Iowa State will feature one of the top back courts in the country this next season and today, we highlight the third member of the senior trio that will lead the way for the Cyclones, Matt Thomas. After two disappointing and frustrating years, Thomas emerged as an ironman minutes-wise this past season and finally established himself as the lethal 3-point marksman that he'd been billed to be.
Season At A Glance
You can make an argument that Abdel Nader was Iowa State's most improved player this year. It's a fair argument, but it's not an accurate point of contention. No, the honor of most improved player on the Cyclone roster has to be bestowed on Matt Thomas. What #21 did as a junior is nothing short of remarkable.
If you haven't read last year's profile of Thomas, I recommend giving it a glance for proper context. A brief summary for you just in case, though:
- Thomas lost his starting gig to Monte Morris midway through his freshman year as Fred Hoiberg elected to roll with a dual point guard look.
- After the demotion, Thomas fell behind Naz Long, who established himself as the Cyclones' 6th man down the stretch, repeatedly hitting one big shot after another in post season play.
- With the season over, Hoiberg went out and landed Bryce Dejean-Jones as a graduate transfer, meaning that Thomas would not only have to contend with Long for minutes, but now also an ultra athletic pro prospect. And if that wasn't enough, Iowa State also brought in Hallice Cooke from Oregon State, who at the time looked like yet another talented back court option that Thomas would have to battle for minutes down the road.
- Perhaps the most disappointing blow for Thomas, however, came of his own doing. Thomas was cited for an OWI in June 2014 and as a result, was suspended for Iowa State's first two games of his sophomore season.
- With Long and Dejean-Jones in the starting five and Abdel Nader earning more time and especially after Jameel McKay became eligible, Thomas fell to the 8th guy in the rotation. Even after McKay replaced Dejean-Jones as a starter, Thomas' role was still limited at best.
This led us to last off season. With Hoiberg heading to the Chicago Bulls and after two years of struggles, no one would have blamed Thomas had he elected to hit the restart button and transfer out of the program. Things just weren't working out for Thomas in Ames like everyone had hoped.
Luckily, Thomas opted to give new head coach, Steve Prohm, a chance and as they say, the rest is history. Now a year later, Thomas is perhaps the best returning 3-point assassin in the Big 12. But let's allow the numbers to do the talking:
Let's compare these numbers with his combined averages for his freshman and sophomore years:
Those per game averages don't do justice though to just how big of a leap Thomas made. Check out the chart below that adds in total production from Thomas' freshman and sophomore years versus his junior year:
|'13-14 & '14-'15||1251||109||324||36.7||76||228||33.3||42||61||68.8||139||62||31||356|
Yes, you're reading that right. In one season (35 games), Thomas for the most part exceeded what he'd done in the previous 76 games he'd appeared in.
And those are just the traditional stats. Thomas also set career highs in offensive rating (117.1) and effective field goal percentage (59.2%). Thomas ranked in the top 100 nationally (83rd) in the latter of those two categories, according to kenpom.com.
But while Thomas' scoring and shooting splits soared, it would be unfair not to mention just how much of a complete player he became as a junior. Once a defensive liability, Thomas became steady enough on that end of the floor that Prohm entrusted him with checking everyone from Jarrod Uthoff to Buddy Hield to Danuel House to A.J. English to Malcolm Brogdon. Each of those guys could be earning an NBA paycheck next year.
Thomas also continued to demonstrate that he's an above average rebounder for his position and one of the headier players on the team, consistently understanding the concept of spacing and being a compliment to Georges Niang and Monte Morris.
There's no doubt that Naz Long's injury provided a tremendous opportunity for Thomas to break out, but at the end of the day, Thomas still had to seize that opportunity. There were signs even prior to Long shutting it down that Thomas was a changed player.
In the 8 games that Thomas and Long appeared in together, Thomas shot 42.8% from outside and notched double-figure scoring efforts against Illinois (10 points on 4-8 shooting) and Iowa (19 points on 6-10 shooting).
I bring this up because it's fair to question how Thomas and Long will coexist in the starting back court next season. These two have often spelled each other in the line up the last few years, but we're now projecting them to spend the bulk of their time playing off each other. On paper, the thought of flanking Morris with these two for around 30 minutes a game sounds like a ball distributor's dream. More importantly, with Long and Thomas requiring constant attention on the perimeter, what kind of spacing and driving lanes does that create for Morris and other players on the roster?
In case you couldn't tell, I'm giddy with anticipation thinking about just how dangerous this back court should be. Does the Long/Thomas combo create some duplication of skillsets? Absolutely, but having two guys in the line up that have combined to shoot 38% from deep for their careers while also bringing the intangibles of game-tested seniors immediately gives Iowa State a leg up on virtually any other back court they'll see this upcoming year (and this doesn't even take into account the much anticipated debuts of Donovan Jackson and Nick Weiler-Babb).
Will Thomas attempt 206 treys and play 33 minutes a game next year? With a deeper back court, it may prove challenging, but you also have to take into account that Iowa State will be replacing Abdel Nader, who mostly played on the perimeter and attempted 140 threes in more than 75% of the Cyclones' available minutes this past year.
Some of those minutes will go to guys like Deonte Burton and Darrell Bowie who are more natural wing players or traditional small forwards, but with the make up of the roster, it would only make sense for Prohm to primarily employ a three-guard line up.
With his 89 made 3-pointers last season, Thomas tied Fred Hoiberg for the 4th most treys ever in a season. He also established the 8th best season in Cyclone program history by draining 2.5 long balls per game. Currently, Thomas sits 5th on Iowa State's all-time made 3-pointers list with 165 treys (3 ahead of Naz Long). Jake Sullivan is the all-time leader with 270, meaning that if Thomas is going to pass him, he'll have to break Dedric Willoughby's single-season record of 102 threes. I'm not going to rule out that record for Thomas, but the safer guess is that along with Long, they'll firmly entrench themselves among the top 3 in program history for made 3-pointers (Scott Christopherson is currently #2 with 198 treys).
More importantly than the individual superlatives, Thomas can play in his 4th NCAA Tournament, which only Georges Niang can currently claim to have done. Of course, Morris and Long will team up as part of that joint venture to close out the most successful run in Cyclone history.
While Niang beat that group to the punch on NCAA appearances, no Cyclone has ever appeared in three Sweet 16s, which of course is on the table for both Morris and Thomas. In fact, Melvin Ejim is the only Cyclone to ever be a part of three separate teams that have claimed wins in the NCAA tournament and there's currently a log jam atop Iowa State's career NCAA Tournament wins list as Ejim, Niang, Morris and Thomas all have four wins under their belt (Niang would have five wins, but did not play in Iowa State's round of 32 win over North Carolina in 2014).
So if Iowa State makes the Tournament, Thomas, Morris and Long tie Niang's record. If the Cyclones win a game in the Tournament, that trio ties Ejim's record. If Iowa State makes a Sweet 16, Morris and Thomas become the only two players in the history of the program to have played in three Sweet 16s.
Thomas was the highest rated recruit of the Hoiberg era. He very well could leave the school as its most successful player. Not bad for a guy that many had written off after his sophomore year.