NBA Draft 2014: The case for San Diego State’s Xavier Thames

Just days away from the NBA Draft, fans in San Diego hope to hear one name called on Thursday night: Xavier Thames.  “X” simply took over the city and the entire Mountain West Conference.  Doubling his shot attempts from his junior season, he managed a higher shooting percentage, too.  Thames made 196 free throws in 36 games this year after attempting just 92 in ’12-13.

Steve Fisher’s offense revolved around his ability to run the pick and roll, and the fifth year senior understood the importance of each possession.  Thames turned the ball over just 51 times, 2 fewer than his junior season total.  How incredible is that for a guy to take such good care of the ball when he’s already scoring 25% of the team’s points, doing a most of the ball handling, and giving a max effort on defense?

Here are the numbers from his worst stretch of the season, spanning 5 games in February:

9 ppg, 3.6 apg, 2.8 rpg, 1.2 spg, 12-56 FG, 3-20 3FG, 18-25 FT, 0 TO

I hand picked his five worst games of the year, yet he didn’t turn the ball over once in any of them!  He’s got a special awareness of the game.  During that time, the Aztecs lost a trap game to Wyoming that could have been seen months ahead of time.  Then they got slugged at New Mexico 11 days later.  Thames finished the regular season strong, leading an absolutely insane comeback against New Mexico March 8 at Viejas for the regular season conference title.

He scored 78 points in 3 NCAA tournament games, getting to the free throw line 27 times.  So, what does he have left to prove?  Before comparing him to some guys in this class, let’s see how he stacks up using some stuff from the pre-draft activities.

Thames officially stands at 6’3.5″, 187 pounds with a 6’4″ wingspan.  That’s a good size for an NBA PG.  He’s fits the body types of Ramon Sessions, Goran Dragic, and Jarrett Jack (although Jack and Dragic have 6’7″ wingspans).  The question won’t be his size.  Some people will say he’s not quick or fast enough.

If you’re going to say he isn’t quick enough, you didn’t get a chance to see him play.  He has no problem staying in front of guys, and defense is where quickness matters most.  His lane agility time at the combine was right in line with that of Russ Smith, Shabazz Napier, and Semaj Christon.  His 3.02 time in the shuttle run was better than Napier, Christon, Jahii Carson, Deonte Burton, and wasn’t far off from Marcus Smart’s time.  Many guards bested his three quarter court sprint by .2 seconds or more.

Now I don’t care one bit about any of those numbers, but we know NBA people look at them.  What on earth does a three quarter court sprint matter?  How many times per game do two guys actually sprint to the basket with all their might?  Once?  Maybe two or three times.  This isn’t something even worth testing.  The lane agility and shuttle run drills are more practical, but they don’t happen in real basketball.  For the sake of thoroughness, I’ll say X compared favorably with Christon, Tyler Ennis, DeAndre Kane, and Smith in the max vertical leap.

The combine stuff is tiring to read, especially since it’s over and done, but bear with me, SDSU fans specifically, because Thames ran away with the shooting drills.  He was 16-25 from the NBA 3 point line and 19-25 from the college line.  Thames was also best of the PGs from mid range – shooting 14 of 18 off the dribble and 22-26 in catch and shoot look from 15-18 feet.  I’m not saying anyone should put a ton of weight into this, but if I’m really looking at something from the combine, it’s the shooting.  (Note: Spencer Dinwiddie, Tyler Ennis, Shabazz Napier, Elfrid Payton, and Marcus Smart did not participate in any of the shooting drills.)

So let’s move past the drills and think about what he brings to an NBA team.  He’ll run the pick and roll for you.  He’s capable making all the possible plays, too.  There’s the game winning assist to Dwayne Polee at 2:16 when he easily could have pulled up or tried a floater, but go back and watch again from the 1:49 mark.  His 7 straight points gave SDSU a lead, finishing the job that was a furious 14 point comeback.

He’s known for his ability to pull up if a big man sinks into the paint or his man goes under the screen.  He showed us a floater at times, which he’ll certainly be developing to allow him to finish in the paint over looming NBA shot blockers.  I’m confident the pull up game will translate.  Although it’s fair to ask if he’ll continue to make those shots with more length in his face, he took and made shots like these all season long (6’9″ Ryan Watkins of Boise State challenging):


41-25 was the score with 11:39 to play at Viejas Arena and I thought the Aztecs were toast as I looked on near the ladder leading to the catwalk.  The crowd looked deflated and I felt all that and then some.  The Aztecs ended that game on a 26-7 run, including a 19-1 run that sent that arena into an absolute frenzy.  Thames accounted for 14 of those points.

