Quebec City – Let’s be clear: there is only so much to be concluded from an intra-squad scrimmage, which is what the Toronto Raptors were engaged in on Thursday night to bring an end to their brief training camp at Laval University.
But the Raptors are in a different position than they have been in recent years. There is actual competition for roster spots and for roles within the roster.
Head coach Nick Nurse has largely laid out his top seven or eight rotation pieces which would fall along the lines that even the most casual fan would lay out, with the mild surprise that Patrick McCaw – the lanky wing who has shown significant promise as a defender while still carving out a predictable offensive role – seems to be included in his planning.
But after that there are all kinds of opportunities and not many chances given the Raptors play only four exhibition games — two of them next week in Tokyo — before they open their regular season against the New Orleans Pelicans on Oct. 22.
So it made sense that Matt Thomas — as an example — was out on the floor early as the sold-out crowd filed in to catch a rare glimpse of NBA basketball in Quebec.
“I mean, this is my first NBA camp. You know, I have to prove myself every day,” he said earlier this week. “I’m gonna start at the bottom of the totem pole. There’s gonna be a lot of people that don’t believe that I belong here, but it’s my job to continue to work hard every day and prove that I do belong here.”
The 25-year-old sharp-shooter was added in the off-season after two years in Europe where he proved that if he’s open, he will knock down threes at a high rate. So vital has three-point shooting become in the game and so proficient is Thomas at it – he converted nearly two-thirds of what were deemed open threes in Europe last season – that the Raptors fully guaranteed the first two years of his three-year $4.2-million contract, not a bad deal for an undersized two-guard who went undrafted as a senior out of Iowa State in 2017.
But all that means is he’s almost certain to be on the roster on opening night. What he does from there is still to be determined. After six practices, Thursday night was his chance to show what he can do against NBA-calibre competition.
The format wasn’t exactly a plan to replicate Game 6 of the NBA Finals – the scrimmage featured four 10-minute running time quarters with stop-time in the final two minutes. A number of players wore sweats.
But the crowd was loud and the pace high. It was something more than a practice.
“We’ve been competing really hard in practice you know, it felt like all week,” Thomas said later. “But it was fun to get out there and play together as a team playing in an organized game like that with officiating obviously in front of some incredible fans.”
For what it’s worth Thomas’ ‘Team Black’ was the winning side although the scoreboard wasn’t the most reliable. But when all was said and done Thomas could look down at a pretty efficient night – 11 points on seven shots, to start with. It easily could have been more but he missed a pair of easy looks from the corners. He did knock down one triple from well behind the three-point line and another while curling off a screen at near full speed. He made some sound decisions in the half-court and a runner off the glass after he was chased off the three-point line at one point and he was smart in transition. Overall he provided the kind of constant magnetism that shooters of his quality create for those around them.
If he had any worries before the game, they likely melted away after his night started with a 30-footer he launched on the heels of Pascal Siakam picking up a loose ball and shovelling it over to his new teammate — who didn’t hesitate despite the distance.
“I didn’t really have nerves,” Thomas said. “For me you know, I get maybe a little nervous anxious like before the game but once I get on the court, I’m good, I locked in.
“[The shot] felt good. Pascal, you know, drove it in transition and pushed it back to me … he believed in me to knock it down. So I gotta believe in myself to knock it down.”
Thomas wasn’t the only player who looked sharp in the sprint for a roster spot or a role. Terrence Davis II — a big combo guard signed as an undrafted free agent — looked like an NBA player and Chris Boucher, the stick-thin Montrealer, continued his habit of filling the boxscore almost any time he hits the floor.
But overall it wasn’t a night to draw any conclusions.
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Perhaps the most significant development was that Kyle Lowry — who may be in some kind of low-key, slow-motion contract stand-off as he waits to get an extension before heading into the final year of his deal — chose not to come out for pre-game introductions. He wasn’t going to play – he has yet to take the floor in training camp, in theory because of his surgically repaired left thumb – but neither was Marc Gasol, and the big Spaniard was out there to soak up the generous pre-game ovation from the energetic crowd.
Nurse said that Lowry isn’t expected to resume normal basketball activities until the team returns from Tokyo on Friday the 11th in preparation for their lone home exhibition game, Oct. 13th against the Chicago Bulls.
In the meantime it will mean more opportunities for the likes of Thomas to prove how they can fit in.
Defensively, Thomas looked alert and adept enough but his challenge will come when opposing coaches call sets to attack him specifically if they sense a mismatch. It seemed like his team played some zone when he was on the floor — something Nurse said he might use as a way to cover up for any perceived weaknesses Thomas might have as long as he can deliver from deep.
“Look, you guys know I love shooting and I love shooters,” Nurse said when asked about Thomas’ defensive abilities earlier in camp. “Shooters always come with something else, and you need to try to figure out how to keep them out there right? Yeah, some players can play both ends and they can really shoot.
“So I always put that back on the coaching staff to keep them on the floor. Maybe it’s a little more zone or a little more switching or a scheme to keep him on the perimeter so they don’t end up having to guard post players or protect the rim or block out big guys. So that’s where we go to work on that stuff.”
Thomas knows what he’s here to do – try to hold his own on defence while forcing opposing defences to account for his presence or make them pay when they don’t.
“My shot’s always been my strongest asset,” he said. “That’s why I’m here, is my ability to shoot the ball. That creates spacing for my teammates to drive gaps and get to the rim. If I myself, if I’m closed out hard and I can create a play for someone else, too, that’s something that I’m gonna do on this team.”
A four-day training camp and an intra-squad game is hardly enough to determine exactly what Thomas can offer on the NBA-level, but he showed enough on Thursday night to make clear he is worth watching.