Cam Thomas Cannot Be Denied

LSU's freshman star has always been a prolific scorer, no matter the stage

by Harrison Valentine, LSU Athletics Communications
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Cam Thomas Cannot Be Denied

Editor’s Note: The following story was written by LSU’s Harrison Valentine on March 9, prior to LSU’s post-season play in men’s basketball. The story won first place in Division I for features in the Louisiana Sports Writers Association’s annual Sports Information/Media Relations Writing Contest (one of three first-place awards won by Harrison). We would like to present this story again as Cameron Thomas enters NBA Draft week, scheduled for Thursday night beginning at 7 p.m. CDT on ABC/ESPN.

Ask Cameron Thomas, and he’d probably tell you he’s used to being overlooked.

That claim may seem outrageous, given his résumé: consensus five-star recruit; all-time leading scorer at one of the country’s most prestigious basketball programs; record-setting scorer in his dynamic, still-yet-unfinished freshman season at LSU.

What Thomas has accomplished is undeniable. But just as defenders attempt to hover in passing lanes to keep the ball out of his hands, Thomas still seems somehow denied the credit he deserves.

It’s not just something Thomas has grown accustomed to. This is what makes Thomas tick, the fire under his feet every time he takes the court. It’s true he shines when the lights are brightest, but he doesn’t want the attention. That’s not why he does it. He may be the most confident person in the room, but he isn’t going to say much. He may be highly decorated and one of the most prolific scorers in America, but he prepares like he has something to prove.

No matter the criticism or credit, when Thomas steps onto the floor, he feels like nobody can stop him. He’s felt that for a while now because, to be honest, not many people have. That’s much in part due to his preparation, something that his coaches, former and current teammates describe as second-to-none. That his maturity so clearly transcends his age is impossible to deny.

But if you’re just starting to take notice, with Thomas positioned in the top five in the NCAA in scoring – more than 25 spots ahead of the next highest scorer in his class – realize this is nothing new. Just ask around and you’ll find out he’s been a walking bucket at all levels. He’s always been not just a scorer, but a dominant scorer.

Those who know him best will tell you.

ASK STEVE SMITH, Hall of Fame head coach at Oak Hill Academy, who’s coached 33 McDonald’s All Americans and the most NBA players of any high school coach in America.

Ask him who the most electrifying scorer he’s ever coached is in his legendary 35-year career at Oak Hill. The list, as one would imagine, is quite selective, but one Thomas nears the top.

“He scores the ball unlike anybody I’ve ever coached,” Smith says. “Last year he was the focal point of our team. He’s such a good scorer. He had a game over 50 (points), he had multiple games in the 40s. That usually doesn’t happen here. He started with four other Division I players.”

Those are words that aren’t spoken lightly. Smith, the No. 3 all-time wins leader in high school basketball history with 1,187 victories, has coached some of the sport’s most prolific scorers: Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Durant, Rajon Rondo, and Brandon Jennings, just to name a few.

You can add Thomas to that list, too, but that’s not something he’d want you to do. Thomas doesn’t want your accolades or superlatives. He’s never been about that. He often fills the stat sheet, and he’s going to get the spotlight for that. But for him, it’s always about the bigger picture.

“He likes to win, he’s not about personal or individual glory,” Smith says. “Yes, every kid wants that. Every kid wants to be an All-American, top scorer in the country. But he wants to win more than anything.”

To put Thomas’ freakish scoring ability into perspective, look at a guy like Cole Anthony for evidence, the 15th overall selection in the 2020 NBA Draft. Anthony was a teammate of Thomas’ at Oak Hill in 2019 but ultimately came to a conclusion that more shots for Thomas meant a higher chance at victory.

Even as the No. 1 combo guard in the country and the No. 4 player overall for his class, Anthony took a back seat to Thomas, giving him full autonomy to do what he does best: get buckets.

