Cam Thomas understands there are many facets to basketball.
But LSU true freshman guard knows his specific role, which hasn’t changed and has become more cemented ever since he began lofting shots as a 7-year old.
“My job is to score,” said Thomas, who will likely be in the starting lineup for LSU’s 2020-21 season opener tonight at 6 p.m. vs. SIU-Edwardsville in St. Louis. “Everybody wants to score, but you have to prove you are the scorer. If you prove yourself, everybody can understand what you do, and everybody can embrace what you do.”
They did at Oak Hill Academy in Mouth of Wilson, Virginia when the 6-foot-4 210-pound Chesapeake, Va. resident became the school’s all-time leading scorer in just two seasons. It’s a program whose alumni includes a Who’s Who are past and present NBA stars such as Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony and Rajon Rondo.
“Cam is a walking bucket, as good a scorer of the basketball of any player I have coached in my 37 years at Oak Hill,” said Oak Hill head coach Steve Smith of Thomas who averaged 31.5 points last season as a senior and 26.2 points as a junior.
And though LSU doesn’t open its season into late November, Thomas’ new teammates clearly already grasp what he’s all about.
“When you look at Cam, you can tell he’s a pure scorer,” LSU freshman guard Jalen Cook said. “He’s locked on every shot, has the same mechanics on every shot. You can tell he’s put in the hours. He’s a pro at scoring.”
Talk to Thomas for five minutes and it’s as if you’re listening to someone who’s already in the NBA. He says things pro players understand are keys to success, such as “getting to my spot” or “playing with pace, not being rushed” or “needing a multi-dimensional skill set.”
How did a 19-year old gain such advanced knowledge?
“I got that from watching different players like James Harden or (the late) Kobe (Bryant)”, Thomas said. “Kobe was never in a rush when he played. Now, James Harden is never in a rush to get to his spot and shoots when wants.”
Simply watching NBA players is different than comprehending and incorporating what works and doesn’t work. It’s one of Thomas’ best traits, a mixture of God-given ability, work ethic and a basketball savvy single-mother who has the complete trust of her son.
Leslie Thomas, Cam’s mother, grew up on the eastern shore of Virginia loving playing sports, whether it was running track, hitting a softball or shooting basketball.
“I played basketball all the way up until high school, just always loved basketball,” Leslie said. “I just loved the game.”
She didn’t just watch games, she studied them. Why were some players better than others? Why were some more efficient? What is a complete skill set?
When she became a mother, her daughter Shaniece became a player. So, when a son named Cameron came along 10 years later, it would be a family affair when Shaniece had a basketball practice at the Oscar Smith Middle School gym.
One day, there were some eighth graders on the floor and Leslie asked Oscar Smith coach Phillip Twine if second-grader Cam could shoot with them. Twine agreed.
Cam started launching and hitting 3-pointers over taller players. As the shots kept dropping, Leslie and Twine were stunned.
“I was shocked,” she said. “People were saying, `I didn’t know he could shoot. I was like, `I didn’t know either.’ When I recognized it, that’s when I keyed in on it.”
She installed a basketball goal in the yard and watched her son handle much older boys.
“The game was natural to Cam, it was so easy,” Leslie said. “I don’t know where it came from, it was like he was just special. From that point on, I made sure everything he did he learned the game. It’s not just getting out there and running around, you have to learn the game, study the game.
“So many people didn’t understand why he was so good. He learned the game. He kept watching videos and he watched a lot of NBA Classic games on NBA TV, always the old school ones back in the day games like Magic Johnson and the Lakers.
“Next thing you know it just accelerated.”
What Cam learned by studying the videos were old school fundamentals in line with some of his mom’s mantras such as:
Playing under control: “When Cam was younger, I’d always tell him `Calm down, you’re good. You’ve got to see first. You can’t just go. You’ve got to see what the defense is giving you, get to your spots on the floor. You’ve got to play it at your pace. Don’t let them speed you up. See what you want to do, see the game.’”
Developing a complete skill set including a mid-range jump shot: “People would tell Cam to go to the basket. I told Cam him you can’t go in there all the time and expect to draw a foul and get knocked down. That’s wear and tear on your body. Pull up! Two points is two points! Your mid-range is better than a layup. So, pull up! If they come out on you, you can drive past them. In basketball, you have to have options.
“As long as he has options and is able to execute them, he’s going to be hard to guard. I told him,’ `You’ve got to be hard to guard. You’re going to have some defenders that are amazing, but you have control when you’re the offensive player.’”
Playing with efficiency: “You just can’t go out there and jack up shots. I told Cam he has to be consistent and efficient in what he does. High level players playing high level competition have to be efficient.”
