Deshaun Thomas and the distorted reality of Summer League
Nate Robinson, Josh Selby, Nikoloz Tskitishvili -- all Summer League MVPs. Other Sumer League stand outs include Marco Belinelli, Adam Morrison, Anthony Randolph and Malcolm Thomas. Sure, some of those guys carved out a good career for themselves and guys like Blake Griffin and Damian Lillard were MVPs as well. But Summer League success doesn't seem to highly correlate to a bright future and it's not hard to see why.
While the effort level on defense is significantly higher than in, say an All-Star game, the players barely know each other and defensive breakdowns come early and often. On offense, it varies from team to team, but you can see the more talented players taking the bulk of the shots. That's not a problem when Summer League co-MVP Damian Lillard does it because he clearly has the tools to do the same against the best competition. But when Selby averages 14 shots a game and puts up 25 points per, you can't really extrapolate much from that performance since that is not going to be his role on an NBA team. It's nice knowing that he can score, but in terms of his NBA future it would have been nicer to see him run a team or defend better.
Something similar happens in International play, but to a lesser degree and at a higher level of competition. Patty Mills led all scorers in the past Olympics but he did it by playing off the ball and chucking up shots like crazy. It was what his team needed and Mills delivered, but at no point did our Patty show improvement on the areas he needs to get better at to be a more effective NBA player. If you've ever watched Yi Jianlian play international ball, you'd probably picked him sixth in the draft, too. But when you put those guys on the NBA setting and ask them to shift their roles, they struggle or at least don't shine as bright.
Which brings us to Deshaun Thomas.
To anyone watching the Summer Spurs, it's abundantly clear the kid has tremendous scoring talent. He can score in a variety of ways and he is really turning heads with his offensive skills. At the same time, will any of those skills really translate to the role he will likely have to play in the pros?
Coach Ime Udoka and the Spurs have used the Ohio State product mostly as a power forward, standing at the top of the arc, moving the ball from side to side and setting screens. He has been shooting the three incredibly well and more importantly, he seems to be a consistent and not streaky shooter. Some of those were pick and pop looks but he can definitely hit spot up threes as well. He has also done passable work on the defensive boards, which might indicate a future as a stretch four. But DX has him listed at 6-7 and 220 lbs with a pedestrian 6-10 wingspan and a lower standing reach than Matt Bonner. He has had some trouble guarding power forwards even in Summer League. Can he guard NBA forwards, hold his own on the defensive board and be effective defending the pick and roll and rotating to help?
Maybe he could be better suited to play small forward. He seems like a strong guy, which means he could probably overpower some of the smaller small forwards going to the rim like he has when operating from the elbow in Summer League play. But he seems to lack that explosive first step that creates separation and helps turn spot up looks into drives, and his dribble doesn't seem to be particularly tight. Those elbow and mid-post ISOs he has been getting in Vegas won't likely work against quality NBA defenders and his teammates will be better too, so Thomas will surely be asked to take on a smaller role. On defense, the length and lateral quickness necessary to effectively guard small forwards don't seem to be there, either.
Nothing I just said will surprise anyone who knows Thomas. It was in every scouting report and is the reason he dropped to the end of the second round. The kid definitely has talent but he also has some glaring weaknesses. However, watching him play these past three Summer League games makes it easy to overlook those flaws and get excited about his potential. The good is patently clear and the bad is minimized. And that's the trick Summer League plays on our judgment. It's more eloquently put by Steve McPherson in this piece he wrote for Grantland.
When we want water badly, we see an oasis. A month out from the end of the NBA season, we want to see what's coming next. We're starved for what we've become reliant on, so we see an oasis.
Thomas is lighting up the score boards and playing consistently excellent offensive basketball, that much is undeniable. But what does it mean, if anything, for his future in the league and for his chances of making the Spurs' roster?
If you follow me on Twitter or join the Summer League game threads here at PtR, you know that I've been focusing on another player from the Spurs roster, one that in terms of talent is vastly inferior to Thomas. Hollis Thompson seems completely unremarkable and I have a hard time seeing him stick on an NBA roster unless he develops a deadly three point shot. But he knows the only way he has a future in the league is as a role player and he plays like it. He shows great defensive awareness and has a relentless motor. He's not great at it but he moves without the ball with purpose and crashes the offensive glass from the perimeter. He lets shots come to him by spotting up. Those are the things he will be asked to do if he ever makes an NBA roster and he knows it.
Can Thomas, who has been playing the role of high usage offensive weapon, do those things? Probably. It seems clear Thompson couldn't possibly do what Thomas does but it's possible that, with some guidance and effort, Deshaun can become a good role player in the league. R.C. Buford, in his court side interview, mentioned that Pop was going to ask him to change the way he played "if he maximized his opportunity" and got a roster spot and I believe it can happen. While Thompson is what he is, Thomas' apparent talent seems to suggest he could become something else if he puts his mind to it.
But if he changes his game from high usage scorer into spot up shooter, he won't be the player that excited us in Summer League. If he becomes a corner specialist, what differentiates him from the myriad of other players that have that same skill? And what did we really learn about him watching him play --and excel at-- a completely different role in Vegas? Over these past few days I jumped on the Deshaun Thomas, multi-faceted scorer bandwagon. If that guy has to disappear for him to become an NBA player, then wasn't his performance in Summer League an illusion?
Deshaun Thomas' offensive talent has been borderline sublime at times in Vegas but it's simply very hard to see it translate to the NBA and I can accept that. So instead of worrying and futilely trying to find meaning in his performance, I will start enjoying it and I'd encourage you to do the same. Unfortunately, reality will likely creep up on Deshaun and us soon enough. For now, let's just embrace the distorted and sometimes magical world of Summer League while we can, a world in which a late second rounder with a lot of question marks, and a future as a role player at best, looks like a star in the making.