This year has been an intriguing one for Malcolm Thomas. He started the season in the NBA Development League with the Los Angeles D-Fenders, but played just two games, averaging 33.5 points and 15.5 rebounds. That was all that PATFO needed to see before signing him away from the Lakers on December 3rd. The Spurs immediately assigned him to the Toros, where his offensive role was changed from having a constant green light to working within the flow of an offense.
While in Austin, though his numbers necessarily dropped, he became more efficient and well rounded. He worked on his mid-range shots and screen setting in order to fit into San Antonio's offense. He's always had a raw basketball instinct about him, and his time with the Toros was about polishing those skills into ones that the Spurs could work with. He averaged 15.2 points per game and 9.4 rebounds in Austin.
But it wasn't until Sunday afternoon that he he had his first chance to play for the Spurs, after San Antonio's injuries mounted to the point where a spot finally opened on the bench. Already without Tiago Splitter and Danny Green, the Spurs took the floor without Tony Parker (shin) and Matt Bonner (beak) to face the league-worst Bucks. What better time to see how much he had improved since the three games he played in the Silver and Black in 2011-12.
With 2:40 left in the third quarter, and the Spurs up 75-54, Thomas checked in.
"I thought he was nervous," Popovich said in the post-game interview in response to Thomas getting his first minutes in a Spurs uniform. That may have been what explained his first defensive play.
Following a Bucks inbound, Kris Middleton dished the ball to John Henson in the post and Thomas, who was guarding him, eagerly went for the steal. He missed, Henson gathered the ball, and scored before Jeff Ayres' help could arrive.
It was a tough start, but Thomas finished the quarter quite nicely. In just those final 2 minutes and 40 seconds of the third, he brought down 3 rebounds, blocked Henson's attempt at the rim from behind, and came from the top of the key to make a nice put-back of Patty Mills' missed three-pointer. Sean Elliott sure gushed about that play.
In the fourth quarter, the former Aztec continued to show how much he enjoys sending opposing players' shots into the stands. With Nate Wolters driving the lane, Thomas let him go by, only to swat him from behind. While reviewing the replay of this drive, it almost appeared that Thomas was choosing to be a spectator on this play while Baynes and Belinelli crashed on Nate, only to full-armed swat the shot attempt at the last second.
This is the "raw"-ness that keeps being attributed to Malcolm's game. So much of his ability seems to stem from his quickness and athleticism, where many of the plays he is responsible for seem to be reactions rather than scheming. He has an incredible ability to get up and over players for rebounds, he displays quickness with passes, and is able to get up and down the court. But his decision-making is still unpolished.
Oh, and his shots. Those looked pretty awful. It looked like it hurt.
I actually had to go back and make sure his shooting statistics were correct. With the Toros, he is shooting 57 percent from the field and 36.4 percent from behind the arc. Those aren't bad stats, so I can't, for the life of me, figure out why his mid-range shots looked so poor on Sunday. Just like Pop, I'm willing to chalk it up to nerves, but this will not stand. Jeff Ayres's jumper from the elbow looked downright comfortable in comparison.
Thomas finished the game with 2 points (1-4 FG, 0-2 FT), 9 rebounds, and 2 blocks in 15 minutes.
Going along with his comments about nervousness, Pop was asked where he felt Malcolm fit as far as positions go, to which he responded:
"Oh I don't worry about that right now. He's just trying to develop as a player. You're getting way ahead of yourself."
That's Thomas's reality. This is simply a situation where a player is getting some time on the court while four mainstays are out with injuries.
But it's always nice to know what tools you have laying in the back of the closet just in case.