“He was trying to be the No. 1 player in the country that year,” Smith says of Anthony. “He was up for all the awards. But two or three weeks into the season, he said, ‘I’ve got to take a back seat to Cam.’ That’s what he thought of Cam, and Cole had no problem with that.”

Anthony’s unselfishness ended up helping him to rewrite the record books. Despite just two years at Oak Hill, Thomas left as the program’s all-time leading scorer with 2,219 points. He also finished with the most 40+ point games of any player in the top 100 in his class. That’s something not even Oak Hill’s most prominent NBA stars can tout.

Thomas has seen almost every defense possible, Smith says. Diamond-and-one. Box-and-one. Blitz pressure. Everything and anything — you name it — to slow him down. But the common theme in all of it is it never mattered. He still found a way to score, and in droves.

“He would run over to me on the first possession,” Smith says. “He would say, ‘Coach they’re in a Diamond-and-one. I’d say I know they are, I got you.’ It didn’t matter. He would still go for 35 points. He somehow manufactured his shot. He created space and would get open. He had a lot of confidence in himself. He’s seen everything.”

Thomas’ preparation is different. It’s what makes him the player he’s become and always has been. For instance, his advice to the younger generation perfectly encapsulates the mindset he’s had his entire life: “You have to fall in love with the work.” He truly enjoys the process as much as the product. The grind as much as the glory. All of the great ones do.

So, what exactly does falling in love with the work look like?

It looks like not leaving the gym until 500 makes. It looks like 90 minute workouts, six days a week. It looks like watching YouTube videos of LSU in study hall to get an early grasp on their style of play. And if you give him a ball and let him into an empty gym, Smith says he likes that more than team practice. It gives him an extra pep in his step.

“I’ve learned to fall in love with the work,” Thomas says. “You have to fall in love with playing basketball and training. The more you work, and the more results you get out, you’re going to immediately want to work even harder. I know some days you’re going to feel like you don’t want to do it, but you have to do it anyway.”

“If the doors are open, he’s going to go in there,” Smith says. “He was in there non-stop. He worked and worked and worked. That’s how he’s gotten to be the player that he is now.”

Thomas is incredibly stoic in nature. He doesn’t say much. But frankly, on the floor, he doesn’t need to say anything at all. Just look at the box score. It took some time for him to open up to Coach Smith, but he earned Thomas’ trust, and the two have a unique bond because of that.

“He’s quiet,” Smith says. “He doesn’t trust a lot of people. He’s got to get to know you. I had to earn his trust as a coach. He and I had a great relationship. His second year, we were more verbal. He was really quiet his first year, he would just come in the gym, do his workouts. He always did his school work, and I never had to talk to him about academics.”

Smith has categorized Thomas as a smaller version of Kobe Bryant, and although that’s a comparison that carries weight, it’s no coincidence considering Bryant has always been his favorite player and someone he tries to emulate on the floor.

Not only does Thomas wear the No. 24 and have a picture of Bryant as his avatar on Twitter, but he also studies the tendencies of one of the game’s all-time greatest scorers as meticulously as anyone. First he visualizes the move he wants to learn, then he goes into the gym and tries to emulate it himself. From there, he does it over and over again until muscle memory transfers it into his permanent arsenal on game day.

“He made me love the game,” Thomas says of Bryant.

Turn on the tape and you’ll see it, too. The fade away. The footwork. The poker face. It all aligns closely with Bryant. Thomas also enjoys studying James Harden and Devin Booker. You can tell by his go-to stepback jumper, which is straight out of Harden’s playbook, and the way he executes these tendencies to near perfection is just another testament to his relentless work ethic.

ASK RODNEY BERRY, Thomas’ AAU coach, who’s witnessed so many epic performances from Cam Thomas that it’s hard to keep count.

For starters, Berry recalls one game at a Holiday tournament in Virginia when Thomas was a freshman that has stuck with him ever since. Thomas’ high school at the time, Oscar Smith, lost the game, but Thomas finished with 38 against Trinity Episcopal, the No. 1 team in the state.

