Cleaning Up: Well-Traveled Thomas Sets New Rebounding Mark in Game 1

LA's Malcolm Thomas spent 2011-12 on the move between two NBA and three NBA D-League teams. On Tuesday, with a 21-point, 25-rebound effort, he showed how far he's come as a Prospect.

CEDAR PARK, Tex. -- In the first NBA D-League Finals appearance of Malcolm Thomas’ career – in what will most likely be his only season in the league, at this rate – he grabbed a game-high and Finals-record 25 rebounds to send his current and former team to a Game 1 win over his second-most recent former team.

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Thomas, the 6-foot-9-inch blizzard of limbs out of San Diego State, opened the season with the NBA D-League’s L.A. D-Fenders and, on his way here, earned two separate GATORADE Call-Ups. One to the Spurs, one to the Rockets.

And because both San Antonio and Houston have a nearly seamless integration with their NBA D-League clubs – a “24-7 relationship,” in Austin Toros coach Brad Jones’ words – both teams assigned Thomas to their affiliates while he was under contract with them, in order to see how he operated in their systems.

The NBA D-League affiliate of the Spurs just so happened to be the team that Thomas’ D-Fenders were playing on Tuesday night.

So when he ripped down the 25 boards and chipped in 21 points while he was at it – including an 11-for-12 mark from the foul line (6-of-6 in overtime) – he was doing so against the team he was playing for early February.

“It was crazy,” he said. “The guys, as I’d see them on the court, we were just joking around. I try to make friends everywhere, too, so it’s cool to come back and play against them.”

“They were cool, but I just wanted to come back to the D-Fenders and try to win this whole thing.”

In a quirk of the NBA D-League’s affiliation system, once an NBA team has a player under contract, it can move him to and from the team’s NBA D-League affiliate as many as three times – as long as the player has fewer than three years of NBA experience.

However, once a player’s no longer a member of an NBA team, if he returns to the NBA D-League, he goes back to the club that had him under contract before the Call-Up (unless the team waived the rights).

So, because he was a D-Fender before each Call-Up, L.A. had the right of refusal when both of his NBA contracts expired. The D-Fenders didn’t pass.

L.A.’s where his heart belongs, anyway, he said. Thomas admitted to feeling like a D-Fender even when he was a Toro from Jan. 30 through Feb. 7 and a Rio Grande Valley Viper when he was down on assignment from the Rockets from Mar. 30-April 6.

“I did,” he said. “I didn’t want to, but it just kind of sticks with you when you get close to guys. I just always had a D-Fender mentality.”

“I told him if he was on the Toros [in the Playoffs], we were gonna give him work,” said Elijah Millsap with a laugh.

The Spurs liked him enough that they special-delivered a throwback Chaparrals jersey to him at the arena on Tuesday night, after Thomas never got a chance to wear the jersey when he was in the San Antonio organization. But on Thursday, the only jersey he wore was a purple one.

And for L.A., that was a very good thing.

In a game that featured two teams shooting well below their season averages (both shot just over 40 percent, after firing at better than 48 percent during the season), Thomas led a D-Fenders rebounding attack that finished with a 62-42 edge over the Toros.

As L.A.’s guards struggled for most of the night, Thomas kept the D-Fenders in the game. But it was when L.A. needed him most, with the Toros threatening to put the game away in the fourth quarter, that he was at his best.

Nine of his rebounds came after the third quarter, including four on the offensive glass. By the end of the night, his six total offensive boards would have finished third in total rebounds for Austin.

“He’s a good timer when it comes to rebounding and boxing out,” said fellow forward Zach Andrews. “He knows what position to get when the ball comes off the rim.”

Against a Toros team that was going without its top rebounder and most consistent force on the low post, after Eric Dawson suffered a concussion 35 seconds into the game, Thomas had no equal. Austin’s Julian Wright came close, but with the former NBA forward in foul trouble most of the night, Thomas rose above everyone.

“I have guys on my team like Zach Andrews, Otis George and Brandon Costner that I have to go against every day, and they weigh more than me so I have to go a little harder than usual, and they help me get better every day,” he said.

And to underscore how far he’s come as an all-around player this year, he needed just eight shots from the field to record 21 points, finishing as the only D-Fender who shot better than 50 percent on the night (at 5-for-8). He didn’t force shots, because he didn’t need to. As the rebounds fell his way, so did the buckets. He scored so easily on the inside that the Toros just had to put him on the line.

Which also didn’t work.

After shooting 66 percent from the stripe during the regular season, Thomas hit every one of his six foul shots in overtime to put, and keep, the D-Fenders ahead. His crowning moment came with the D-Fenders up, 99-93, with 1:13 left in OT, when Mardy Collins missed a contested layup that fell between three Toros – until Thomas squeezed in, that is. He cut through the trio, grabbed the board, drew the shooting foul and sunk both shots.

“I kind of tell myself at the line, ‘Just calm down, just make the free throw,’” he said. “And free throws are something I’ve been working on since college, so I’m trying to get better at it and keep finishing games.”

Ultimately, the game brought together a number of things he’d been working on since his two trips to the NBA, like having more patience on both ends of the floor. And while he knows he’s got some work to do before he can “actually contribute” in the NBA, instead of just getting there – like add some bulk to his 215-pound frame this summer – he smiled when he read a text message from his sister as he walked out of the locker room, Chaparrals jersey in hand.

“She’s proud of me,” he said. “I came a long way to get to this.”