Spurs informed forward Malcolm Thomas that he won't be waived today, guaranteeing his contract for season, league sources tell Yahoo.— Adrian Wojnarowski (@WojYahooNBA) January 7, 2014
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Before he developed a three point shot, Thomas was one of the D-League's more intriguing players thanks to his combination of athletic ability, defensive potential, and inside scoring. When he came into the season flashing his new-found prowess from deep, it was obvious someone was going to scoop him up. The Spurs were clever enough to lock him down to a two-year non-guaranteed contract for the minimum, which means they get to have an extended look at him for cheap. That is the work of a very smart organization.
At the same time, Thomas has not seen a single minute of playing time for the Spurs, despite destroying all comers in D-League play. He is effectively the team's seventh big, which is why I was expecting him to be waived despite the fact that he seems to be an NBA caliber player already and continues to improve. But the Spurs wisely kept him. So what does it mean both for Thomas and the Spurs that he will now be on the roster for the rest of the year?
Thomas can be kept on assignment in the D-League
Thomas is eligible to be sent down to the Toros for the remainder of the D-League season if the Spurs so choose and he seems amenable to it. It's possible that San Antonio is looking at Thomas as a long term investment, sort of like a second round draftee they are developing. Cory Joseph barely played in his first two seasons in the league but has seen his option picked up because the Spurs are betting on his long term progression. The same could be true for Thomas.
With Matt Bonner, Boris Diaw and Aron Baynes becoming free agents this off-season, having a guy learning the system with the farm team under a very favorable contract could allow the Spurs to let one or more of those guys walk without having to worry about lacking big man depth. Thomas is ready to be a team's fifth big right now. Next season he might be ready for more.
Additionally, Aron Baynes is also eligible to be sent down to the Toros. So while the Spurs do have too many bigs, they can alternate between them in the inactive list as match ups demand, if they so choose.
Could a trade be coming?
As I mentioned, Thomas looks like a guy that could be getting minutes right now for a NBA team, if his D-League performances are any indication. The player he seems to resemble the most in terms of skill set is Matt Bonner but Thomas has the edge in athleticism and youth. So if that outside shot is in fact a consistent weapon, he makes Matty truly expendable.
Bonner is on a mid-sized expiring contract, the type of deal that can be used to net a rotation player from a rebuilding team. The Spurs also have Aron Baynes, Jeff Ayres, Nando De Colo, Cory Joseph and, if it comes to that, Danny Green on good value deals. If they believe Thomas can fill in when needed, making a move using Bonner's expiring deal and one of their young-ish assets to get a rotation player back might make sense.
The fact that Thomas has not played yet, however, is cause for skepticism about an upcoming move. While I'd love to believe that hiding Thomas from the league is C.I.A Pop's latest masterful move, it probably means he doesn't really trust him. If that's true, then it's hard to see the Spurs dispose of the reliable Bonner. The make up of the Spurs' roster right now lends itself for some dealing, but it all comes down to Pop's willingness to shake things up, and I'm not convinced he is there yet.
Could Thomas carve up a place for himself in the rotation this year?
With opportunities to practice so few and far between in the NBA, there is a catch-22 that afflicts players on the outside of a rotation looking in: it's virtually impossible to earn playing time without getting playing time. Thomas has not gotten a shot yet so we don't really know what he can do. I think Jeff Ayres, Aron Baynes and Matt Bonner have not locked down a place for themselves yet but they certainly have a leg up on Thomas. It's really hard to imagine the former San Diego State Aztec leapfrogging those other guys on D-League performances alone.
But the injury to Splitter and the upcoming schedule might open a door for Thomas. The Spurs have two BABAs coming in their next four games so it's not out of the question that Duncan sits on one of those. That gets Thomas on the active list. There's plenty of time between the first set of BABA's and the second, so the Spurs might squeeze in some practice time. If Thomas is going to wow the coaching staff into a role with the team, he needs to do it fast. In a few weeks Splitter will return, and the Spurs will go on their Rodeo Road Trip. It's doubtful Pop makes huge rotation changes after that, so the clock is ticking.
Unless something strange happens, it looks Malcolm Thomas will likely be stashed with the Toros until next season, when he will get a chance to earn his spot at training camp like Alonzo Gee, Garret Temple and Malik Hairston before him. And that's fine. Using D-League players on non-guaranteed contracts as a safety net of sorts is a smart team-building idea. You can't really ask for a better player than Thomas as injury insurance for that prize. I don't think he will be of much help this season but I'm excited to watch how he continues to develop.
If you are interested in watching Thomas in action for the Toros, the D-League has all of its games available for free on Youtube.