Futures market: Injuries, timing have held Thomas back, but 3-and-D potential still resonates
Chris Schwegler (NBAE/Getty)
(EDITOR’S NOTE: During the suspension of the NBA’s season due to COVID-19, Pistons.com is looking at nine young players who either filled larger roles than anticipated or got their first NBA exposure this year, all of it as a result of the wave of injuries that struck the Pistons and led to an organizational decision to rebuild. So far we’ve examined Bruce Brown, Jordan Bone, Sekou Doumbouya, Svi Mykhailiuk, Louis King and Christian Wood. Next up: Khyri Thomas.)
The first player Ed Stefanski added to the Pistons roster after taking over the front office in May 2018 was Khyri Thomas. And Thomas wasn’t just the player regarded as the best available when it came time for Stefanski to exercise his first draft pick for the Pistons.
No, Stefanski didn’t wait until it was his turn at 42. He waved two future second-round draft picks at Philadelphia for the rights to the 38th pick with the specific intent of drafting Thomas.
Largely due to tough luck – timing and injuries – Thomas’ first two NBA seasons have been underwhelming. Given the unforgiving nature of pro sports, sometimes that’s all it takes to end careers. But the Pistons have entered a rebuilding phase and finding players like Thomas – once highly regarded, now perhaps overlooked – is among the missions of rebuilding projects.
Here’s a look at Thomas and how he still could play a role for the Pistons as they undertake this transition.
PAST – Thomas wasn’t a highly recruited player after taking a prep year at Fork Union (Va.) Military Academy, one of the first prep schools to emphasize athletics as a recruiting tool. Over a handful of offers from mid- and low-major Division I schools, Thomas took the offer from the highest-profile school to offer him, Creighton. It allowed Thomas to play college basketball in the same city where he attended high school, Omaha, Neb.
Thomas became an almost-immediate starter, starting 28 of 34 games as a freshman. He spent three seasons at Creighton, becoming a prominent player as a sophomore when he averaged 12.3 points in 31 minutes a game and was voted co-Defensive Player of the Year in the Big East. As a junior, he won the award by himself and averaged 15.1 points in 32 minutes a game. Thomas was a career 40.6 percent 3-point shooter for the Blue Jays.
Thomas declared for the 2018 draft after his junior season and attended the NBA draft combine that May where he measured 6-foot-3¾ with an eyebrow-raising 6-foot-10½ wingspan, underscoring his defensive potential and the ability to guard all three perimeter positions.
Layered over his 3-point touch, Thomas’ stock seemed on the rise as the predraft process unfolded, tabbed as a potential – bordering on a probable – late first-rounder.
Adding to Thomas’ appeal was his demeanor, not only his devotion to defense but his instincts and selflessness. Here’s what Creighton assistant Preston Murphy, a Michigan native who played at Saginaw Nouvel before attending Rhode Island, said of Thomas in an article posted to NBA.com before the 2018 draft: “Most kids don’t understand that most guys that go into the NBA are going to be role players. That’s not Khyri. He’s played a role at Creighton ever since he’s been here. It started with defense. He understands the concept of a team and has a great understanding of who he is and what his role is. That’s what makes him very attractive to the NBA.”
A hamstring injury Thomas suffered late in Summer League following his selection by the Pistons set him back entering training camp that fall, allowing fellow rookie Bruce Brown – taken four picks after Thomas – to get a leg up. Thomas played a total of 195 minutes over 26 games as a rookie.
PRESENT – The run of injuries that assaulted the Pistons this season would have provided Thomas a gaping opportunity to gain traction along his career path – if that run of injuries hadn’t claimed Thomas in its wake.
A broken foot suffered in early November sidelined Thomas for more than three months. Two weeks after his return, the NBA season was suspended amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Unless and until the 2019-20 season resumes, Thomas’ first two NBA seasons will have consisted of 256 minutes spread over 34 games.
His G League resume, though also limited, speaks to Thomas’ potential. In 12 games – 10 of them during his rookie season, two this season as he came back from the foot injury – Thomas has averaged 20 points and shot 44.6 percent from the 3-point arc on a healthy 6.9 attempts per game.
Despite the small sample size and the obvious challenges with timing and rhythm caused by Thomas’ lengthy layoff, he had some flash moments in his post-injury appearances, draining a pair of 3-point attempts on consecutive possessions in a loss at New York on March 8.
“Conditioning is his main thing,” Dwane Casey said two days later after what became the last Pistons practice before the suspension of the season. “He came right in the other night and knocked down two shots, but after a few more minutes his conditioning went down. His challenge is not being able to play as much because of injuries and getting time.”
FUTURE – It will be a critical off-season for Thomas, starting with the decision facing the front office. The third year of Thomas’ contract – like Brown’s – is non-guaranteed. The Pistons have a lot of players stacked at Thomas’ preferred position, shooting guard. Luke Kennard, Svi Mykhailiuk and Brown are ahead of him at this point, though all have at least two-position versatility.
Brown has established himself as the team’s best perimeter defender. The experience he’s gained – nearly 3,100 minutes over his first two seasons – and the versatility he added by serving as the stand-in point guard through injuries to Reggie Jackson and Derrick Rose give him added advantages over Thomas.
Kennard was on his way to emerging as one of the NBA’s bright perimeter offensive talents before being sidetracked by knee tendinitis in December. And Mykhailiuk capitalized when Kennard went down to provide elite 3-point shooting and making strides as a playmaker and defender.
But of the four, it could be argued that Thomas has the best potential package of high-end 3-point shooting and above-average defense. Given that he’d play for the third-year NBA minimum next season, it wouldn’t be out of line for a team embarking on a rebuilding to hang on to him and see what he can deliver at full health with extended opportunity.