‘Best Scorer I’ve Coached Since Iverson’: Clippers Pegged to Draft Elite SEC Shooter

Cameron Thomas

Getty LSU's Cameron Thomas launches

The 2021 NBA draft is around the corner (July 29), and while there’s little doubt that free agency and potential trades will dominant the Clippers offseason, L.A. does have a first-round pick at their disposal.  

On Thursday, The Athletic’s Zach Harper took a stab at predicting who the Clippers might select with the 25th pick, noting that, no matter what happens with free agent Reggie Jackson — expected, ironically, to land elsewhere following his stunning scoring explosion this postseason — the Clippers will be in the market for someone who can fill it up and play-make from the guard position.  

“I don’t know what’s going to happen with Reggie Jackson’s free agency and whether or not the Clippers can realistically keep him,” wrote Harper. “But I do know they’re going to need some backcourt scoring and creation.”

Harper’s pick: LSU freshman scoring sensation Cameron Thomas.


Thomas’s Shooting Enjoys Elite Company

Thomas, who declared for the draft on April 15, was the Tigers leading scorer this season, and his 22.6 points were tops amongst all Division 1 freshman and fourth overall nationally. 

Only Pete Maravich, Chris Jackson aka Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf and Bob Pettit had a higher scoring average in their first year with LSU. (College freshmen were not allowed to play on varsity squads until 1972.)

Perhaps as impressive, Thomas tied Kevin Durant and Zion Williamson (ever heard of them?) for the most points by a freshman over their first two NCAA Tournament games. And Thomas would have owned the record outright had he not shot just 3-for-10 in the second half of LSU’s near-upset of Michigan in the second round. Thomas finished with 30, but it somehow felt like a letdown after he lit up the top-seeded Wolverines for 23 in the first half.

“He’s a hell of a scorer,” wrote Harper, reiterating the obvious. 


Cameron Thomas scores 30 in LSU's near upset of MichiganLSU's Cameron Thomas stepped up when his team needed him the most, nearly leading the Tigers to an upset over top seeded Michigan. The freshman guard dropped 30 for LSU in the Round of 32. See Thomas' full highlights here. Watch highlights, game recaps, and much more from the 2021 NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball…2021-03-23T02:04:59Z

The Clippers struggled all season to find backcourt scoring from their bench. And going into the 2021-22 season, even if they somehow manage to retain Jackson, they won’t be able to reliably count on offensive production from point guards Patrick Beverley and Rajon Rondo, or even rising star Terance Mann, who is excellent at a lot of things but not necessarily someone who can score on demand. Thomas, Harper writes, “could be a dynamite guard off the bench.”

While Thomas generally prefers to launch from behind the arc or pull up from mid-range when defenders run him off the line, part of what makes him such an effective scorer is his skill at drawing contact and converting from the line. In his only collegiate season, Thomas led the SEC in both free show attempts (200) and percentage (88%). In May, Jorrye Nixon of NBADraft.net wrote of Thomas:

No problem getting to the foul line and makes few mistakes when there. [Thomas] has already began to master the ability of using the defenders aggressiveness against them by getting them to bite on his pump fakes or seeking contact on the way to the rim.   

Outside of him not being athletically elite and somewhat lacking on defense, one of the bigger knocks on Thomas is that he’s a bit of a “black hole” on the offensive end. Nixon observed that Thomas “doesn’t pass much” and is usually “looking to let it fly” when he gets the ball. Similarly, Harper wrote that Thomas “doesn’t love to pass” — a claim bolstered by Thomas’s meager 1.4 assists this season in Baton Rouge.  

A shoot-first mentality could be an issue for the Clippers if they are able to re-sign Kawhi Leonard, as they are expected to do. Rightfully so, the organization would much prefer to have the majority of shots taken by Leonard and running mate Paul George, two of the top wings in the league, and if Thomas is unwilling to use himself as a decoy then he could quickly fall out of favor.   

But if the Clippers can’t hold onto Leonard (surely a terrifying prospect for Clippers’ fans) then a ready scorer might be just what the doctor ordered. Though in that scenario the Clippers would almost certainly look to fill the scoring gap left by Leonard via a trade or free agency.   


An Unusual Decision From an ‘Iverson’-Level Talent

While Thomas’s decision to enter the draft after only one college season is far from unique in this day and age, he has not been scared to go against the grain when it comes to his basketball future.

According to David Teel of The Daily Press, after Thomas’s freshman year at Oscar Smith High School in Chesapeake, Virginia — one in which he became just the third freshman in nearly 20 years to be named All-Tidewater — Thomas opted to sit out his sophomore season because he and his mother “just weren’t on the same page” with the coaching staff.

To be clear, Thomas remained a student at Oscar Smith, and his mother said her son continued to do very well academically. But they agreed that opting out of the basketball season was the best move for his future.

“Of course I missed playing,” Thomas said, per Teel. “But sometimes me and my mom look at the bigger picture, (at) the future and what’s more important. I felt like I had to prepare for this, prepare for the EYBL (Nike’s Elite Youth Basketball League), college, and even further on, the NBA.”

The decision, though unorthodox, worked out. Thomas transferred to prep basketball powerhouse Oak Hill Academy in Mouth of Wilson, Virginia, for his junior year and would go on to be a top college recruit, ranked 23rd overall in the 2020 class by ESPN. But perhaps the most telling accolade came from Boo Williams, a legendary AAU figure and Thomas’s coach in the EYBL.

“He’s the best scorer I’ve coached since (Allen) Iverson,” Williams told Larry Rubama of The Virginian-Pilot in March, referring to Thomas’s success at LSU. “So, I’m not surprised. He’s a scorer, and he has that killer instinct.”


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