It’s definitely worth mentioning his growth on fastbreaks, too, scenarios in which he used to often outrun himself and get into trouble. He’s still the same blur of speed — just more aware of his surroundings.

Sometimes, as the coach has said before, doing less is more.

Cleveland is finding out the type of guard he is — a point guard who scores or a scorer who can be a point guard. What we’re witnessing suggests the latter and, unlike what his critics say, that’s just fine. Beilein has been in Sexton’s ear about being an efficient player, so regardless of his assist count at face value — he’s created the fourth-most points on the team, by the way — the Young Bull has answered the bell.

A Wolf Comes In For Backup

Jordan Clarkson is one of the most dependable scorers in the NBA. Beilein was an instant fan of Clarkson from the onset of training camp. He’s a player who hunts and will be aggressive in everything he does on the floor, which is a “wolf mentality” according to the Cavaliers’ coach.

You wouldn’t think it by the reaction he gets on social media, which seems a little unfair when you dig deeper into what he brings to the table. Clarkson has been a streaky guy for the majority of his career, but the work he’s put in to get better and contribute in multiple facets should be commended.

Did you know Clarkson’s 51 potential assists are the second-most on the team behind Darius Garland? According to Cleaning The Glass, he has a 17.9 assist percentage.

How about his average of 0.396 points per touch leading Cleveland far-and-away, just like his 6.4 points per drive? Everyone needs that guy who can go out and get a bucket — and that’s exactly what Clarkson does.

Yes, he can be a bit overzealous at times and a gambler on the defensive end — and it can hurt — but that’s in the nature of a wolf. He’s made more good decisions than bad, rarely turns the ball over and paces a second unit that desperately needs a boost in the offense department.

With the bench, Matthew Dellavedova needs to be better. Larry Nance Jr. has improved as a shooter, yet needs to take the defensive challenge more consistently. Porter is figuring out his niche. All of this probably goes smoother if John Henson or Ante Zizic reenter the mix to stop everybody from playing up a position.

While Garland has shown flashes of brilliance, he is still finding his footing as Sexton had to last year, and Cedi Osman has to be more reliable on both ends.

There’s no question that there’s work to be done. Being in the close games that they’ve been in, executing in crucial situations has to be a focus.

But Cleveland is jelling as well as it ever has as one cohesive, structured group. The old sports cliche is you win as a team and lose as a team, but that saying couldn’t be truer in this case.

Touches are about equal all-around. The ball is moving. There hasn’t been a game yet where the outcome has been decided before the fourth quarter, a normal staple of rebuilding organizations that take bumps and bruises.

Are 10 games enough of a sample size to determine what’ll happen in the next 72? Probably not.

Is it fair to say it gives a glimpse of what the team’s identity could look like down the road? Most definitely.

Beilein Ball is only in its beginning stages.

Cleveland is eager to find out what the next step looks like.

Spencer Davies is a Deputy Editor and a Senior NBA Writer based in Cleveland in his third year with Basketball Insiders. Covering the league and the Cavaliers for the past five seasons, his bylines have appeared on Bleacher Report, FOX Sports and HoopsHype.

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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.

Douglas Farmer

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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.

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
Michael Jordan 3/28/1990 69 37 44
Kobe Bryant 12/20/2005 62 31 41
LeBron James 3/3/2014 61 33 44
Kobe Bryant 2/2/2009 61 31 42
Karl Malone 1/27/1990 61 26 35
Klay Thompson 12/5/2016 60 33 45

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.

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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.

Drew Maresca

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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.

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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.

Douglas Farmer

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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.

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