Thomas banging on the door to Pistons rotation – and Casey hears him, loud and clear

Khyri Thomas
Khyri Thomas has been trusted with challenging defensive assignments in back-to-back games for the Pistons
Ezra Shaw (NBAE/Getty)
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

SALT LAKE CITY – After watching his first two Pistons draft picks in Summer League, Ed Stefanski had a hunch that one of them – and he wasn’t sure which one – would force his way into Dwane Casey’s rotation.

Before the midway point of the season was reached, Bruce Brown was entrenched as a starter assigned the opposition’s best perimeter player on most nights.

And now it appears that Khyri Thomas is closing in on a broader role, as well.

When Brown picked up a third foul with more than four minutes left in the first half in last week’s win over the Clippers, Casey huddled briefly with his assistants to choose a replacement who could contain explosive scorer Lou Williams: Thomas. When Casey went to Ish Smith to close for the final six minutes at Utah on Monday, it was Thomas checking in alongside him and chosen to guard Donovan Mitchell.

That Thomas held up in both instances wasn’t a case of opening eyes for Casey or his staff. It was more affirming what they’ve seen coming for weeks now. And Casey says he’s pretty close to giving Thomas more chances to win minutes.

“I had a gut feeling with Khyri and that gut’s getting stronger and stronger,” Casey said before Monday’s loss to the Jazz. “Probably see my gut going a little bit more and more, then (reporters) are going to be questioning, ‘Why isn’t so-and-so playing.’ Well, it’s because that kid has gotten better.”

Aside from Reggie Bullock, inconsistencies have dogged Casey’s wing players – from Stanley Johnson to Luke Kennard, Glenn Robinson III to Langston Galloway. Given their fluctuations, Casey finds himself gravitating toward the certainty of Brown and Thomas’ defensive abilities.

There’s also a self-awareness about Thomas that endears him to Casey and his teammates as a player who took to heart the role as defined for him in training camp by the coaching staff.

“Whatever the coach needs me to do – whether it’s go out there for a minute and defend or coming in to knock down shots or run the point or be the five – just whatever I can do to help out the team to win, that’s what I look for,” Thomas said.

That Thomas performed so well in Saturday’s win over the Clippers when called on unexpectedly spoke to his maturity as much as to his ability. It’s not easy for anyone, let alone a rookie, to stay engaged mentally when most nights end without getting a call from the head coach. Thomas caught the attention of Casey’s staff with his attentiveness in his very first Summer League practices and has maintained it consistently.

“I don’t want to say I’m comfortable-comfortable,” he said. “Because I know I have a lot of room to improve, so I feel like I’m comfortable – naturally comfortable. But I’ve still got to add a lot to my game when I’m in there to be effective when I have the ball or when I don’t have the ball.”

While Brown has a little more size, both rookies are blessed with large wing spans that help enable them to clog passing lanes and harass shooters. Thomas didn’t attempt a shot in nearly 10 minutes against Utah, but he blocked two. And it’s a limited sample size, but Thomas’ 3-point promise is hinted at by his 7 of 13 showing so far.

“He’s a pit bull, like Bruce,” Casey said. “His defensive instincts are similar. Both were very highly regarded defensively coming out of college and he hasn’t lost that.”

“He was great. Both of our rookies are great,” Blake Griffin said after the Utah game. “Both work really hard. Great guys and very capable. These types of experiences are big and we’re going to need to rely on that down the stretch of the season. I was proud of the way he came in and played.”

Smith, returning after a 19-game injury absence, didn’t blink when he heard Thomas get the call to join him for Monday’s stretch run.

“Khyri can play,” Smith said. “Listen, you all don’t see it in practice. We see it. His ability to shoot, his ability to defend, his toughness. We all see that in practice. So now, he’s going to get his rhythm, his flow and once that happens then the sky’s the limit. Wasn’t a surprise to me.”

“He’s fearless,” Brown said of his fellow rookie. “He’s ready. We work hard every day to get on the floor, so he’s ready. Any time his name is called, he’s going to be ready.”

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