The Raptors’ offseason acquisitions these past couple of weeks have ranged from former lottery picks, to intriguing raw projects, to forgotten-about undrafted players. Through it all, there seems to be one guy who the fan base is particularly excited about – an unlikely candidate given his stature as compared to the other signings: Matt Thomas.
Thomas, also known as Mr. 99% because of his effective field goal percentage on his catch-and-shoot unguarded attempts last season, is arguably the best shooter on a championship level team that has some All-Star talent. It wasn’t always easy-peasy poppin threes-y for him though. The 24-year-old Illinois native has had his ups and downs before finally making it to the big leagues – both on, and off the court.
When Matt was just 11 years old, his father committed suicide due to his issues with alcoholism, which forced Thomas to grow closer with his mom. Her mentorship might have helped him develop into the incredible basketball player he is today, as she was a hoops-star in her own right. To this day, she still holds the single-game points record at Wahlert High School, having dropped 48 points in a contest.
Matt would go on to beat his mom’s record (though at a different school), dropping 50 points in a game, and leading his team to a 95-12 overall record across all 4 years of high school, including a state championship. Coming out of grade 12, Thomas was regarded as one of the best shooters in the high school class of 2013. He averaged 28.3 points and 9.7 rebounds in his senior year as a guard, and had two first-team-all-state selections to his name. As a guy who can almost score at will, be a leader on the floor, and be a plus on both sides of the ball, he was highly sought after by many colleges with a 4-star-recruit badge to his name. After consideration, ESPN’s 51st ranked high school player in the country decided to pack his bags and move to Iowa State.
As the ball tipped off in Thomas’ first college game, he became the 20th player in Iowa State men’s basketball history to start a game as a freshman. Though he was replaced in the starting lineup by the man who is now the Denver Nuggets’ backup point guard; Monte Morris, midway through the season, he retained a 6th man role. Matt went on to average 5.5 points per game, and tallied 44 made threes on the season: the second most all-time by a Cyclone freshman.
Though it wasn’t the season that he hoped for after being one of the most dominant forces in high school ball, his stock was on the rise, and scouts were taking notice. Coming off his first year in college, it was unlikely that he would have been selected out of a deep pool of talent in the 2014 NBA Draft, so he went back to play another year at school under head coach, Fred Hoiberg.
Then came another down: in the summer of 2014, Thomas was arrested for an OWI charge (Operating While Intoxicated), or as we call it here, impaired-driving. He spent two nights in jail, and suffered repercussions in his basketball career, being suspended by his team for the first 3 games of the season. This may have caused him to fall behind in the rotation, as he ended up playing a smaller role in his sophomore season. He still managed to score in double figures 9 times out of his 32 games played, and hit 32 threes on the year.
Seen as he had somewhat of a downfall, the 20-year-old was in no place to declare for the draft in 2015 either. He ran it back again with Iowa State under their new head coach, Steve Prohm, after Hoiberg left to go coach the Chicago Bulls.
That year, Naz Mitrou-Long, the Greek-Canadian Cyclone who later became a member of the Utah Jazz, suffered a season-ending injury, which allowed Thomas to hop back into the starting lineup for the first time in almost two years. Finally, he had his breakout that fans, and scouts had been waiting for. In the 2015-2016 season, Thomas saw his minutes more than double from the previous year, and that led to him shooting .440% from the field, including .432% from deep, and .902% from the free throw line. Upon justifying that he belongs with the best and brightest at the college level, he was given a lead role in his senior year, and averaged a career high 12.3 points and 1.7 assists, along with 3.9 rebounds per game.
After finishing his 2016-2017 season, his school days were over. He had once again worked to establish himself as one of the best players in college after his sophomore season debacle, and was hopeful to be picked in the back end of the second round of the 2017 NBA Draft. Unfortunately, Mark Tatum never called his name, and though he may have been happy for his teammate Monte Morris who was selected 51st overall, his tenacious journey continued.
Thomas signed with the Los Angeles Lakers’ summer league team, and played alongside the likes of Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram. Thomas lead The City of Angels to Vegas’ basketball championship, dropping 23 points on 8-9 shooting in the championship game.
To fans’ amazement, none of the 30 NBA teams took a chance on him, even after he showcased how much of an offensive weapon he can be. Ultimately, Thomas looked to take his talents overseas to play for Monbus Obradoiro of the Euroleague for the 2017-2018 season on a one-year-deal where he averaged 15.4 points in 26.4 minutes per game while shooting .459% from beyond the arc. Again, he struggled to find a home in the NBA last summer, so he signed another 1+1 contract with Valencia of the Euroleague, giving himself a player option for this summer.
Valencia was where things took off. Though his numbers dropped off slightly, his minutes reduction can be pointed to as the culprit. His field goal and 3-point percentages rose, and he came first place in the Euroleague 3-point shooting contest.
Supposedly, multiple NBA teams were interested in signing him just weeks ago, but Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster acted diligently to come to terms with him on a 3 year deal, worth $4.2M, according to Shams Charania of The Athletic.
It remains to be seen what type of role he will play next season, and even though he’s finally made it to the NBA, he still has to earn every bit of glory he’s bound to see. The shooting guard situation is unique, and the battle for the starting spot will be tight. Thomas will have to win his minutes over Norman Powell, Terence Davis, Stanley Johnson, Devin Robinson, Jordan Loyd, and others, but on a team that might have some spacing issues, Matt Thomas’ services will be at a premium for his new coach, Nick Nurse.
The NBA has moved towards a shooting game, thanks to the new-era dynastic Golden State Warriors who have re-defined floor spacing, but the Raptors seem to be moving in a different direction. It will be interesting to see how the Raptors manage to outscore opponents against packed-in defenses, but surely, Nurse will find a way.
In the end, the hype around Mr. 99% may be validated. Matt Thomas can shoot the heck out of a basketball, and if that translates to the NBA, then we can use him like the Philadelphia 76ers used JJ Redick last season to help cure the pains of their poor shooting. He’s been able to work his way up the ranks at every level he’s graduated to, and the NBA should be just another floor up the elevator. Get this guy an open shot, and he’ll hit it, because as he likes to call himself, he’s The Iceman.