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Brooklyn Nets guard Cam Thomas is seizing his opportunity sans Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving

The second-year guard has elevated his game with three consecutive 40-point games in extended minutes

BROOKLYN – MVP chants are typically reserved for former Brooklyn Nets star Kevin Durant at Barclays Center. Former Nets star Kyrie Irving heard “MVP … MVP …” from time to time during his roller-coaster tenure in Brooklyn. But what you don’t expect to hear is MVP chants for a reserve guard who did not play due to coach’s decision for 16 games before the 2023 NBA All-Star break.

But that was the reality for the Nets as a 21-year-old Cameron Thomas as he made history on Tuesday by scoring over 40 points for the third consecutive game. With Durant and Irving now gone, Thomas could have plenty of opportunity to earn that praise from the Nets crowd.

“Shoot, I guess I was playing at a high level. They only chant that when you’re playing at a level,” said Thomas to Andscape after a 116-112 loss to the Phoenix Suns on Tuesday after scoring 43 points. “Me being 21, I try to soak in all the big moments now as much as I can. It’s fun to enjoy, but I would rather have the win.”

The second-year Nets guard scored 44 points against the Washington Wizards on Feb. 4 and 47 points against the Los Angeles Clippers on Tuesday before the Suns game. On the night that LeBron James became the NBA’s all-time leading scorer, Thomas also made headlines by becoming the youngest player in NBA history with three consecutive 40-point games. The previous record was held by then-Philadelphia 76ers rookie guard Allen Iverson, who had five consecutive 40-point outings in April 1997 during his rookie season. Thomas has a shot at four consecutive 40-point games when the Nets play the Chicago Bulls on Thursday night in Brooklyn.

Thomas was pleasantly surprised to hear that suddenly he was in the same company with a fellow Virginia legend in Iverson, a Basketball Hall of Famer.

“That’s insane for me to know him a little bit. When I see him at Philly games, we embrace every time I am there,” said Thomas, who is from Chesapeake, Virginia. “To have my name mentioned in the NBA with him … We had our names mentioned in high school and we were with the same AAU program [Boo Williams]. But now to have that in the NBA is big. I’m glad to have my name mentioned with a legend from my area. Hopefully, I’m on the same path as him.”

LSU guard Cameron Thomas shoots against Michigan in a second-round game of the 2021 men’s NCAA men’s tournament at Lucas Oil Stadium on March 22, 2021, in Indianapolis.

Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

In just 1½ seasons, Thomas’ path has been a roller-coaster one with Brooklyn.

Thomas was one of college basketball’s most feared scorers as a freshman, averaging 23 points for Louisiana State University during the 2020-21 season. The 6-foot-4, 210-pounder was stunned that he was selected with the 27th overall pick in the 2021 NBA draft, but now sees it as a “blessing in disguise.”

Since Thomas’ arrival in Brooklyn, he has seen coach Steve Nash get fired, James Harden get traded, the Nets acquire Ben Simmons and Durant ask for a trade. During Thomas’ brief tenure, Irving alone missed almost the entire home schedule last season over his refusal to be vaccinated against COVID-19, and served an eight-game suspension earlier this season after the Nets became disgruntled by his repeated failure to “unequivocally say he has no antisemitic beliefs” after he shared a movie link.

“Anything can happen, man,” said Thomas about NBA life. “Just when you think it won’t happen, it can happen. You have to touch down your toes, stay locked in. You can really only control what you can control. At the end of the day, you’re going to hear all kinds of stuff. You have to stay locked in and get out there and handle every situation.”

Through all the Nets’ turmoil, Thomas was just hoping to find consistent minutes on the floor.

Thomas spent time with the G League Long Island Nets last season as a rookie and averaged 17.6 minutes with the NBA Nets. Last season, he scored a rookie season-high 30 points against Utah Jazz on Feb. 2, 2022, and scored 20 or more points 10 times. The Nets coaching staff wanted him to shoot more 3-pointers and defend better. With two of the NBA’s most feared scorers on the roster in Durant and Irving on a team with championship aspirations and veteran shooters, there was no reason to believe entering 2023 that Thomas’ big opportunity was on the horizon.

Thomas’ confidence never waned.

“Everybody knows I can do this,” Thomas said. “But I am trying to show everybody again that I am very capable of doing this from my résumé in high school, EYBL, AAU, all of that. I am very capable of that. I had to show everyone that this is not a fluke. And I think I have been doing that.”

Said Nets coach Jacque Vaughn: “I don’t ever think he got to a position where he doubted himself. For us as a group and an organization, we never doubted him.”

Brooklyn Nets guard Cameron Thomas looks on against the Phoenix Suns during their game at Barclays Center on Feb. 7 in New York City.

Al Bello/Getty Images

“Nothing is funny when I play basketball. That is why I take myself serious. I want to perfect in everything and know what I am doing when I get out there.” — Cameron Thomas

Another challenge for Thomas is that his quiet, stoic demeanor is often mistaken for aloofness.

