As I'm sure you've heard, the Spurs have signed former San Diego State Aztec Malcolm Thomas, and he will join the team immediately. Since teams can't offer 10-day contracts yet, this is likely a non-guaranteed deal for the rest of the season. Thomas is a 6-8", 225 lb forward that has enjoyed short stints with a handful of NBA teams, including the Spurs in 2011. With him spending most of his pro career in the D-League and Europe, I'm not ashamed to say I didn't know a lot about him. So, I did a little digging to see exactly what kind of player Thomas is.
The Bad News
Thomas is not a small forward
Nothing I've seen on Thomas seems to suggest he is a perimeter player. During his NBA stints he played power forward, and a huge reason why he dominated the competition in the D-League and earned this call up was his quickness against bigger players, as well as his strength against smaller ones. It is his scoring versatility and athleticism that could make him an NBA player, and his skills would be negated by being slotted at the wing in the Spurs system.
The Spurs' motion offense is designed for Tony Parker to get open. There are post variations for Tim Duncan and the rest of the bigs, and if you are one of the select few that has carte blanche from Pop, you can also break plays and go for quick ISOs or pick-and-rolls. I doubt Thomas makes that list, so it's hard to envision him having the freedom he's enjoyed in the D-League with the D-Fenders. As a spot up shooter, his likely role with the team, Thomas is unproven. Up until his recent explosion in the D-League, he has not been known as a three-point shooter. While it seems he can hit outside shots, his slow release seems better suited as a stretch four that feasts on wide open three pointers, than anything close to a volume shooter.
He is very mobile for a power forward, but only possesses mediocre quickness for a wing. He can handle guarding players in space outside on a switch, but if he gets isolated against offensively talented NBA wings, he will likely get exposed. His length can only go so far if his lateral quickness and fundamentals aren't there, and that appears to be the case. Thomas is simply not used to the responsibilities of being a perimeter guy, and that seems evident when watching him operate off the ball - where he gets lost easily or just stops moving and stands upright. It's just extremely hard to see him transforming into a Luc Mbah-a-Moute type of lengthy wing defender, and that's what I'm assuming most Spurs fans want him to be. Marcus Haislip (remember him?) seems like a better comparison.
The Good News
There is a lot of positional flexibility in the NBA right now, and the Spurs are a prime example of it. If Thomas plays with Boris Diaw, they would be basically interchangeable on both ends of the floor, as both are adequate to good in many different facets of the game. The second unit is also much more malleable that the starters, and they have a much more fluid approach to play-calling, spearheaded by Manu Ginobili. Thomas would still be a nominal power forward but his ability to play inside and out could open things up not only for himself, but for the perimeter players as well.
While it's hard to envision him at the three within the bench unit, the Spurs could go small against second units that lack a post presence. The Spurs could pair Thomas and Diaw at the four and the five, as Thomas is a prolific rebounder. Can you imagine that quick, talented unit flying all over the court? And when it's time for half-court offense, Thomas seems to at least know the basics of how to handle himself on the business end of a pick-and-roll, which is all he needs when playing in a properly spaced floor next to Manu Ginobili. His athletic ability, which seems well above average, should make him a very good finisher.
On the defensive side, he might not be the type of perimeter stopper that's on every Spurs fan's wish list, but he seems to be a very mobile and springy forward, which is exactly the type of player the Spurs don't have. The fundamentals might not be where they need to be to really make him an above-average defender, but the physical tools certainly are. With a little guidance, Thomas could develop into a the type of weak-side shot blocker, disruptive defender, and explosive pick-and-roll player that the Spurs could throw into a game to make an impact. With such fundamentally sound teammates on the floor with him, Thomas' lack of polish shouldn't harm the team, and the second unit can always use an impact player on defense when opponents go small.
Thomas is a no-risk/medium-reward player, and that's exactly the type of gamble the Spurs should take
with their 15th roster spot. It's very possible Thomas barely sees the court because he has problems grasping the system, doesn't improve his fundamentals, refuses to be on a long term assignment in the D-League, and is released in a few weeks - just in time for the Spurs to extend a 10-day contract to another D-League standout. That would be fine, as his contract is likely for the minimum, and the Spurs are not even close to paying tax. A signing of that size is just what it costs to have an extended look at a talented young player in the NBA, but that's the worst case scenario.
The best case scenario has Thomas cracking the Spurs' extended rotation and relegating both Matt Bonner and Aron Baynes to mop up duty/buy outs after the trade deadline on his sheer energy and athletic prowess. I don't want to exaggerate here because there is a reason he hasn't been able to stick in the league so far, but Thomas truly looks like an NBA player. From the admittedly limited footage I've seen, he has excellent lateral quickness for a power forward, he has sufficient raw talent, and he is also explosive enough as a leaper to make up for his lack of size compared to true big men. If the three point range is there - and that's a huge "if", considering he has never been a prolific shooter, and the sample size is ridiculously small - there is a place in the league for this guy. The Spurs have done their part - recognizing his potential and locking him down. Now let's hope Thomas makes good on that promise and blooms into a quality role player.
If you want to check out Thomas for yourself, the D-League has all its games available via Youtube
A tip of the hat to Ridiculous Upside for their coverage of Thomas
Stats courtesy of Draft Express
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