A few weeks ago, Lance Thomas joined Instagram and he received a special shout-out from one of the most recognizable players in the league, Kevin Durant. The Oklahoma City Thunder star poked some fun at his former teammate with a video showing Thomas clearly traveling with the ball, but he also called the second-year Knick his favorite player and person in the league.
“That’s my guy,” Thomas told me in the Knicks locker room. “I know Kevin for a really long time, we’re both competitive guys, we both get after it. In my short time there we put in a lot of good work together, even though he was still fighting a little injury. But players like that respect a guy’s work ethic, and that was something that he’s always respected from me and we’ve been great friends for a while and I think we’re going to continue to be friends for a long time.”
It’s hard not to have respect for the 27-year old swingman, who has been cut from summer league, waived four times and signed to 13 different contracts. Thomas, born in Bedford-Stuyvesant, raised in north Jersey, should be the poster boy for perseverance and he deserves a lot of credit for making himself as valuable as he can possibly be.
“I trust my work and the situation I am in now that’s what I worked for so when the opportunity came I didn’t change up the formula,” said Thomas, who has a knack for knowing where to be on the court and what to do when he gets there. “It was just a matter of being ready when my number was called.”
The Knicks acquired Thomas almost exactly a year ago as part of the Dion Waiters-Iman Shumpert-J.R. Smith three-team deal with Cleveland and Oklahoma City on Jan. 5. New York waived him two days later, only to re-sign him on a pair of 10-day contracts and eventually for the rest of the season. He showed his worth across 40 games and it wasn’t surprising that the Knicks re-signed him to a one-year, $1.5 million deal. But what has been surprising is just how good he has been.
Last season, Thomas was 241st out if 272 players in Offensive Efficiency, this season he is 10th of 212. He’s averaging 8.6 points, 2.1 rebounds and shooting 47 percent. His 3-point percentage of 40.3 is second-best on the Knicks and he is shooting 90 percent from the charity stripe. He has amazingly worked himself into a possible 50/40/90 shooter with an 18.0 usage rate.
“That’s cool. I’ve worked to have a chance to put numbers like that up. But I’m not checking that stat sheet after every game or stuff like that,” said Thomas, who can guard all five positions and is often put on the opponent’s best player. “My main thing is it’s either going to be a win or a loss, my individual stats if they help the team win that’s great, but if we lose I’m in a bad mood after the game.”
The former Duke Blue Devil doesn’t have any gaudy box score numbers, his influence is almost entirely outside of the box score, and his improvement has been his percentages but his scoring is low. The guy absolutely deserves Most Improved consideration, but when you go from 8 PPG to 9 PPG, people won’t notice it league-wide. That’s just how it is and a guy like C.J. McCollum or Will Barton will most likely win the award.
“I think Lance Thomas is one of the most improved player in the league,” Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy recently quipped.
Thomas has 36 career 3-pointers — all since joining the Knicks – and his 72 3-point attempts this season is more than triple the number he took in his first four seasons combined (23). In the offseason, Thomas worked tirelessly on his jump shot, becoming a
legitimate 3-point threat. Training in New Orleans, Thomas said he was launching 500 to 600 shots a day — sometimes twice that if he did a two-a-day session, running on the beach and hitting the weight room, gaining 15 pounds of muscle over the summer.
“I was pretty much working twice a day, three times a week, and the rest would just be a one-day workout,” Thomas said. “Shooting, doing a lot of running and conditioning on the beach and I was in the weight-room. It was a very eventful summer as far as the work that was put in, but it’s definitely paying off.”
When he is not working on his game, Thomas can be found hanging with his Doberman pinscher, out fishing or watching cartoons.
“I love cartoons,” said Thomas, who graduated from Duke with a degree in visual arts and is reportedly quite the accomplished sketch artist. “I’ve always been a cartoon guy, my favorite all-time is Tom and Jerry, Looney Tunes and all those cartoons. I just enjoy it, I like the way the cartoons are animated.”
The 6-foot-8, 240-pound forward isn’t really a scorer or a dominant athlete, but his work ethic, energetic defense and coach-ability stands out. Coming out of Duke, where he played for Coach K, four years after playing for the son of arguably the best high school basketball coach in the country – Danny Hurley – Thomas always brought plenty of intangibles to the table. But after winning a national championship as a senior, Thomas went undrafted by the NBA in 2010.
He dabbled in the D-League, helped the U.S. team win a bronze medal in the 2011 Pan American Games and finally got a shot with the Hornets in 2011. Thomas appeared in 106 games for the now-Pelicans over three seasons, averaging 3.0 points and 2.3 rebounds in 12.4 minutes. When the team released him in November of 2013, he decided to pursue basketball in China for the Foshan Dralions, where he played in 16 games and averaged 26.1 points.
In September of 2014, the Thunder signed Thomas to a training camp deal and he made the squad after a strong showing in the pre-season. He averaged 5.1 points and 3.4 rebounds in 20.5 minutes over 22 games, including 13 starts, before finding his way to the Knicks where he has seemingly found a niche in his latest stop close to home.
“It’s the team I grew up watching, my favorite player is Larry Johnson growing up so every time I see him here I say what’s up to him,” said Thomas, who is playing his way into a potentially lucrative contract come July. “But this is what I grew up watching and I love it.”