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Player Preview: Is Matt Thomas due for a bigger role this season?

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Matt Thomas played limited minutes last season, but showed what he’s capable of on offense. Now his defense will determine his role moving forward.

Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

Coming off a rookie season in which he played just 440 total minutes, Matt Thomas’ possible emergence for Toronto could be one of the biggest wildcards of the 2020-21 iteration of the Raptors.

Thomas’ skillset is unique among Toronto’s roster. While scrappy playmakers and wings who can defend multiple positions seem to be the personal favourites of Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster, Thomas doesn’t quite fit into either category. And while he’s shown some encouraging signs handling the ball and defending, at 26 years old, he’s unlikely to blossom into anything special using those skills. It there’s one thing that will vault Thomas into a bigger role this season for the Raptors, it is, of course, his dangerous shooting.

It might feel odd to say this about someone who averages just under five points per game, but the Raptors’ offense gains an edge whenever Thomas is on the floor. Between last year’s regular season and playoffs, Thomas made 52 of 111 three-point attempts (47 percent) which, for those of you scoring at home, is seven perecent better than the next-best mark on the team (belonging to Norman Powell). The sample size is smaller, sure, but over 82 games in European competition from 2017 to 2019, Thomas made 188 of 398 threes, good for — you guessed it — 47 percent. So no, last season was not an aberration.

(For reference, George Hill led the league in three-point percentage among qualified players last year at 46 percent. Just putting that out there.)

As good a shooter as he is, Thomas does a lot of his damage off-ball. His lethal range forces defenders to stick to him, and while the floor-stretching he provides already opens up the offense, Thomas finds effective ways to get open by cutting to the basket and flying around off-ball screens on the perimeter. In this way, Thomas’ game reminds me of Duncan Robinson’s role on the Miami Heat last year (both players took only an absurd six percent of their shots at the rim).

Here’s Thomas using his burst and a down screen (and perhaps a teensy shove) to separate from his man, then catching-and-shooting with a quick release before the defense can close out:

Here’s Thomas doing the same thing, but against the Clippers:

In this play, Thomas uses a down screen to get an open look, except Miles Bridges plays it well, switching onto him and immediately taking the shot away. Thomas makes a quick read, however, and shows his passing ability with a dime to a cutting Patrick McCaw:

This is the kind of thing Thomas can do, and has to master, to really push his value to the next level for the Raptors (and in the NBA). In this, his shooting helps Toronto even when he’s not shooting. Thomas also makes himself even more dangerous off-the-ball with his ability to cut to the basket when being guarded too tightly. This makes defenders pay when they try to take the three-point line away from him — like Joe Harris here:

Thomas also uses on-ball picks effectively — his go-to move is to use the screen, turn the corner, and then stop on a dime for a pull-up mid-range jumper. Thomas’ long-range shooting ability forces the defender to go over the screen, and by stepping inside the three-point line he creates even more space between him and his man. As seen here:

He’s a shooter first and foremost, but Matt Thomas is far from one-dimensional. A lot of great shooters just stand in the corner — depending on the offense, that can work out just fine — but Thomas’ constant movement forces defenders to play catch-up with him, all while having to account for the possibility of a backdoor cut.

In all, there’s a lot to like on offense from Thomas on the Raptors. But as you’ve probably heard by now, coach Nick Nurse is insistent that players will only make the rotation if they can prove themselves on both sides of the court.

So is Thomas’ defense solid enough for him to play 20+ minutes per game for Toronto? Considering Coach of the Year Nick Nurse doesn’t quite know yet, that’s certainly not a question I can answer, either.

We have seen Thomas occasionally struggle to contain his man off-the-bounce. In this play, Thomas gets caught worrying about going over the screen, and Brad Wanamaker blows right by him:

Still, one thing we do know is that Thomas always tries on defense — that might sound like a useless observation, but not everyone does! He’s never lazy when contesting shots or closing out on an open man, and even when he makes miscues like the one shown above, he’s quick to recover.

As on the offensive end, Thomas thinks quickly on his feet while defending. At 6’4” and 190 pounds, according to Basketball Reference, he doesn’t have the physical tools of a lockdown defender. But Thomas’ ability to make reads and communicate with his teammates on switches means that he’s often in the right position, including when the team is playing in a zone — as seen here:

Nurse isn’t asking Thomas to lockdown opposing stars here. To earn a place in the Raptors’ eight-man rotation, Thomas just has to be solid enough on defense to not become a liability. Constant effort and smart positioning are a good place for him to start.

Ultimately, thanks to his superlative shooting ability, Thomas is an exciting player. Here’s hoping he can show enough on the defensive end to fully earn Nurse’s trust, as an increased role for Thomas could do wonders for the Raptors’ offense.