DALLAS — Matt Thomas’ road to the NBA has been a bit more winding than most.
Thomas spent the past two seasons in Spain after a solid four-year stay at Iowa State, but you won’t hear him complaining even as he handles his rookie duties with the reigning NBA champion Toronto Raptors.
“Yeah, there’s little things (we have to do),” Thomas said before a recent road game in Dallas. “We have to deliver the gear on game day shootarounds in the morning, just drop it off at guy’s hotel rooms at their door. That’s one of the things. Just at the hotel, (only) on the road, yeah.”
Thomas, who played at Iowa State from 2013 to 2017, finished his collegiate career averaging 12.3 points per game for the 2016-17 Cyclones. He credits his ISU tenure as the foundation for the success he’s experienced as a professional.
“It was great. I grew a lot as a player and a person (during) my time at Iowa State,” he said. “I made memories, made friends and built relationships that will last forever.”
Despite two years passing since he last roamed the hardwood for ISU, his pride in his Cyclone roots remains strong, memories he’s reminded of anytime he sees any of the fellow ex-Cyclones currently in the NBA.
“Naz Mitrou-Long is on a two-way. George Niang is with Utah,” Thomas said. “Abdel Nader, Deonte Burton (are also in the league). I played with five or six NBA players in my time at Iowa State. It just shows how much talent we had there, just how that program and the coaches we played for, the way they coach. The freedom they allowed us to play with has helped us translate to the NBA.”
Through 11 games with the Raptors, Thomas is averaging 4.8 points and 1.2 rebounds per game. On Nov. 16 in Dallas, he scored a career-high 10 points off the bench, going 4 of 5 from the field, including 2-for-2 from 3-point range. He’s averaging 11.4 minutes per game.
“It’s been fun, man,” he said of his time in the NBA. “I worked my entire life to get here. Just trying to get better, improve and learn every day.”
Facing the Mavericks for the first time also was special because it marked his first time playing against Luka Doncic, the reigning NBA rookie of the year who Thomas had previously played against two seasons ago in Spain.
“He’s a really good player,” Thomas said of Doncic. “We played him twice. We were in the same league. I guess you could say he’s silenced any of the doubters. When he was first coming over from Europe, a lot of people doubted if his game would translate. Obviously, it has. He’s a great player and he’s going to be a great player in the NBA for a long time.”
Spending his first two professional seasons abroad helped prepare him for the rigors of an 82-game NBA regular season. It also helped him mature off the court.
“It helped a lot in all aspects, on and off the court. It just helped me grow and develop, got me out of my comfort zone,” Thomas said. “Being in Spain, everybody speaking a different language. I feel like you can only grow when you put yourself in situations to get out of your comfort zone, so I’m glad I did that.
“Everyone has their own path and I wouldn’t trade mine for anything.”
Thomas is one of the newest Raptors, signing with the team in July. But the ex-Cyclone already has earned the favor of his new coaches, especially of assistant Nate Bjorkgren, a Storm Lake native.
“(He’s) a lot like the other guys that we have, wants to do everything he can to win. He stays ready,” Bjorkgren said. “It went from the start of the year where he didn’t play a few games and he played a few minutes. When his name is called, he’s ready. He always does a really good job of staying ready, prepared and working hard.
“He fits right in with the crew that we’ve got.”
And playing for two coaches with Iowa ties in Bjorkgren and Raptors head coach Nick Nurse (Carroll) has been a nice bonus for Thomas as an NBA rookie.
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“It’s really cool. Just within the whole organization, there’s a lot of Midwest ties,” he said. “So, it’s fun for a guy like me, being from Wisconsin and playing at Iowa State, having ties to those states as well, just having common ground to relate to with these guys.”