As he stood and celebrated an NBA Summer League championship with his Los Angeles Lakers teammates Monday night, Matt Thomas received the confirmation any player would welcome with open arms.
It came from Magic Johnson, who is the team’s president of basketball operations and whose opinion is important when it comes to the team he played for.
“I just saw that smile,” Thomas said Wednesday of Johnson’s signature grin. “He said, ‘Congratulations, you played great.’”
It wasn’t the biggest thing Thomas could have received after scoring 23 points as the Lakers beat Portland 110-98 at the Thomas and Mack Center in Las Vegas — think contract — but it was the best the Onalaska High School graduate could hope for after finishing the summer league tournament with an exclamation point on the biggest basketball stage he’s had.
Thomas is as realistic as he is hopeful about the next step in his basketball career.
He knows that averaging 20 points over the final three games — and making 14 of 16 attempts from the 3-point line during the same stretch — shows he has the ability to play in the league, but he also accepts that it doesn’t guarantee the chance.
“All you can do is go out there and show what you can do,” Thomas said. “You just hope that what you did catches the attention of a team that might think you are a good fit.”
Thomas has officially reached the waiting game, and that means open negotiations with teams in the NBA and outside of it to find a basketball home. He will play somewhere. His performance in eight games with the Lakers ended any question of that.
Thomas demonstrated the ability to make shots when the opportunity arose by making 28 of 45 attempts (62.2 percent) while starting six of the team’s eight games. He made 17 of 28 shots (60.7 percent) from behind the 3-point line after making 14 of his last 16 in wins over Brooklyn, Dallas and Portland.
Thomas and his agent, Alex Saratsis, will now sit down and figure out what all of that means in the big picture.
“I know there have been negotiations with several teams overseas and a couple of offers,” said Thomas, who declined to name those teams. “There have also been discussions with what my agent told me are several (NBA) teams, but they haven't come with an offer that I'm interested in taking yet."
“We will just have to look at what the options are and figure out what the best one is for me.”
Thomas and Saratsis — also the agent for Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo and Memphis’ Marc Gasol, among others — communicate daily, Thomas said, to talk about the opportunities.
Whether that is potentially a two-way contract — a combination deal between an NBA team and its G-League affiliate like the one Aquinas graduate Bronson Koenig has with the Bucks — or one of another form, Thomas is game for any discussion.
Getting to this point by playing well in front of a national television audience for two weeks has been an accomplishment of its own, and one that many who know him followed closely.
“It was fun to take advantage of it,” Thomas said, “and to hear from so many friends and family about how it went.”
Thomas points out injuries to teammates as the source for some of the minutes he earned, but what he did on the court also had some impact on that. Thomas played less than 10 minutes in his first game and averaged 32.3 in his last three as his production skyrocketed.
“You can always do better,” Thomas said. “I didn’t play perfect basketball, but I can say that I exceeded my expectations for how it might go for me.”
While his future is determined, Thomas will turn some of his focus to upcoming youth camps he is offering in Norwalk, Iowa, and at Onalaska High School.
The camp in Norwalk will take place Tuesday before he heads home to Onalaska for a two-day camp on Aug. 7-8. He said the camps are his way to doing something positive with his success, which came with the help of attending similar camps throughout the Coulee Region when he was young.
“It’s nice to have some time to do these (camps),” Thomas said. “It’s a chance to give back to the community and the people who helped me get where I am. When I was a kid, I went to camps in West Salem, La Crosse and all over, and this is for everyone in those areas, too.”