I touched on the athleticism “questions” that might come up.  If a team likes him, they’ll just have to trust the skills that he has put on display.  The biggest question of all might be, “Does he have the ability to get his own shot?”  I don’t see why that question still matters.  Why would you ask if a pick and roll guard can get his own shot?  That’s not his job.  He does do a good job of pulling it out and attacking a big man that switches onto him, but I’m not really taking 1 on 1 scoring ability into account at all.

It’s stupid to assume Dante Exum is the guy that will get his own shot, Marcus Smart is the stopper, Napier is the instant offense for your bench, and Ennis is the true point guard.  You want to project and predict, but fewer and fewer continue to evaluate what a guy can do today.  That’s due in large part to the fact that most the one and done guys can’t do a whole lot today.

I ranked Thames #8 in my ball handler rankings for this draft in a tier with DeAndre Kane, Spencer Dinwiddie, and Vasilije Micic.  Call me a homer if you’d like.  What role are you shooting for with Elfrid Payton or Russ Smith?  Draft heads say a guy like Payton has the “upside” to become a good PG in this league and they are getting dangerously close to making Westbrook comparisons.  At the same time, you hope he develops his skills enough to say he could be a solid back up at worst.

With Russ Smith, you’re hoping your coach is able to relate with him enough to reign him in and maybe plant the seed for some sort of basketball conscience.  If that happens?  He’s a backup PG that can change the pace and chuck a whole bunch of shots.

What can Xavier Thames do?  He runs the pick and roll.  It’s an easy thing to do with your bench unit.  No complex sets or steps to remember.  No adjustments to make when one of the guys isn’t on the floor.  All players have to learn how to run or play around the pick and roll.  He’s a threat to score at all levels in that P & R action.  When he’s left open, he’s a threat to catch and shoot.

Defensively, he’s got quick hands and keeps his body between his man and the basket.  I see a rotation player in Xavier Thames.  I look at some of these other guys and see long term projects.

According to, Smush Parker is the player comp for Thames.  That’s just not fair.  Guys with so much baggage shouldn’t be used for draft prospect comps.  Actual NBA people will read that and move right along because so much nonsense is associated with that name.  No one actually remembers Smush Parker’s actual basketball talent!  I’ll end my rant.  But those comps need to stop.  These are supposed to help fans relate.  That one doesn’t do it.

Now the hard part – finding a fit.  X is hoping to hear his name called in the second round on Thursday.  No recent mock draft I could find had him being drafted at all.  Looking at the draft order, I’m willing to bet the Spurs were scouting him this year.  They’ll be picking twice at the end of the second round.  C.J. Watson looked pretty uncomfortable doing some routine basketball stuff in the playoffs for Indiana, so they might be intrigued at pick 57, although their bigger need will probably be at the wing to provide some depth there.

For now, Philadelphia holds 5 (FIVE!) second round picks, so they could draft a whole new team to beat up on their starters once they rest Michael Carter-Williams at the end of next season (again).  Chicago sits at #49 and might be in need of some point guard help.  I bet X is near the top of Tom Thibodeau’s list of “guys I could draft and play for 48 minutes without complaining”.

I’ll close by answering a reader question: “If X were to go one-on-one with one of the other PGs in the draft, who would he completely embarrass?”

Tough question.  I ranked some guys ahead of him for a reason, so I’ll look to the second half of my top 20 list.  I’m confident he’d handle Vasilije Micic and all his court vision.  I think he’d frustrate Elfrid Payton to no end.  But to go as far as embarrass?  That’s bold.  But if I’m picking one, I’d say he beats Russ Smith handily.  I think he’d stay grounded, forcing Smith to hesitate, then pounce with his quick hands to really make a lot of his shots difficult.

Thursday should be a fun night.  Aztecs fans – tune in and invite your friends to do the same!  Even if you’re not the biggest of basketball fans, be sure to watch to support one of SDSU’s very own as he looks to enjoy 4 of his Aztecs family in the NBA.  Wednesday, I’ll be back with an update on those 3 former Aztecs – focusing on Chase Tapley, Jamaal Franklin, and Malcolm Thomas.  Our NBA Finals MVP, Kawhi Leonard, got his due, but there will be plenty to share on him as well.

Written by Benjamin Dull.  Follow him or Twitter or read more of his work on the 2014 NBA Draft here.

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