Lance Thomas isn’t a prolific scorer. He’s not the strongest or fastest. In fact, there are plenty of players not in the league who are better than him. And he’ll be the first one to tell you that.
I got the chance to cover Thomas as he hosted a clinic with the New Heights Youth Organization’s Summer Academy as an alumni ambassador. Teammates Damyean Dotson and Isaiah Hicks joined him, and the trio spent the afternoon guiding the kids through drills, talking with them, and preaching the importance of academics and life outside sports.
[Full disclosure: As a Knicks fan, I’ve disparaged Thomas on many occasions for his on-court shortcomings. He’s a fringe NBA talent who averaged around 20 minutes per game during his three and a half seasons in New York. Time that I thought would be better served going to players with more upside. But when you meet the man and see what he’s about, it’s hard reverting back to cynicism.]
Midway through the event, Thomas sat down with all the program’s kids — ranging from incoming fifth-to-eighth graders — and doled out excellent and real advice. He explained that while basketball and sports are great, the odds of making it as a pro are infinitesimal.
“I was the man on my high school team. I scored a lot. I was a McDonald’s All-American. Then I went to Duke. And then I went undrafted,” Thomas said. “There are a lot of players in the world who are better than me that aren’t in the NBA. The secret is not letting them outwork you.”
Thomas delved into his time in the (then) D-League and how he considered playing overseas but instead pushed through the challenges and constant doubts. “Excuses get you nowhere. People who make them are those who don’t want to succeed.”
He continued, “A lot of guys can shoot 3’s and score, but how many will play defense and do the dirty work? That’s how I decided to stand out. What are you gonna do to be different, to set yourself apart?”
He then went around the room and asked each kid what they wanted to be when they grew up if basketball doesn’t work out. Thomas listened intently and shared that if it didn’t work out for him, he wanted to be an architect. Maybe one day he will be.
The kids got to pepper him with questions of their own. One wanted to know what it was like playing with Carmelo Anthony. Another asked what point guard would he want to play with aside from his current teammates. Thomas said Anthony was one of the best professionals in the league. Recalling how he would get trashed online and sit in the locker room with a big smile on his face not worrying about it. For his not-current-Knick point guard, he chose Russell Westbrook, citing his unmatched intensity.
After he finished fielding questions from the kids, it was the media’s turn. Five reporters, a pair of PR reps, and a photographer all crammed into the sweaty stairwell of a high school gym and surrounded the Knicks forward.
I broke the news to him about David Fizdale saying Thomas could be the Knicks’ version of Draymond Green.
“That’s my first time hearing it. I’m not Draymond Green, I can’t be him. He’s a certified winner, so to be compared to someone who’s had that much success in their career, I’ll take the compliment. I just want to keep fighting for my teammates,” Thomas said graciously.
His personal contact with his new head coach has been positive so far. Thomas remarked on how they spoke a few times, discussing the instillation of a defensive mindset for the team and making sure everybody’s in shape to get up and down the floor.
As far as his co-captaincy goes, the title doesn’t affect how he plays, but doing it for this team comes with significance after growing up in Brooklyn. “Wearing a Knicks uniform means probably a lot more to me than it does to anybody else on the roster. Every time I step on the floor, I actually have a chance to represent New York. I’m always gonna do it to the utmost,” Thomas proclaimed.
“We haven’t had the seasons that we’ve wanted to, record and success-wise, but that doesn’t mean guys aren’t getting better, guys aren’t learning how to be professionals. When it turns around, it’s gonna be an amazing thing because there’s nothing like winning in New York.”
While holding the co-captain honor is merely a designation, he knows it comes with the responsibility of taking the younger players under his wing. “I lead by example. When you’re in with me and my teammates and you’re not working hard, you’re gonna stick out like a sore thumb. That’s the environment that I’ve been trying to set in New York. We’ve added some guys who really work hard.”
Thomas is excited about the incoming rookies, Kevin Knox and Mitchell Robinson and their blatant eagerness to win. “Those guys were playing like they were playing for contracts even though they already have guarantees. I like to see that because I remember what it was like when I was in the summer league and having to carve out a spot. I love the toughness, I love the grit, and that’s what it takes to survive in New York so I think they’ll be fine.”
Thomas noted that’ll he will help Knox especially once training camp starts. “[Knox]’s gonna have a steady diet of me this year. If he can get around me easily, he should be able to get around most guys in the NBA.”
The veteran looked noticeably svelte and credited it to the self-awareness of his professional mortality and the fact he’s now a 30-year-old in a young man’s league.
“I’m always making sure I’m staying in shape. I’m not gonna let any of these young guys outrun me, outwork me. But regardless, I’m gonna continue to make sure I make open shots. This offseason I want to finish better around the basket. That was something I’ve struggled in the past couple years because of knick-knack foot injuries. Mentally, it’s hard getting over that hump once you’ve injured it. Even though you feel 100 percent, mentally you gotta make sure you’re there right with it. I’m at that point where I’m not even thinking about it, I’m just gonna go for it. And the time to go for it is now.”
To be successful in basketball, players need to put the team first and do the little things. Few exemplify those facets more and care about individual stats less than Thomas. Is it because he’s not good enough to achieve those individual stats? Yeah, probably. But the fact he still maintains a role in the league beckons respect. Every team needs someone like Thomas as a role model. After all, that’s what sets him apart.