Throughout Malcolm Thomas’ life, disappointments always seem to follow him at every juncture. Some professional and others personal, his journey has consisted of obstacles, and the latest one this offseason was faced and overcome with the same persistence: Continued hard work and perseverance.
Many across the NBA have been shocked that Thomas was not able to capture the guaranteed contract he looked so poised to land amid spectacular Summer League appearances with the Chicago Bulls in July. He impressed observers in Las Vegas, scoring 11.4 points and grabbing 12.4 rebounds per game. Within the league, some remain perplexed that the Bulls passed up an intriguing talent in Thomas for journeymen such as 31-year-old Vladimir Radmanovic. Thomas also put forth strong workouts for the New York Knicks and Miami Heat as both organizations watched him participate in five-on-five games, but neither team was willing to offer him guaranteed money. Now, he is headed to Israel on Wednesday, set to play for European powerhouse Maccabi Tel Aviv.
“When I didn’t get a deal, it was kind of disappointing,” Thomas told RealGM in a phone interview on Tuesday night. “But then it [also] wasn’t because I still got the deal with Maccabi and they’re still a first-class organization.”
Playing – and possibly excelling – on a top-tier EuroLeague club will allow Thomas to continue to showcase his game in a league where NBA executives are often scouring for talent. He is articulate, astute, and has sharp maturity at just 23 years old. And between the lack of a deal with the Bulls and his workouts for the Knicks and Heat, Thomas had reached agreement in principle on a lucrative deal with Dongguan of the Chinese Basketball Association. The contract broke apart, however, and it made for yet another letdown for Thomas.
“Anybody that knows me knows that I’ve had a lot of disappointments in my life,” Thomas said. “I’ve had a lot of things that were supposed to happen that didn’t happen. So when [the deal with Dongguan] didn’t happen, I was upset but it’s kind of what I’m used to. My way of reacting to it is just working harder and being better.”
With his NBA career forged out of the San Antonio Spurs’ highly respected franchise, Thomas credits Gregg Popovich and everyone else within the organization – from its front office to assistant coaches to players – for showing him the ropes as a rookie last season. He played only three games with the Spurs, but their nurturing program quickly rubbed off on his mental and physical makeup.
“The Spurs are very professional in everything that they do,” Thomas said. “As a young player coming in, they [taught] me how to be a professional on and off the court. From the head coach to the last player on the bench, they all had the same amount of professionalism.
“Coming [into the NBA], I felt like I had to learn how to be a professional, and they taught me that. They taught me how to approach practice, the post [game] and everything. It was a great experience for me and I’m glad it happened.”
After an even more fulfilling summer, Thomas had been confident he would sign with an NBA team. Someway, somehow, he was sure there was a team out there that needed an active, polished forward. Yet, en route to being named to the Summer League All-Star team, Thomas admits he never really played with a potential contract in mind. Instead, he was focused on simply proving an important facet to himself – showing that he belonged.
“I wasn’t playing to get signed,” he said, “I was just playing to show everybody that I can play at that level because I know I work hard enough.”
Even so, Thomas’ skills not only stood out to scouts across the league, but also his Bulls teammates.
“Malcolm is a hell of a player, very active,” Jimmy Butler told RealGM on Monday during media day. “I know he’ll be over in this league [soon]. He’s just got to keep grinding, keep working, and never give up on his dream.”
Thomas’ NBA aspirations are still upbeat, but it’s unmistakable that he is excited about the opportunity to play overseas. This will provide another challenge for him to meet, and he’ll have immense support: His plan is to bring along family members to Israel, as well as his high school coach whom he praises for guidance during Summer League and for giving mentorship on and off the court.
Most of all, Thomas vows that his latest disappointment will just make him better, and in hindsight, he believes his free agency experience will be a stepping stone moving forward and will forever leave him more driven to prove he belongs at the highest of levels
“This process has made me a lot more hungry,” Thomas said. “I’m so, so eager to get to Israel now and just show them that I can play at their level and any other type of level. It just added to the chip that was already on my shoulder.
“Either way, it worked out for me. As long as I can play basketball, that’s really all that matters. And if the [NBA] wants me in a year from now, I’ll be there in a year from now.”