A helping Hand
When Cam was in the seventh grade, she enlisted the help of Donald Hand, a former University of Virginia All-ACC starting point guard in the late 1990s who gave (and still gives) private basketball lessons.
“Cam had one workout with Donald,” Leslie said, “and Donald told me, `This kid is special. I’m not joking. This kid already has skills. The only thing we’re going to do is work on interpersonal skills and muscle memories.’
“The thing he did was make Cam believe in himself. He gave Cam the confidence he can do anything and don’t give up.”
Cam credits Hand for his voracious scoring appetite.
“He helped with me with my mindset of keeping my foot on the pedal and scoring more points,” said Cam, who averaged 23.7 points as a ninth grader at Oscar Smith High and was named Chesapeake’s Male Athlete of the Year.
So, as an encore as a sophomore, he. . .sat out the entire season?
Leslie had several conversations with Oscar Madison coach LaVar Griffith prior to her and Cam making a decision to skip his sophomore year to prepare for AAU ball in the spring and summer.
“I don’t hold any grudges against the coach,” Leslie said. “Cam came in as a freshman and really shined, but I don’t think the coach believed in Cam the way Cam needed him to. I guess he had other players he believed in, but they weren’t as good as Cam.
“I could see that taking a toll on Cam and his mental game. That was something I couldn’t allow someone to mess with. Some coaches are stuck in their ways trying to prove their point. I didn’t think there was no point to be proven.
“I didn’t want to have any problems. I didn’t want Cam to start the season and be miserable, and not liking the game. It was our decision to sit out. We talked about it and talked about it. I said, `If you sit out, we’re going to put a plan together, this is what we’re going to do boom, boom boom.’ And he agreed to it.
“I spoke with several other coaches and they said, `He needs to play.’ I said, `We’re just going to get in the gym.’ I was scared, but the thing was I felt at peace. I told Cam, `We’re going to go work on your game and get you better.’”
For several months, every night for two hours and twice daily on Saturdays, Leslie and Cam worked privately at the South Norfolk Community Center.
He had her total devotion and she had his complete trust.
“We didn’t have any distractions,” Leslie said. “Nobody knew we were going to the gym. I said,`Don’t say nothing, we’re just going to work.”
Leslie’s risk paid off when Oak Hill Academy’s coach Smith saw Cam tear it up in AAU play and knew he had to sign him.
What struck Smith most about Cam in watching his Oak Hill career unfold was his mature approach to the game.
“He has an understanding well beyond his basketball years,” Smith said. “He does things with ease, his ability to shoot the three, score off the dribble, on pull-ups, on runners, and at the basket.”
Cam was an immediate force as junior at Oak Hill, teaming with senior Cole Anthony who averaged a triple double. Anthony averaged 18.5 points in 2019-20 in his only college season at North Carolina and was recently the 15th player chosen in the first round of the NBA Draft.
“He (Cole) deferred to Cam (when they were Oak Hill teammates), that’s how good he is offensively,” Smith told a Virginia sportswriter earlier this year.”
Cam’s biggest lesson this past season was dealing with different defenses designed to stop him.
“I see how people set their defenses to stop me, but it’s made me a better player,” he said. “I’ve had to figure out to score in different ways so a certain defense can’t stop me.”
When it came time to sign with a college, LSU’s recruitment seemed to come out of nowhere.
“I didn’t know a lot about LSU and its basketball,” Leslie said. “When Coach (Will) Wade started calling and inquiring about Cam, we clicked as far as how we saw things in the game.
“I did my research, me and Cam started watching all of their games, how will they play you, we were on it. Cam really liked the fact how Coach Wade said he was going to use him, that Skylar (Mays) was leaving and there was an opening for him.”
Cam should fill the role quite nicely and he has thoroughly enjoyed learning his new teammates.
“It’s been good,” Cam said. “I know where everybody wants to be on the floor, their strengths like if they like to drive to the basket from the right or from the left.”
Leslie is happy to see her son blending and being accepted, as a person and in his role of a volume scorer.
“He’s opening up, he talks to the guys and off the court he trusts them,” Leslie said. “In AAU and in high school, you didn’t always get that.
“A lot of coaches will tell you things just to get your kid like `Oh yeah, this will be a great fit for him, this is what we do.’ I heard that so many times and it never works out.
“Some coaches have lied to us. Coach Wade has not lied to us. People don’t understand Coach Wade is a good man. He has never lied to us about Cam, what we need to expect, what Cam needs to do. Coach Wade has done right by my son. I support this man 100 percent.”