The Toronto Raptors roster looks different than it did last season, losing a couple key rotation players with roles waiting to be filled.
Those available roles and minutes will be sorted out over the course of training camp and preseason and following the first exhibition game of the year, there's a familiar face that's looking to play a bigger part.
Toronto got off to a slow start in the contest, trailing 25-6 through the first seven minutes of the game. It wasn't until the second unit, led by reserve guard Matt Thomas, checked in to find the team's footing in changing the game's momentum. Thomas knocked down a 3 to help take the lid off the rim and tallied a pair of assists before the quarter's end to make the deficit much more manageable moving forward.
He stood out from the pack in the Raptors 111-100 win over the Charlotte Hornets, pacing the bench unit's offence while leading the team with 16 points and five assists. Thomas came in and did exactly what he's known for - shooting 4-for-7 (57.1%) from beyond the arc - but his passing and defence was more encouraging than usual, showing clear signs of improvement from his first season in the NBA last year.
MORE: Raptors edge Hornets in LaMelo Ball's dazzling debut
Matt Thomas finished with 16 PTS, 4 3PT and 5 AST in the @Raptors preseason win over Charlotte! pic.twitter.com/jDST8tQB6c- NBA Canada (@NBACanada) December 13, 2020
"My role was up and down (in 2019-20). I had games where I played 20 minutes and games where I didn't play at all. ... In the bubble, I started playing well and I think I made a lot of improvements in my game during that hiatus," he told the media following a promising preseason-opening performance.
"I kind of approached it more as an offseason. I went in (to the bubble) as kind of like a second season. I think I played good basketball there and now is the time to use that momentum that I finished the season with last year to make the jump to become a more consistent rotational piece on this team. A guy that can come in every single night and help the team get wins."
Only averaging 10.7 minutes over 41 regular season games in his rookie season, playing time was scarce and scattered for the sharpshooter. Converting a blistering 47.5% from 3, Thomas' role with the team was defined by a spark of offence off the bench, but it was limited to just that. In Year 2, he's looking to play a bigger part than that and head coach Nick Nurse feels the same way.
"He's a shooter, obviously, but he's also a good player," Nurse told the media after the win. "He cuts and he moves, he does the right things on defence. He'll get overmatched sometimes, whether it's size-wise or strength-wise. But for as much as he does at the other end and his decision making on both ends, I'm wanting to lock him into a role this year where he's a big factor."
And Nurse's praise didn't stop there.
"I think we found out again that a year does a lot for a guy, to get him acclimated in the NBA. I thought he played really well in the bubble. And again, he makes more plays than just standing around and shooting 3s," Nurse continued.
"When he gets pressured, he goes in, penetrates and kicks. He causes a lot of defensive shifting just by his hard cutting. ... He creates offence because he's doing the right thing - more than just a shooter - he's playing offence at a high pace and with a high IQ."
Thomas played hard and smart in the first preseason contest, two things that will always win over head coach Nurse. With All-Star guard Kyle Lowry out of the lineup and Norman Powell filling that spot in the starting five, there was an opportunity for Thomas to take on a bigger role in the second unit and he seized it - a role he'll look to make permanent this season.
"I think our identity needs to be the same it was last year, just certain guys might have bigger roles," Thomas said of the bench group. "We have to come in there and provide a spark if we need to, or just maintain and sustain the level of play that the first unit always provides every single game so there's no drop off with us going in there."
On nights like last Saturday night, the play of Thomas and the second unit did more than provide a spark - it helped change the tides of the game in the Raptors favour to come away with a win.
With two more preseason contests on the schedule before the regular season tips off, Thomas will have more chances to prove he can become a mainstay in the rotation this year.
Next up, Toronto will take on the Hornets in Charlotte again on Monday, Dec. 13 at 7 p.m. Eastern Time.
The views on this page do not necessarily represent the views of the NBA or its clubs.