Matt Thomas is becoming one of the most sure things for the 2020-2021 Toronto Raptors backcourt. We’ve heard some Kyle Lowry trade rumours, some Norman Powell trade rumours, and rumours of Fred Vanvleet walking. Terence Davis is likely not starting the season with the team. Patrick McCaw will return if he can get healthy. The chances are that Kyle, Fred, and Norm will be here, but each one has had rumours. Barring being added as a sweetener in a large blockbuster trade, Matt Thomas is going to be in the Raptors bench unit this season – and likely a key piece.
Thomas was acquired by the Raptors last summer on a two-year contract from the Liga ACB in Spain. Other than a brief stint with the Los Angeles Lakers organization, all that Raptors fans really knew about him was that he may or may not have shot 99% on open shots during his last season in Spain. At this time, the Raptors had an open starting Shooting Guard spot that Thomas was competing for at camp. It’s hard to remember, but just last year Vanvleet did not have his starting spot guaranteed. Vanvleet and Powell had mostly come off of the bench in their careers. While they were the favourites to get the starting gig, Matt Thomas was in the mix. Ultimately he did not get the starting job and nor should he have. As a smaller player who isn’t the most athletic, his defence was not near Nick Nurses expectations for the Raptors standards.
Toronto Raptors – Matt Thomas (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
Thomas didn’t see much opportunity until the injuries started adding up for Raptors. It didn’t take long to see that his shooting was elite (not 99%, but still elite) and that he was clearly being targeted by other teams on the defensive end. As the season went on, Thomas made noticeable strides on the defensive end. He finished the season slightly positive in Defensive Real Plus Minus (.10) ranking him 45th among all NBA shooting guards. The numbers don’t tell the whole story with Matt Thomas on defence however. He only played 10.7 minutes per game, and that was with a Raptor team which is extremely switchable and always locked in defensively. For the most part, they were using zone coverages to make up for his inefficiencies. He is not a plus defender at this point, but he good news is that he’s willingly improving as a team defender.
The true breakout for Matt Thomas came during the second round playoff series against the Boston Celtics. Nick Nurse lived and died by his seven man rotations featuring players from the 2019 championship season. Going into the playoffs, Davis was the favourite to be the 8th man. Thomas stole that role during this matchup as someone who could space the floor against a long and athletic Celtics defence. He was so good in his limited time in that series that Nurse played him in the first half of game 7 – during a stretch that saw the Raptors take the lead in the game. Thomas hit a three, and was a plus six in just four minutes and thirty-five seconds. He surprisingly did not go back to him for the second half which ultimately could have been a mistake by Nurse.
The reason that Thomas created a momentum swing in that game was because he changed the game on both ends of the floor. Not only did he hit his one shot, while opening up room for the other Raptors on offence, but he was sound defensively. The Celtics were clearly trying to target him and were unable to have success with it. Thomas stood his ground and stayed in front of his man while forcing them into difficult shots. In fact, the Celtics were trying so hard to score on him that it took their smooth flowing offence out of rhythm as they hunted down this matchup. The Raptors could have used him late in the 3rd Quarter, and early in the 4th when the Celtics started to take over.
photo – (https://theathletic.com/1326603/2019/10/27/matt-thomas-nba-debut-gives-raptors-a-key-option-off-the-bench/)
With that being said, Matt Thomas should be an important piece for the Raptors off the bench this season. Between all of the uncertainty of the Raptors backcourt, the injuries and load management during this compacted schedule, as well as the fact that he appears to be gaining Nurse’s trust – we can expect to see a lot of Matt Thomas this season. Even if all of the Fred, Kyle, and Norm return, Nurse will continue to use three guard lineups and different small ball lineups. Thomas will get his fair share of looks.
If he can continue to improve his defence, it isn’t unfathomable that Thomas could be playing 15-20 minutes per night and average around 10 points. He is a great shooter as we know, but he is a decent passer and rebounder as well. The Raptors can use him in tightly contested games (like we saw in the Boston series) to make a 5-10 point swing. Thomas shot an impressive 47.5% from distance last season. There is evidence to believe that he can stay at least above 40% on a greater volume if the Raptors run more plays through him. At the end of the day Thomas’s minutes will rely on his ability to knock down 3’s. He will never be a lockdown defender, but if he plays systematically sound he can be a JJ Reddick type for the Toronto Raptors moving forward.