Date: 11/30/2023

Is Cam Thomas the NBA’s Next Great Scorer?

During an early November matchup between Boston and the Brooklyn Nets, the Celtics’ Jaylen Brown was hounding Brooklyn guard Cam Thomas. Most players might pass when across from one of the league’s better defenders, but Thomas doesn’t step onto the hardwood to give up scoring opportunities. Instead, the 22-year-old drove into Brown, jump-stopped away from him with his back to the basket, leaped into the air, and swiveled almost a full 180 degrees before putting up a shot that hit nothing but nylon. Thomas has made a habit of hitting shots like this—a fact that’s earned him a reputation around the league as a pure hooper, tough shot maker, bucket getter, and A PROBLEM! For the Nets guard, it was nothing. “I’m just like, “Oh, that’s just a normal shot,” Thomas said in his trademark deadpan over Zoom early this month.

Thomas’s style of play is the natural outgrowth of a generation raised on NBA 2K and Kobe Bryant highlights. The Nets guard’s gaudy stats this season have put him on lists alongside: Michael JordanLeBron James, and Shaquille O’Neal. Most impressive is when there’s no comparison to name at all.

Three names have been particularly important in Thomas’s career so far: those of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and James Harden. The three future Hall of Famers were, unbelievably, once teammates of Thomas during a short, cursed run that saw the young guard join the most drama-filled team in the NBA as a rookie. The star power also left few opportunities for Thomas to get onto the court consistently. This year, though, Thomas was finally getting the chance to start, and proving that his scoring outbursts were sustainable. The Nets guard and I spoke in the middle of his sizzling start, before he twisted an ankle that kept him out for several weeks. He’s set to return tonight against the Charlotte Hornets.

You hit the Dame shot over Dame last night.

Yeah, I didn’t even see the clock until somebody passed it to me, and it was like 3, 2, 1. I was like, “I just gotta fire it. Good thing it went in.

But did you realize in the moment that you hit him with his own shot?

No, not really. It was just like, “Oh, I made a crazy shot.” That’s the only thing. But when you reflect on it and see everybody showing my face after and I was like, “Oh, I guess I did.”

Yeah, I was going to say the stare-down was a nice touch. How did that become your thing, like the shit’s-not-funny, serious demeanor?

Everybody always asked, “You never smile, you never laugh and stuff.” So I literally say that in every interview, even when I was coming up through high school and stuff, I’d just be like, “Nothing’s funny.” And then I guess then that time it just blew up. [Thomas even sells merch with the saying.]

Is there a reason that you lean more serious?

No, I’ve always been kind of serious playing basketball. Always been serious. I guess I got it from just being a fan of Kobe. He was always serious playing, so I guess that’s where I got it from, because coming up you try to mimic everything your favorite players do.

I’m glad you brought up Kobe because I had a question about all-time greats. So this one was from Friday night: “Over your 10 career starts, you’ve averaged 29.1 points per game, the most of any player passing…Michael Jordan in his first 10 starts.” Did you see this? And when you hear that, what do you think of that?

It’s cool. I seen it because as soon as you get on social media, everybody posts it. So I didn’t really look for it, but my sister sent it to me. So I was like, “Oh, that’s kind of cool.”

When you hear these things are you like, “Yeah, that seems right, I should be in those conversations.”

No, I’m just like, “I guess another record.”It’s cool to have records, I guess, but at the end of the day, you’re trying to get wins, so that’s really the main thing I was really looking at: how I could be better to get some wins. We’re playing well, we’re always in every game, one possession away. But I’m just trying to find a way to fix that to get those into wins. But no, it’s definitely cool to have your name mentioned with all-time greats like that, breaking records and stuff, so you never want to take that away.

What are some of those things you’re thinking you could have done differently?

Down the stretch, I’d say just trusting the pass a little more. But it’s still a learning process. This is my first year actually being in these situations and playing. I was going through some growing pains at the beginning, but that’s how you learn from it. You grow from it and then you try to apply it to the next game.

For me right now, it’s just experience at the end of the game, because my first two years I never really was in at the end of the game because we had other players for that. But this year I’m in the game now. So it’ll definitely get better as the season goes on.

Do you feel like oppopsing teams have started to key in on you? Can you feel the defensive game plan coalescing around you?

