The San Antonio Spurs truly utilize their D-League affiliate unlike most other NBA teams. They use the Austin Toros to develop talent in the coaching ranks, front office, and out on the hardwood, send players down for rehab stints or to get players comfortable and more acclimated to the system while getting more playing time and calling players up to shore up an area hit by injury.
That much was apparent with the Spurs signing Josh Howard and then assigning him to the Toros, and two recent one-game assignments for Nando De Colo and Aron Baynes likely in an attempt to boost confidence, which seemed to work for Baynes in his game against the Raptors.
Cory Joseph also spent the better part of multiple seasons with the Toros before he was able to nab the backup point guard spot with the Spurs prior to last season’s playoffs.
So when a familiar face was tearing up the D-League through two games with the Los Angeles D-Fenders, the Spurs were quick to move on Kawhi Leonard’s former San Diego State teammate, Malcolm Thomas, who had a brief stay with the Spurs before being sent to Austin two seasons ago.
At the time of Thomas’ recent signing, he was seen as security for Boris Diaw, who was struggling with a hand injury, but the Spurs may just have more than they originally bargained for.
Last time we saw Thomas, he was an athletic 6–9 power forward who could score close to the basket and rebound. But it appears Thomas is no longer that player.
Every year during media days and training camp around the NBA, we hear from players about how they overhauled their games over the summer, and it’s a classic boxing one-liner from prizefighters talking about how they reinvented themselves before their next fight, but in either situation, most of the time it mainly ends being hot air delivering quoteables that rarely living up to expectations.
Malcolm Thomas hasn’t said much about changing his game , but he may have indeed reinvented himself which could eventually redefine a position the Spurs utilize well, especially during championship seasons.
Before, calling Thomas anything but a four would be a stretch, but he seems to be taking strides to be able to play the inside outside game to redefine what a stretch four is.
While some stretch fours like Chris Bosh, for example more closely define what a stretch four is supposed to be, stretch four players around the league usually come more in the variety of a player of decent size that has a reliable outside shot to spread the offense, create driving lanes, and catch the defense out of position and in mismatches that brings a big man out of the paint. Your run of the mill stretch four doesn’t have enough lateral speed or athleticism to drive nor is he comfortable enough playing on the inside with limited skills around the basket.
While Thomas is considered a fringe NBA player, the potential is there and the work is being put in to defy the normal run of the mill stretch four skill set. Is it easy to get carried away with things like potential or upside? Sure, but it’s not too much to think that a player like Thomas, granted he continues on this path, could carve himself out a role as a unique player with a unique skill set just the way defensive and three-point specialists have done so for years.
During the 2011-12 season, most of Thomas’ shots and makes came from inside the painted area with a flurry of red x’s from anywhere beyond 14 feet from the basket.
But this year, through three games in the D-League with the D-Fenders and Toros, Thomas is surprising many with his improved range and accuracy from deep. He has made 13 of 20 three-point attempts, good for a 65 percent clip, which is on par with his shooting percentage from the field.
Although his range has improved, Thomas isn’t afraid to mix it up inside or drive if the shot isn’t there and his work on defense on the inside is right there as well. He’s currently averaging 30 points. 12.7 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 2.5 blocks per game.
“The early indications are that he’s expanded his skill set and was really shooting the three-ball well,” Buford said. “That has always been a valuable commodity in our system.”
Call Thomas what you want, but you can’t call him a one dimensional player anymore. Playing in a system and for a coach that preaches about looking for the best shot and making the extra pass, it’s not out of the question to think that Thomas could eventually make his way back up to the Spurs and earn a few minutes a night providing mismatches and opening up lanes for Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Kawhi Leonard. Since Tim Duncan likes to roam around the paint, this spreads things out and gives him room to work down low with single coverage.
The Spurs have done well using the D-League in an unconventional way, and the player that was a favorite to win Finals MVP through the first five games of the NBA Finals, was plucked from the D-League’s Reno Bighorns, the same team that saw Thomas sing five-of-seven three pointers and get inside to swat away three shot attempts.
Thomas could have his work cut out for him getting called back up to the Spurs, with Duncan, Diaw, Tiago Splitter, Baynes, Jeff Ayres and Matt Bonner all playing in the frontcourt, but he also offers something none of the other players does.
While I won’t go as far as to say that the Spurs have their next Danny Green success story on their hands, it’s clear that what they do have is something worth considering and keeping a close eye on.