“He was unstoppable,” Berry says. “He was scoring from the field, shooting from almost half court, knocking down free throws. He was doing everything.”

Thomas then made the unconventional decision to sit out his sophomore year at Oscar Smith for big picture reasons that centered around his future. Berry implied that the route Thomas took would’ve probably worked out for Thomas and Thomas only, because he feels there’s only one player who’d put in that level of work. He wouldn’t recommend that path for any other prospect.

Knowing he had to work even harder than the people that were playing, Thomas spent every day at the Boo Williams Sportsplex in Hampton, Virginia, shooting thousands of jump shots, while also devoting considerable time to his body through weight training. The time away made him hungrier than ever before.

“That’s not the traditional route,” Berry says. “That’s not the route that they wanted to go that year, and I wouldn’t suggest for anyone else to do that. But he put in a lot of work during the time that he wasn’t playing, then went right into AAU season.”

Berry went on to reminisce about a performance after Thomas jumped back into the Nike EYBL circuit. Their AAU team played 10-time NBA All-Star Paul Pierce’s team, when Thomas scored both 41 points and earned a personal visit from the 19-year veteran of the league.

“That was probably one of the most prolific games that I’ve ever seen him score,” Berry says. “Paul Pierce came up to us and said, ‘I’ve never even scored 40+ points in an AAU game.’ He was amazed with how Cam put the ball in the hole, then talked with the team for 15 minutes.”

Thomas led the Nike EYBL, known to be the toughest summer circuit in the country, in scoring with 29.5 points per game in 2019. He also led Peach Jam, which serves as the EYBL circuit finals, in scoring with 29.7 points per game.

“I don’t think it matters, the stage that he’s on, to be honest with you,” Berry says. “He was a middle school kid averaging 30-40 points in three quarters, and he wouldn’t even play the fourth quarter. Ever since I’ve met him he’s been scoring the ball at a super high level.”

Then came the infamous five-game stretch after the McDonald’s All-American list came out. Thomas, a top 25 player nationally, was snubbed and left off the list to the surprise of many. And while the game was never played due to COVID-19, that was still a goal of his, and it stung.

Luckily, Thomas’ memory was short. He used it as fuel. The list came out and the very next day he scored 51 points.

The four games after? He went for 42, 41, 41, 40. It was his way of letting them know they made a mistake.

“He went on a tear,” says Berry. “I know he felt (being left off All-American list) and it showed in his play.”

That’s just how he’s wired. Even if he was disappointed, there was no time to feel sorry for himself. It was back to work. In his mind, dwelling about being left off the list would impact his performance going forward, so there was no other option than to put it behind him.

“He doesn’t need a lot of lights, camera, action,” Berry says. “He just needs a ball and a gym. He doesn’t look for superlatives or awards, he always has goals that he wants to get. He doesn’t need a lot of people in the gym with him. He’s always been a hard worker.”

Thomas’ mother, Leslie, can tell you all about those long nights in the gym. All he needs is a ball — and his mother to rebound — as he makes over 500 shots, which doesn’t involve much movement because you just have to stand under the net. Leslie, from all accounts, has acted as a shooting coach and a mentor for Cam over the years. The two have a unique and special relationship. Thomas is someone who doesn’t open up to many people, but he tells his mother everything.

Cam and his mother, Leslie

“Their relationship is really strong,” says Berry. “She saw it in him when he was a baby. She helped him the whole way, helped develop that mental toughness. Her role in his development is extremely high. She was in the gym, rebounding, when he was shooting 500 shots. Their bond together is like any other mother-son bond.”

She’s been there every step of the way in his development and is by far his No. 1 cheerleader. At games, count on her to be in the front row, no matter the time or place. Even in a loud gym packed with fans, her voice is always heard.

“She came to all the games and never asked me for a thing,” Smith added. “I’d look up at the stands and there she’d be. She was always going to go and support him, I don’t care if we were in California playing. You’d turn around and she’d be in the second row. He is her world.”

