Toronto Raptors 2019-20 Player Review: Matt Thomas found the spotlight, now it’s time for expansion

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Coming into the 2019-20 season, it was fair to think of Matt Thomas as more “urban legend” than fully realized NBA player.

Arriving to the Raptors from Spain’s Liga ACB, where he made his name for hard work and (of course) three-point shooting, Thomas couldn’t wear high expectations like other players at the end of Toronto’s rotation. Ahead of the season, the obvious candidates for minutes behind the Raptors’ top seven guys were the ones who already had their run through the league — Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Stanley Johnson.

Still, something in Thomas encouraged Masai Ujiri enough to sign him to a three-year, $4.2 million contract — and it wasn’t just the anecdote of his 99 percent effective field goal percentage on wide open shots while with Valencia. Given the season that just wrapped up, that contract looks to be more than fair for a player who followed up hard work and three-point shooting in Spain by coming to the NBA and showing, well, hard work and three-point shooting. In his final season in Liga ACB, Thomas shot 48.5 percent from distance. In 41 games of his first NBA season, he shot 47.5 percent.

Still, the sum of Thomas’ value came in more ways than just checking in and making shots. He became an interesting (and eventually necessary) wrinkle to the Raptors’ offense with his ability to cut off screens, shoot, and occasionally make plays for others — showing a J.J. Redick prototype that could be a key part of Toronto’s future plans. He also improved his defense to serviceable over the course of the season, catching up to the rest of the team.

Let’s take a closer look at both sides of the ball.

Curling, Shooting, and Finding a Spot in the Rotation

We stan an NBA player who knows his role. Just one peek at Matt Thomas’ shot plot from the regular season gives us what we want.

With the target range lighting up outside the arc, the obvious hotspot for Thomas was the left corner three. He made 8-of-14 from this area for his best distance percentage — 57.1 percent.

The vast majority of his looks, though, came on above the break threes — plays where Thomas made himself a part of Toronto’s prodigious transition offense by running a lane, spotting up, and drilling a three from the wing. He took 73 of these shots during the regular season, 40 more than any other type of shot according to NBA.com’s available types, making 45.2 percent of them.

This brings up a needed note on how Thomas tended to be used in 2019-20, and how we should contextualize his first season with the Raptors. There’s no hiding that much of his brilliance came in blowouts and against poor defensive teams, where Nick Nurse felt more comfortable playing a full bench lineup. There were outliers, but the next big step in Thomas’ usage is getting consistent minutes in the rotation rather than shading toward spot duty. This season, it was Terence Davis who ended up in that consistent eighth man role. I see potential for Thomas to overtake that, but it would take a small off-season leap.

There will also be a shift in how Thomas gets his shots up as he becomes more well-known. The most interesting look to me are the plays where Thomas curls off an off-ball screen on the wing, and can get into his shot with the defense on his shoulder. Another progression would be to make a pass off this look, something we saw sparingly this season, but would encourage the Raptors’ half-court offense to diversify.

These small improvements will help Thomas solidify his spot in the NBA, but it’s still impressive that he turned himself into a ten-minute per game player in his first season, and never experienced a drop-off with his outside shooting. He gave the Raptors exactly what they signed up for, right away. He earned enough notoriety to make defenses think about his shooting when he was on the floor in the playoffs. In a half court offense that ended up middle of the pack in the NBA, his one killer ability gave the Raptors’ an extra arrow in their quiver. That bodes well for the confidence the organization has in him going forward.

Defensive Capabilities

A continuing thread at the beginning of the 2019-20 season was Nick Nurse’s trust in his second unit. After the preseason, he refused to commit to a rotation and notably called out the aforementioned Hollis-Jefferson and Johnson for assuming their place on the court. This was a call to arms for all the Raptors trying to earn their spot among the 2018-19 champions, and the one thing seemingly holding back Matt Thomas from getting in on the fight was his defense.

Thomas has a slight build and early in the season, he often found himself out of position on the defensive end or being attacked on a mismatch. While his 4.2 net rating doesn’t bear out a disastrous campaign on that side of the floor, Thomas was often helped out by playing with excellent statistical defenders in Hollis-Jefferson and a backstop in Chris Boucher.

By the time the Raptors got into the bubble, though, Thomas was more than holding his own on defense. His ability to play within team schemes markedly improved, and eventually earned him the ninth spot in the rotation.

In this package from Sportsnet’s Vivek Jacob, you see one great example of Thomas’ improvements — his on-ball defense on Khris Middleton in their August 10 matchup.

Thomas is probably never going to be OG Anunoby and make spectacular positive plays on defense. What the clip above shows us, though, is that he can stay on the floor without being an active detriment. He can move his feet, recover, and stay locked into Toronto’s complex and chameleonic schemes. This will ensure his minutes only go up in 2020-21.

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We had a lot of fun in the summer of 2019 when it came to Matt Thomas discussion. His career at Iowa State and Valencia is full of hyperbolic anecdotes, including one where he cleared a drill of hitting 15 three-pointers in five different spots in 53 seconds. This created that mythology that carried Thomas into the league. It was here that the NBA forced us to really evaluate his spot on the team, and the sharpshooter did not disappoint. Not only did he hold his own in his time on the floor, he left us breadcrumbs to see the type of player he can become fully formed.

The Raptors have to be excited about Thomas’ unique skill set going forward, as they start thinking about bridging their way — inexpensively — to the summer of 2021.