Success stories come in every shape and size in the NBA, but they don’t always come often.
While some kids have dreams of becoming the next LeBron, Kevin or Kobe while hitting the asphalt throughout childhood, the challenge of making it to the world’s largest basketball stage can be quite daunting and humbling.
For some, getting a chance to make a living by playing the sport they love professionally, even overseas or in the D-League could prove to be the peak, while another handful will get a chance at 10-day contracts.
One thing was clear when Duke alumnus Lance Thomas was drafted by the Austin Toros prior to the 2010-11 season, his days in the D-League were numbered.
Never mind the fact that he was co-captain of a national championship-winning Duke team, Thomas’ talent was obvious immediately. After covering the Toros closely over two seasons, I was often surprised when Thomas was not called up to NBA teams.
Knowing the talent they had in their backyard, the San Antonio Spurs brought in Thomas for several summer workouts. It was only a matter of time and having the right people in the right places that would provide Thomas his NBA opportunity.
When Dell Demps , formerly a Spurs and Toros front office executive, was hired as the New Orleans Hornets general manager, the path was paved.
“I don’t know if that was the exact reason why I got signed, but having someone that knew who I was as a player didn’t hurt,” Thomas said recently after the Spurs hosted the Hornets.
Thomas was invited to Hornets training camp along with Toros teammate “Squeaky Johnson” prior to the 2011-12 NBA season and made the final roster heading into the season. However, Thomas’ first NBA experience would be cut short when he was waived on December 31, 2011 and returned to the Toros.
But the Hornets wouldn’t keep the forward in the Capitol City for too long, calling him back up a little over a month later. and Thomas made the most of it.
“When you have the opportunity to make a team you have to really go for it,” Thomas said.
On March 9, 2012, Thomas rattled off a career-high 18 points, and later that month he got his first start against a team he knew all too well...the Spurs. Thomas finished with eight points, four rebounds and two blocked shots in the game.
Now it seems Thomas has found a home in the NBA, and as he says it, it’s due in large part to his experience in the D-League.
“It's been really good for me,” Thomas said on his experience with the Toros. “We played against top notch talent every night and had a close relationship with the Spurs and ran all of the same sets.”
Aside from working closely with the Spurs, Thomas turned heads even outside of San Antonio due to his work ethic, attitude and by leading by example.
“(Scouts) say he catches their eye right away with the way he’s committed to both ends of the floor and the way he works,” former Toros coach and current Jazz assistant Brad Jones said while coaching the Toros.
While Thomas only played two minutes against the Spurs with the return of Anthony Davis, it’s clear regardless of his playing time that he feels every win and loss equally, part of what made him a leader with Duke and the Toros.
“We allowed them to get to their spots and needed to do a better job defending their shooters,” Thomas said. “I wish we had done more to win the game.”
As for the Spurs, who are now first in the Western Conference and on an eight-game winning streak.
“They're a really good team and very well coached.”
After spending countless summers participating in workouts to give himself the best chance of making it into the NBA, he spent his first NBA offseason defending the likes of LeBron and Kevin Durant as he was named a member of the USA Select Team.
So while Thomas’ success story is still being written, you’d be hard-pressed to call it anything else at this point.