The next edition in our player profile series features Matt Thomas, who is both the most enigmatic and perhaps biggest source of contention amongst fans of any player on Iowa State's roster. A top-60 player out of high school, Thomas came to Ames oozing with potential and as a result, lofty expectations followed him from Onalaska, Wisconsin.
Now moving into his junior season, Thomas has yet to put it all together consistently and entering the 2015-2016 campaign with a roster loaded with talent around him, it's entering now or never time for the shooting guard.
Season At A Glance
After struggling through most of his freshman season, Thomas endured what had to be an incredibly difficult off season. He had just watched Naz Long, who plays the same position, establish himself as a cold-blooded clutch shooter during Iowa State's post-season run to create separation between the two, and if that wasn't enough, Bryce Dejean-Jones was brought in by Fred Hoiberg, meaning that Thomas' chances to gain a starting position were all but nixed by mid April. Making matters worse, Hallice Cooke transferred in from Oregon State in May and though Cooke would have to sit out the '14-'15 season, it was one more guy Thomas would have to battle for minutes down the road.
But the most devastating blow came at Thomas' own doing as he was arrested in June and cited for operating a vehicle while intoxicated. He was dealt a two-game suspension to open the year and just like that, any chance of him earning a starting gig had been all but eliminated.
Nonetheless, Thomas entered the fray in the 3rd game of the year against Alabama in the CBE Classic in Kansas City and delivered one of the better performances of his career with 13 points on 5-6 shooting, including 3-4 from deep. Thomas also pulled down 8 rebounds and played 29 minutes in the win over the Crimson Tide.
Unfortunately, the hot start to the year didn't last and over the course of the non-conference portion of the schedule and the bulk of the conference season, Thomas shot it from deep at pretty much the same clip as he did as a freshman.
Listed below are Thomas' 3-point shooting splits over portions of this season's schedule:
- First 3 games: 8-17 3PT, 47%
- Next 7 games: 4-24 3PT, 16.67%
- First 11 conference games: 6-24 3PT, 25%
- Next 4 games (WV, @OSU, @Texas, Baylor): 9-16 3PT, 56.2%
- Next 6 games (including the Big 12 Tournament): 2-9 3 PT, 22.2%
- Against UAB: 3-5 3PT, 60%
- Non-conference totals: 12-41 3PT, 29.2%
- Conference totals: 17-47 3PT, 36.1%
- Last 11 games: 14-28 3PT, 50%
- Season totals: 32-97 3PT, 33%
For the year, here are his final numbers:
And for comparison's sake, here are his numbers from his freshman year:
So from a statistical stand point, Thomas really made no gains from his freshman campaign (aside from FT%), which is especially discouraging. As someone tabbed as a 3-point specialist, there was a substantial gap between Thomas' 33% clip and that of Dustin Hogue (43.1%), Georges Niang (40%), Monte Morris (39.5%) and Naz Long (39.1%).
For the advanced stats crowd, Thomas' ORtg took a dip from 106.7 as a freshman to 103.7 this past year. His eFG% was 47.9%, down from 48.9% as a freshman. His usage rate did increase by nearly 4%, however, and he was more of a presence on the glass as his rebounding rate increased by nearly 2% from his freshman year.
All this being said, if we can get into the subjective side of things, Thomas at least appeared to look more confident on the floor and while he was the 8th-man minutes wise, he was capable of being a valuable contributor as he scored in double figures nine times and played 20 minutes or more 12 times.
Summer School Curriculum
By all accounts, Thomas spends as much time in the gym as anyone on the team. He's getting up just as many shots as guys like Naz Long and Georges Niang, but for whatever reason, that hard work isn't translating to the floor.
Thomas' form and stroke are as pure as they come and when it comes to squaring himself to the basket, he's textbook with his feet set, shoulders aligned and head level. If there's an inefficiency in Thomas' set up and release, I've yet to see it.
So what does Thomas need to work on during the off season? To be honest, I'm not really sure. How does a guy like Thomas, who has plenty of talent and skill, find that missing piece that allows him to put it all together?
I'm no sports psychologist, but maybe it's as simple as being Matt Thomas. Don't worry about trying to be Scott Christopherson or Tyrus McGee or Naz Long. Don't worry about living up to the billing of the 54th overall recruit in the 2013 class. Hell, don't even worry about being a starter.
Keep grinding, young fella. Just keep grinding.
In our previous edition, I mentioned that with the roster as it is going into next season, Abdel Nader seems like the logical guy to enter into a starting line up that loses only one guy. But what about Thomas? Is there a chance Thomas locks down a starting spot? After all, Thomas did start 15 games as a freshman, so it's not as if Hoiberg doesn't think he's capable of belonging in that opening unit.
If that's not enough, it was announced Tuesday afternoon that incumbent starter, Naz Long, was going under the knife to have surgery on his hip. Long could be out up to 6 months over the course of this off season, meaning that Thomas has a real opportunity to establish himself in Long's absence, especially if it takes some time for 3SUS to get back up to speed.
Back to the starting rotation, though. Sure, having Thomas, Long and Monte Morris in the back court at the same time might create issues defensively, but think of the spacing that group, along with Niang and Jameel McKay creates offensively, especially if Thomas can right himself as a shooter.
Off the bench, Hoiberg could throw a new look entirely at opponents bringing in Hallice Cooke to tote the rock and integrating Nader and Deonte Burton to attack the basket.
I realize this is all speculation and an impossible hypothetical that can't be answered until November, but I really believe Thomas is on the precipice of breaking out and here's why.
The biggest difference between Thomas' freshman season and his sophomore campaign was how he was used. As a freshman, Thomas was relegated to playing off the ball, standing in a corner and waiting to get the ball. As a sophomore, Hoiberg ran plays for Thomas and ran offense to get him looks.
Just off the top of my head, I can think of the game against Alabama, the home game against Oklahoma State, the road game at Texas, and the NCAA Tournament game against UAB. Thomas got hot, Hoiberg identified it and Thomas started running around screens like he was Phil Forte. That never happened during Thomas' freshman year. Hoiberg viewed Thomas as a weapon this year and maybe that confidence carries over and propels Thomas to the next level.
I don't know that Thomas is ever going to shoot 45% from outside and score 15 points a game, but if he can just knock down a few more shots from deep and continue to find rhythm in the mid-range game, he could make Iowa State's back court borderline unstoppable.
Or, Thomas could continue to be what's he's been. Regardless, this will be a big year for Thomas. Let's hope he delivers.