The two potential paths for Deshaun Thomas
LAS VEGAS — Very rarely will you find an American college basketball player that would look forward to a potential job overseas before — or instead of — playing in the NBA. But the Las Vegas Summer League is stocked with prospects and journeymen that will face this reality in some capacity. Whether it’s a stopgap situation, a developmental transition or a necessity to earn a living, there’s green grass across the pond.
For San Antonio, the international basketball scene has been transformed into a pipeline for the franchise. Typically the Spurs have scouted and drafted players from different countries than our own and left them to develop, but the process of drafting an American player and exporting him for training purposes is somewhat of a new practice. And with a precedent set by last year’s decision to send second-round pick Marcus Denmon to play in France, San Antonio might exercise a similar action once again this season.
Spurs General Manager R.C. Buford said it was surprising to find Deshaun Thomas still available at pick No. 58 in June’s draft, so watching the Big Ten’s 2012-13 leading scorer perform well on this stage has to be gratifying. Thomas is averaging 17 points on 54 percent shooting in three summer league games, and he’s been a solid fit within the summer-league skeleton of the Spurs’ system. He’s demonstrated his scoring ability against the competition in Vegas, but the important takeaways don’t necessarily lie in the numbers he’s putting up.
Thomas has played within himself. He hasn’t forced anything, his shot selection has demonstrated his intelligence, he’s a willing passer and simply makes the right play when it becomes available. He doesn’t necessarily pop the way Gary Neal did so loudly three years ago, but he appears to be a player that has a chance to make it somewhere in an NBA rotation. The question remains when and where that will be.
There is currently one open roster spot in San Antonio. It currently belongs to the cap hold of Neal — who remains dangling in restricted free agency — but a decision still must be made in terms of who will occupy that void, if anyone at all. Thomas’ play has inspired some interest in the possibility of an earlier-than-expected arrival in the Alamo City.
As Buford mentioned during the broadcast of the Spurs and Hawks on Monday, Thomas has a chance, but it’s going to be difficult.
This from the NBA TV interview:
“Pop’s going to put demands on him that are going to require him to play differently than he did at Ohio State, but he can score. He can score in a lot of places on the floor and with Deshaun, his attitude and his eagerness to learn and grow has been overwhelming over the first week, and we haven’t had him a long time and a lot of things will need to go well for him to maximize his opportunity, but there is a hole in our roster behind Kawhi (Leonard) right now and we’re looking forward to what Deshuan brings and how his approach has been so far.”
And one thing Thomas has going for him is the position he plays. As Buford said, there is a void behind Leonard at small forward, so he has an opportunity to fulfill a need for this team.
“It’s really not the main focus. The main focus is to go out there and play as hard as you can and be the guy you can be,” Thomas said of the Spurs’ opening at backup small forward. “You can only control what you can control. It’s a blessing to be here and have this opportunity.”
But the former Buckeye did say his summer league head coach talked with him about the chance he had in front of him. Thomas said Ime Udoka mentioned to the second-rounder that there was indeed a hole behind Kawhi, but he stressed to the young player it was imperative to just be comfortable on the court.
“Just go out there and have fun and be you,” Thomas said. “That’s what I’ve been trying to do. Just be out here, learn the system and be very coachable.”
Having Udoka in a head coaching position is invaluable to young players that need perspective. The former Spur has been through the runaround overseas, so being able to share stories and understand the plight of the players is important for summer leaguers in need of a bit of guidance. This experience is not only a tryout for the team whose colors you’re wearing, but also for the rest of the league.
For Thomas, Udoka is playing the middle man between the player and organization. Summer League has given the Spurs a testing ground for guys who don’t have a guaranteed contract in his near future, but they’ve no doubt given their coach the extra task of featuring Thomas along with the rest of the regulars (Cory Joseph, Nando De Colo and Aron Baynes). The question now comes down to the value of that final roster spot.
San Antonio is a team with a ton of depth. Even if Thomas found a way on to the roster, it’s difficult to imagine he’d get a ton of floor time with all the pieces already in place. Again, he has the advantage of playing a position the Spurs covet, but they’ve shown they can find other ways to hide the deficiencies off the bench at small forward.
If Neal is allowed to walk and a spot opens for Thomas to make this team out of summer league, he’d probably see a lot of time in Austin with the Toros. As Joseph has shown us, this is also an effective development tool. But historically, the Spurs have opted to leave that last roster slot open heading into the season in order to maintain flexibility as the year progresses.
Whether it’s the benefit of that open roster spot, the potential return of Neal or the signing of a free agent to a minimum deal that might keep Thomas out, the team may find more value in sending him to Europe to hone is craft. And this is a decision that will come soon, because San Antonio will have to move on a course of action between now and training camp.
Bringing a young player to camp is a risk, because if something goes wrong and a team decides to cut said player while camp is in session, that team would lose his rights completely. If San Antonio decides to send Thomas overseas, they’d keep his draft rights for as long as he doesn’t play in an NBA game. On top of that, he wouldn’t have a a salary counting against the books until he signed on the dotted line to be a Spur.
Leaving the states to play basketball isn’t what many of these young players are striving to do, but as these developmental practices become more commonplace, they can certainly understand why it’s done. It’s a means to an end, and if they buy into Gregg Popovich’s process-driven style, the results will come naturally.
“It’s not every kids dream. Every kid’s dream is to be in the NBA. It’s not the way you start, it’s the way it ends. You’re gonna make it, you just gotta work really hard and be dedicated to it,” Thomas said. “I feel like anywhere you go — overseas, D-League — you’re still a professional, and you have to treat it that way.”