AT&T CENTER – Going back to the 2011-2012 NBA season, Malcolm Thomas only played in three games with the San Antonio Spurs before being released that season. He would finish that year in the D-League and then have a few more NBA and D-League stints over that time frame until today; where he has his second opportunity with the Spurs, to show how much progress he’s made.
Before the Spurs defeated the Milwaukee Bucks and Thomas took the floor with his San Antonio teammates for the first time this season, I asked him what’s been his largest growth from his first stint in San Antonio, and according to Thomas, it’s all about his confidence.
“My confidence has grown a lot,” said Thomas of what’s changed from the past to the present. “I really didn’t have the confidence to play at this level my first year. I’ve worked on my shot a lot, I’ve worked on my motor a lot, and I feel like that’s why I’m back here. So I just have to keep working and making sure I can stay on the court, stay suited up.”
Thomas was originally signed on December 3, 2013 by the Spurs, filling their roster to the NBA maximum of 15 players. Since then, he’s made frequent trips down to Austin with the Toros and back up to San Antonio, but until Sunday, he had yet to play on the floor in a Spurs uniform.
The opportunity came for Thomas as Tiago Splitter had already been injured for San Antonio, while Matt Bonner had a nasal fracture in the Spurs’ previous game and couldn’t play Sunday against the Bucks. And so, Thomas was given his chance.
“You don’t want anybody to get injured,” said Thomas before the game of Bonner and Splitter’s unfortunate injuries. “(But) it’s the opportunity for me to get some experience and get some chemistry with my new teammates.”
Thomas played 14:40 minutes in the game and finished with nine rebounds, two blocks, and two points. In his 10 games with the Toros, Thomas was averaging 15.2 points, 9.4 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 2.4 blocks in 32.6 minutes. Though his stats Sunday did come against the worst team by record in the Eastern Conference (the Bucks), Thomas was still able to produce with his D-League numbers in the rebounding and blocking category.
One noticeable feature in Thomas during the game was his quickness. He was able to run and jump for rebounds from one area of the paint to another, he put smaller defenders in the post and quickly took them down into the paint, and on one play, he caught a pass at the top of the key, penetrated into the paint and drew in the defense, he then kicked out to Cory Joseph, who then delivered a corner pass to Nando De Colo for a made 3-pointer.
I asked Thomas if defending pick-and-pop big men is an area of focus for him, and as was evident by his quickness Sunday, the D-League has provided him the opportunity to defend quicker players.
“In the D-League, a lot of the guys that have been on the floor have usually been three men (wings), and I feel like it’s good for me to work on guarding quicker guys,” said Thomas. “So I feel like that could help me at this level, with guarding pick-and-pop four’s.”
“I feel like it’ll help me stay (in the NBA) if I can defend them,” Thomas noted on the importance of being able to defend pick-and-pop big men or rotating to close out on shooters.
After discussing some of his growths, I asked Thomas about his former college and now current Spurs teammate, Kawhi Leonard. I wanted to know if some of the things being observed today offensively by Leonard, were in Leonard’s game back in college.
The first order of business, Leonard’s 3-point shooting. “In college, Kawhi was so dominant,” said Thomas of Leonard. “He could attack (and) post up. He was doing more of what we needed him to do to win, we didn’t need him to shoot threes. He’s a winner.”
Leonard went from shooting 25% from 3-point range in his two years at San Diego State to a career 36.1% as of today, in the middle of his third season. The posting up part is also being observed more and more by Leonard each game. When the Spurs see he has a mismatch in the paint with a smaller defender, they immediately feed Leonard for the post-up opportunity where he’s scoring at an efficient rate.
As Gregg Popovich said in the offseason, Leonard will be the Spurs’ franchise player in the future. Leonard is beginning to have plays called for him where he has to run the pick-and-roll, so I wanted to know if learning the pick-and-roll is something new for Leonard, or just something that he’s known how to do, but hasn’t shown until this year.
“He could do it (run the pick-and-roll) in college,” said Thomas of Leonard. “We really didn’t do it as much because he wasn’t out primary ball handler, he’s really developing in every aspect of the game. He’s a hard worker, so it’s not a surprise,” concluded Thomas of Leonard.
On Wednesday, when the Spurs face the Oklahoma City Thunder, Bonner is expected to return wearing a protective mask for his nose. With Bonner’s return, Thomas will likely go back down to being the sixth big man in the rotation with Splitter still injured.
Even if he doesn’t receive any playing time, or if he’s sent back to the Toros, for Thomas, it’s about doing whatever’s necessary to stay on the floor.