Nets’ Cam Thomas embraces facing Bucks’ Damian Lillard in matchup of high-scoring guards

Nets scoring sensation Cam Thomas isn’t short on confidence.

Asked ahead of Monday’s home game against Milwaukee if new Bucks star Damian Lillard is the NBA’s best at making contested three-pointers off the bounce, the 22-year-old Thomas unleashed a smile.

“Shoot, I think I am, honestly,” Thomas said with a laugh during the Nets’ morning shootaround.

It should come as no surprise, then, that Thomas was looking forward to facing Lillard for the first time since Milwaukee traded for the seven-time All-Star late in the offseason.

Thomas’ skillset profiles similarly to Lillard’s as a smaller, score-first guard whose passing is less of a priority and whose defense will never be his calling card.

Lillard, 33, is known for his unlimited range and long history of offensive outbursts, including a career-best 71-point performance less than nine months ago as a member of the Trail Blazers. Lillard’s 25.2 points per game rank 12th in NBA history – ahead of prolific scorers such as Kobe Bryant, Larry Bird, Steph Curry and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Thomas, meanwhile, is making history in his own right. His 36 points against Cleveland last month were the most ever off the bench in a season opener. He became the second youngest to score at least 30 in each of his team’s first three games, behind only Shaquille O’Neal, who achieved the feat as a 21-year-old rookie with Orlando in 1993. He averaged 29.1 points through his first 10 career starts, eclipsing Michael Jordan’s 27.3 for the most by any player since 1970-71, according to ESPN Stats & Info.

Thomas’ 26.0 points per game this season ranked 14th in the NBA entering Monday, ahead of Lillard’s 23.0. His 47.5% field-goal percentage also edged Lillard’s 41.7%, though the latter was making three-pointers at a 34.2% clip compared to Thomas’ 31.4%.

“It’s good to play guys like that at your position, because he’s elite and you want to play so that you’re elite, too,” Thomas said.

“You always want to play against the guys like that because that’s just how basketball competitors are. You want to play against the best.”

When the Bucks acquired Lillard last month – creating a top-tier tandem with two-time NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo – they took a hit on defense by sending point guard Jrue Holiday back to Portland. While Lillard can be competent on defense, he’s not Holiday, a five-time All-Defensive Team selection whom the rebuilding Trail Blazers later traded to Boston.

Defensive issues and a reliance on isolation scoring limited Thomas’ playing time last season, despite him delivering four 40-point games. His Defensive Real Plus-Minus rating – a metric assessing a player’s overall impact on that end of the floor – ranked 88th among 96 qualifying shooting guards last season, according to ESPN.

Nets coach Jacque Vaughn praised Thomas’ growth on defense after the second game of this season, when the guard was part of a rotation that limited Dallas’ Kyrie Irving to 17 points on 6-of-17 shooting.

Thomas is bigger than Lillard – he’s listed at 6-3 and 215 pounds compared to 6-2 and 195 – but acknowledged the need to defend Lillard with high pickups to prevent him from taking the types of deep shots only Curry can rival.

“If he makes it, it’s a good shot,” Thomas said. “Obviously he’s talented, one of the all-time greats, NBA’s Top 75, so obviously he’s gonna make some shots, so we can’t get discouraged. You know, he is crazy, so you can’t get discouraged when he makes a shot in your face.”