For sure. I really experienced it when we went to Chicago [on 11/3]. They really made an emphasis on not letting me get going. [The previous game against] Miami they really made that a big emphasis to take me away a little bit and just forced me to be a passer and trust the other guys, and I wasn’t really efficient those games. Obviously you want to be efficient, but as long as we win and everybody else is happy and playing well that’s all that matters at the end of the day to me.

The Heat game stood out to me. Watching it, it really felt that they had planned for you. They had Jimmy Butler defending you!

Yeah, [Butler] got on me towards the end towards the fourth quarter when I had the ball and making decisions, so that’s when he really guarded me at the end. So that’s kind of a respect thing I feel like on their part from the Heat organization.

You have become the go-to guy at the end of games. Is that a discussion that you guys have as a team or is it something that happens naturally?

It’s just a trust thing. If most people watch the game, you know that me and Mikal [Bridges] rotate a little bit: I take a possession or I’ll take two possessions in a row if I’m scoring and feeling it and then after those two I may give it to Mikal, or Mikal may give it to me. We rotate it, keep defenses off balance because you never want to give a team the same reads.

It seems like you can leap from any position and get into a shooting motion where you’re squared to the basket. Is that something that you specifically work on?

Yeah, when I was younger, just knowing not every shot’s going to be a set perfect shot, so you got to learn how to get your shot off any other way. And plus when I was coming up, a lot of people would usually, like, box-and-one me or double-team me. So I had to find ways to score through that no matter what, because nobody wants to be shut down. So I really just try to figure out little crafty ways to still get my shot off and it’s helping me now. All that’s coming back in handy.

You had an insane make against the Boston Celtics where you do a full 180º in the air before getting the shot off.

See, I didn’t even know that was a hard shot. I’m just like, “Oh, that’s just a normal shot.” I didn’t know that was a hard shot until everybody started posting, it was like, “Cam Thomas. Tough shot maker.” And I’m just like, “That was just a normal shot.”

It’s interesting to hear though that you worked on that when you were younger because I was going to ask specifically about playing with Durant, Irving, and Harden. Are there are specific little tricks that you picked up playing and practicing with those guys?

Not so much really practicing with them, but more so when I was in college or high school. I would watch highlights of mainly James and Kobe, especially when James was in Houston. That’s when I was really seeing how to do the step-back three, seeing how he draws fouls and stuff like that.

Obviously when you get close up to when you ask them, but I already knew how to do most of the step-back moves like James because I watched it and practiced it so much. So when I got my opportunity to do it, it can be just as lethal as his because it’s kind of an unguardable shot. You can’t really block it or anything.

But you never solicited them for advice and tried to pick their brains?

They kind of just took me under their wing, mainly Kyrie and KD. I got advice from them about life off the court, on the court, whatever. You ask questions about anything when you get to know somebody on that level.

Was there something off the court that they told you that’s been helpful just in terms of living the NBA life?

Yeah, of course. I don’t want to say it. [Laughs]

Do you feel like that helped your development to come into that situation? I wonder, because you’ve always been such a pure scorer, if part of you wished that you’d been drafted by, like, Indiana or Orlando, where you could have just come in and gotten starter’s minutes right away. Or do you feel like it’s really been beneficial to come in and apprentice behind these guys?

Yeah, honestly, everyone wants to come in and have that role early. Through my draft process, I was projected to be a higher pick, but I slid in the draft. But things happen for a reason. Coming to Brooklyn really helped me as far as seeing prolific scorers. Being a prolific scorer, it was useful watching those guys and learning how to work on your game and prepare. Just certain tricks of the trade that they do that you see in games that you learn and that you try to use in your own game. So I feel like it was a blessing in disguise to be drafted to Brooklyn, so it is working out right now.

But at the time when you were drafted to Brooklyn, were you like, “Damn, minutes are going to be tough to come by?”

No, not really. Obviously, me having a lot of confidence, I don’t really look at stuff like that. I would always look at, How can I help? and How can I play with these guys? But obviously, it’s tough. You’ve got three Hall of Famers in my rookie year, then going down to KD and Kyrieat one point. Everybody wants to play. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t want to play. But you just got to trust the process and just stick it out and keep working on your game and keep believing in yourself.

Did you ever end up beating KD one-on-one during his time here?