Like any proven winner, Thomas isn’t someone who looks ahead often. Obviously, he has long-term goals in mind, but he keeps those to himself. When asked about his potential going forward, Berry hesitates to answer because he knows deep down Thomas wouldn’t want him to.

“I think he’s someone who’s going to be SEC Freshman of the Year,” Berry admits. “But you just have to keep everything in perspective because that’s how he is. We really don’t talk too much about the next level or anything like that. He’s focused on what’s going on right now.”

ASK WILL WADE, who knew right away he was getting one of the premier scorers, not just for a freshman, but in the entire country to replace Skylar Mays at shooting guard.

Much like his routine-oriented head coach, being consistent is part of Thomas’ DNA. His workout routine at LSU is the same as it’s always been. The scenery changes, and so does the stage, but the work doesn’t.

Thomas has a 9 a.m. shooting slot every morning, six days a week. He only doesn’t shoot on Saturday mornings. He shoots Sunday through Friday, every day, 9 a.m., for an hour and 15 minutes and gets his work in. For Wade, he’s never seen anything like it for a freshman, and it’s the intense self-discipline that separates him from others.

“He’s as consistent of a worker as I’ve seen for a freshman,” Wade says. “He’s never late, he shows up every day. He’s about his business, he prepares well, he watches a lot of basketball, he knows what’s going on, he’s got a great feel for things. He’s a tremendous talent and I’m glad he’s playing for the Tigers.”

“Just in terms of how locked in he is, and how focused he is,” Wade added. “He has the self-discipline. A lot of guys will do it for four days a week or five days. For (Thomas), it’s six days, every day. The self-discipline that he has, to me, separates him from a lot of guys.”

He doesn’t just have the attention of his coaches, but his work ethic filters down to his teammates, too. It’s contagious. It’s not easy playing with someone that scores a ton of points, but the Tigers have embraced Thomas and everybody feels comfortable in their own roles.

“He’s one of those guys that I am glad we have on our team,” Days says. “He just works. He is a worker. Day in and day out, he is in (the gym) shooting. That’s why he is making the shots that he makes. He is in the gym every day and putting up shots.”

After the Tigers defeated Ole Miss back in January, Thomas suffered a minor ankle injury forcing him to miss most of the game. The next day, when many thought he’d be limited, he showed up to the facility ready to work, fully participating in shooting and defensive drills.

Most would take the day slow, but Thomas again proved he isn’t like most. That’s what happens when you’re in love with the work.

“He is an absolute warrior,” Wade says. “This kid is special. He did everything (in practice) yesterday. He loves to ball and he loves to be around his teammates. Our team loves him and respects him. His respect went through the roof after what he did in practice.”

HE MAY BE too quiet to tell you himself, but the stories around Thomas and his decade of dominance are plentiful. You just have to go out and find them.

Look at the Oak Hill rafters, where his name neighbors legends. Look at all the highlight tapes – there are countless to pick from. Look at the point totals and record books, where he sits alone at the top.

A common theme emerges when talking to those who know him best. He leaves no doubt in everything he does. A consensus five-star. A consensus top 25 prospect. Consistent in the classroom. Record setter on the court. When he puts his mind to something, he comes out leaving no question marks, just exclamation points.

Even now at LSU, no game has felt too big. Why? Because the work has always been for moments like these. So when he scores 25 points in his collegiate debut or a career-high 32 in the SEC opener, he doesn’t think much of it. He’s ready for every game because preparation breeds confidence. And Thomas prepares like no other.

“If you put in the work that I do, you’ll feel like it’s just a normal game,” Thomas says. “I’ve put in a lot of work. I feel very confident in my preparation. That’s why I don’t think (each game) is a big deal. I’m ready for every game.”

That’s who Cam Thomas is. That’s who he’s always been. He doesn’t need the hype; he just wants to hoop.

The work speaks for itself. The results are undeniable.

No questions asked.