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The Cameron Thomas Conundrum

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Thomas is the most gifted scoring freshman in the country, but the amount of shots he takes comes at a price

NCAA Basketball: Texas A&M at Louisiana State Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

When it comes to Cameron Thomas, two things can be true simultaneously:

  1. He’s the most gifted scorer the program has seen since Chris Jackson
  2. At times his shot selection absolutely kills LSU

The book on Thomas coming out of famed Oak Hill Academy is that the young man can score from anywhere on the floor. Be it baseline fade aways, deep threes, or midrange jumpers, there’s not a shot Thomas can’t make or won’t take.

That’s held true through 27 games of a likely one-and-done career at LSU. Thomas is LSU’s leading scorer—and the fourth leading scorer nationally— at 22 points a game; he went for at least 20 in 10 straight games; he ended the regular season leading all D1 freshmen with 20 games of 20 or more points. He was also the first freshman to lead the SEC in scoring since 1989.

Thomas tries to mimic his game after Kobe Bryant. Thomas wears 24, is roughly the same size as Kobe (Thomas is listed at 6’4” 210, Bryant was 6’6 and his playing weight hovered around 212) and has talked about how his game is inspired by Bryant’s.

“I watch Kobe Bryant and here and there I watch Devin Booker, but mainly I watch Kobe,” Thomas said in an October 2019 interview. “That is where I basically get all my moves and I try to keep that ‘Mamba Mentality’ like him.”

Kobe retired as the third-leading scorer in NBA history. He also holds the record for the most missed shots in league history with 14,481. That’s the kind of deal with the devil you have to make with immensely gifted but high volume scorers like Bryant and Thomas.

Thomas has taken the most shots on LSU’s roster by a wide margin, 125 to be exact. And while he is the Tigers’ leading scorer with 22 points a game, he’s needing 24 shots, free throws included, to get there.

Let’s look at it visually. Fifth Factor Plots, a great source of graphics and data for you college basketball fans, tracked the 107 shots Thomas took in six games: January 13 vs. Arkansas, January 19 vs. Alabama, January 23 at Kentucky, January 30 vs. Texas Tech, February 3 at Alabama and February 13 vs. Tennessee. This was how he fared.

Fifth Factor Plots

Cameron Thomas Shooting Splits

Game Points FG Makes FG Attempts FG% 3FG Makes 3FG Attmepts 3FG% FTM FTA FT%
Game Points FG Makes FG Attempts FG% 3FG Makes 3FG Attmepts 3FG% FTM FTA FT%
Arkansas 17 5 15 33.3 1 7 14.2 6 8 75
Alabama 21 6 17 28.5 1 6 16.6 8 8 100
Kentucky 18 6 20 30 1 8 12.5 5 8 62.5
Texas Tech 25 6 20 30 3 9 33.3 10 11 90.1
Alabama 22 8 19 42 2 4 50 4 4 100
Tennessee 25 6 16 37.5 2 8 25 11 11 100

Averaged out that’s 21.3 points per game with 6.1 field goals on 17.8 attempts, 1.6 three-pointers on 7 attempts, and 7.3 made free throws on 8.3 attempts for a shooting split of 33/29/88.

Why are these six games important? Four of those five opponents (remember that’s two games against Alabama) made the NCAA Tournament and LSU went 2-4 in those games. I am, of course, not saying Thomas was the singular reason LSU lost those four games. But look at how many threes he took from well beyond the three-point line. Is there not an easier play in LSU’s playbook they can go to besides “hope Cam hits from half court?”

But at the same time, when is the ball being in your best player’s hands the wrong call? Especially one who will almost certainly be a first round pick, if not a lottery pick this upcoming summer. That’s the balance Will Wade and the coaching staff need to weigh as we head into the NCAA Tournament.

LSU has one of the most dynamic offenses in college basketball. The Tigers are fifth in KenPom’s adjusted offense and are number eight in points per game. More importantly, they have three other players who average double digit points a game in Javonte Smart, Darius Days and Trendon Watford. Not only that but Smart and Days, now both juniors, were solid contributors as freshmen on LSU’s 2019 Sweet 16 run.

Having players who have played in those big moments can’t be understated and LSU’s two most important players, Smart and Days, had impacts in LSU’s tournament wins over Yale and Maryland. Smart scored nine points and six rebounds coming off the bench against Yale in that 2019 first round game; Smart followed that up with nine points, three rebounds and a pair of assists in the Round of 32 against Maryland, while Days had 10 points, five boards, an assist and hit both of the threes he attempted.

Right around here is where I would bemoan the fact that LSU doesn’t move the ball enough for my liking. They are 338th in assist rate per KenPom, by far the worst figure among tournament teams. But through 27 games I have to reluctantly accept this is how LSU plays and they have been quite successful because they have gifted scorers like Cameron Thomas.

As NBA Twitter likes to say “shooters shoot,” and Cameron Thomas is indeed a shooter who will shoot the ball without the slightest hesitation. That mindset could be what fuels another deep run for LSU in this year’s NCAA Tournament.

But it could also be what ends LSU’s season too.