Honesty, we never really played. That’s probably the coolest thing about this year, playing against those guys. I played against Kyrie our second game of the year, I think, and then finna play against KD soon. So that’s probably the most funny part about all this.

Did Kyrie say anything to you after the game?

He definitely said something to me and we hung out a little bit. That’s still my brother at the end of the day. I can always text him or call him anything for advice or just talk or anything. So I feel like we have a really strong bond. Same thing with KD. I feel like we grew a really strong bond, so if I ever wanted to call him or text me anything, I’m pretty sure he would respond back and call me.

Do you have a favorite game of your career so far?

I’d probably say the game against the Knicks my rookie year. Because we were down by like 25 or something and then we came back and won in Madison Square Garden.

What’s it like living in a big city like Brooklyn? You’ve been there for a few years, but it must have been a big change for you at first coming from LSU and growing up in Virginia.

Yeah, it was a big change at first. When I first got here it was crazy. It was a little fast because I’m from Virginia and that’s more suburban—it’s not really city life. But it’s cool now. I’m used to it. You find different spots you go to that you’re used to, and then you just get familiar with everything, so it’s good.

What are your spots?

Honestly, I live downtown [Brooklyn], so there’s a Chick-fil-A right there.

You don’t have favorite New York restaurants?

I don’t really go out for real, so I don’t really have that yet, but maybe eventually when I get some time a little few days off in between some games I’ll probably go find some spots.

Are you on the Citi bikes? Do you walk, take the subway?

Nah, just Ubers.

Do you feel like you’re starting to get recognized more?

Yeah, I got recognized a lot my second year. This past year when I would walk out and just go to the store, try to get some stuff for my apartment, a lot of people would notice me, so now I’m just like, “Ah, probably just got to DoorDash everything.” I got recognized a lot in my second year and I already know this year it’s probably going to be even more crazy.

Do you remember the first big expensive thing that you bought with your first NBA paycheck?

My second year, I got my mom a car as a gift. She wanted a Range Rover. That’s probably the biggest thing. And probably some jewelry. Just some jewelry for myself, but I don’t really spend much. I don’t really have nothing crazy.

You seem to have very much taken the KD school of the tunnel fit—just a sweatsuit and flying under the radar.

Yeah, because my first year I was like, “Okay, I got to find some good clothes.” And then I’m just like, “I’m not even going to just keep spending my money on this stuff.” I’m just getting some sweats, some Nike Techs, wear some nice shoes and call it a day. You’re just going to get in there, change into your uniform anyway so it doesn’t really matter. So I was like, “Yeah, I’m not going to spend all my money on clothes again.”

That’s just like an endless chase of just trying to get Instagrammed by @LeagueFits.

Exactly. And I’m like, “Nah, I’m not here for that.” I’m trying to get on the court and play, get buckets. So I’m not really worried about that.

The Nets probably endured the most drama of any team in the league since you came in. Is it kind of a relief to be flying under the radar this year and to be without that drama?

No, it doesn’t really matter, honestly, it’s just what comes with it. Obviously, when you have KD, Kyrie, James, there are a lot of expectations the media puts on you to go win a championship. This year, the media doesn’t have really high expectations for us to win a championship or even make the playoffs. So obviously, the only thing that changed is the expectations part from the media, but obviously from within the team we want to make the playoffs and win the championship as well.

What do you think the casual fan is maybe missing about how Ben Simmons is playing this year?

Obviously, the casual fans will look at the stat sheet, but you got to actually watch the game to see that Ben does a whole lot of great things for us as far as guarding the other team’s best player, pushing the pace, rebounding and getting guys involved and just being Ben.

Is there something that you think the casual fans aren’t seeing about you and your game?

I’m honestly playing some good defense this year. I am getting a lot of credit from the coaches for that.

You stood up some guys at the end of the Bulls game. For Jacque Vaughn, those things are probably just as important as you scoring 45 last night.

He’s definitely been very, very happy with how I’ve been guarding because most teams get me on their best player and they try to score. So me just being able to get those plays shows that he can trust me in a game to defend and get a key stop if he needs it. So I feel like that’s been a big thing, just gaining that trust on both ends. Offensively, it’ll take care of itself, but gaining that trust defensively was a big thing for me.

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