Thomas is a basketball junkie who lives in the gym, doesn’t say much, arrives for practice and workouts early, leaves late and doesn’t drink or smoke. He idolized and patterned himself on Kobe Bryant, from his “Mamba Mentality” and work ethic to his scoring ability and competitive nature on the floor. Thomas added he also gets a portion of his seriousness and business mentality from his mother, Leslie Thomas, an Army veteran. Like Bryant, Thomas wears No. 24 for the Nets and also wore No. 8 when he played in summer league.

“Most people see me when I’m not smiling,” Thomas said. “My teammates see when I’m off the floor joking and laughing. I guess it’s [a] narrative out [on] me … I feel like when I’m inside the lines or I’m on the bench, there is nothing to smile at. I’m at work. I have to take it serious. That is how I’ve been my whole life.

“Nothing is funny when I play basketball. That is why I take myself serious. I want to perfect in everything and know what I am doing when I get out there.”

A major opportunity to play big minutes arrived abruptly for Thomas after Irving requested a trade from the Nets on Feb. 3, six days before the NBA trade deadline. Two days later, Brooklyn obliged by sending Irving and forward Markieff Morris to the Dallas Mavericks in exchange for Spencer Dinwiddie, Dorian Finney-Smith, a 2029 first-round pick and second-round picks in 2027 and 2029. With Irving gone and Durant out to injury, the Nets were desperate for scoring and turned to Thomas, who averaged only 9.6 points per game in January.

Thomas said “his brother” Irving mentored him when he was with Brooklyn, and he “cherished” that they talked regularly about such things as Irving’s life, his beliefs, and the details about basketball. Thomas said he found out about the Irving trade after getting a notification on his phone while playing NBA 2K. And after Thomas started his 40-point streak with 44 points against Washington, Irving sent him a congratulatory message.

“I was surprised, like everybody,” Thomas said. “At the end of the day, that’s his business. He feels like he has to make a move for himself. That is still my brother. I try to talk to him as much as I can, but he is with a whole new team, a whole new situation. I definitely support him from afar. That is still my brother.

“He sent me a text after my first 40-point game and said he was proud of me. He sent me a quote, but I don’t remember it. That meant a lot that he was watching. That is still my guy.”

Brooklyn Nets guards Kyrie Irving (left) and Cameron Thomas (right) celebrate after the game against the Toronto Raptors on Dec. 16, 2022, at the Scotiabank Arena in Toronto.

Vaughn Ridley/NBAE via Getty Images

Thomas said he is trying to “enjoy the moment” of his historic 40-plus point streak. He has averaged 44.6 points, 4.6 made 3-pointers and 12 made free throws in 35.6 minutes. Vaughn has been impressed.

“It’s great to see. You got to think about the circumstances that it is happening, too,” Vaughn said. “Just the increase in minutes. That means that on his off days and days he wasn’t in the lineup, he was preparing himself mentally and physically to be ready to play. That is almost 40 minutes three [games] in a row, and to be able to take the contact and shoot 20 free throws a night. It’s great that he’s able to show what he is capable of doing.”

Said Suns star guard Devin Booker: “Really special. He’s somebody I’ve been watching since college. In the short stints that he got, the short opportunities, that is what it comes down to. Having the opportunity and taking advantage of it. I was in a similar situation where you are young and able to play through mistakes. He’s just been incredible.”

Those high-volume shots were expected to be Thomas’ until Durant returned to the Nets lineup after recovering from a knee injury throughout the NBA All-Star break. But late Wednesday night on the eve of the NBA trade deadline, Durant was shockingly dealt to the Suns for a package that includes dynamic forward Mikal Bridges, Cameron Johnson, Jae Crowder and four unprotected future first-round picks, sources told ESPN. Dinwiddie and Finney-Smith are expected to debut for the Nets against the Bulls, but it may take time for them to adapt to their new team. Bridges and Dinwiddie should have a major offensive role on the Nets going forward.

As for Thomas, Vaughn said he is capable of being a great scorer, but you have to think about the “totality of our team.”

“It’s good to continue to put him out there on the floor,” Vaughn said. “I talked about it [Monday]. Sometimes the timing happens not on the player’s timing. It is like a vending machine. You want it easy, and you put your money in and sometimes you get junk out of that thing. But if you put a little bit more investment into it like a home-cooked meal, you get to learn about the ingredients and what it takes.

“He’s learned about the ingredients to be a professional basketball player. It’s not the quick and easy for him. We will keep testing him, and he will be prepared to play.”

Thomas believes he could be one of the NBA’s leading scorers as he has been of late. With all the Brooklyn changes, he may get that chance now.

“No doubt. I feel have all the tools, the mindset, and the mentality to be one of the dominant scorers in the NBA,” Thomas said. “I have the tools and the mindset, but it’s all about the opportunity. Once I get the opportunity, I’ve shown I can do that.”

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.