If they ever made a movie about Matt Thomas, they'd start here.
It's Fourth of July weekend in, oh, 2005, at the La Crosse, Wis., Riverfest, on the banks of the Mississippi River. Our protagonist, a 10-year-old Matt, is perusing the carnival when he spots an activity he'd be interested in. A free throw contest. His mother, Martha, watches as her son lines up his shots on the hoop, which for the younger participants has been lowered to eight-feet tall.
Young Matt starts draining free throw after free throw after free throw, and Mom figures he'll be there a while. She takes a walk, checks out the other happenings, and comes back an hour later.
Matt is still shooting. He doesn't stop until he misses. Two hundred and fifty-nine consecutive makes later.
I couldn't do that today," Thomas said with a laugh Thursday. "I just loved basketball, so I was just doing it. I didn't realized what an accomplishment it was. Nowadays, that's crazy - 250 shots. But I was just loving it."
Fast forward eight years or so, and Thomas is entering his freshman year at Iowa State after an incredible high school career at Onalaska High in Wisconsin. The No. 58 player in the nation has a shot as pure as it gets. As a sophomore, he shot 41.4 from behind the arc. As a junior, 46.8. As a senior, 35.8. The dip? That's what happens when you hoist up 165 of 'em.
"His stroke, it's picture-perfect," head coach Fred Hoiberg said. "That's starting to show."
A shooting savant like Hoiberg can help just about anybody else with their shot. But he wouldn't dare play with Thomas' form.
"The one thing he does tell me is to make sure I stay balanced coming off screens, sometimes I have a tendency to fade and obviously that lowers the percentage of the shot," Thomas said. "Making sure I stay straight up and down and finish my shot, other than that they haven't messed with me."
Thomas is a probable starter and, with the Cyclones having lost so much offensive production, he'll have a high usage percentage. He's the perfect player to replace Tyrus McGee, the national 2012-13 leader in three-point percentage. As Thomas' defense has improved over the summer and in fall practice, his shot at big minutes has risen.
"He never played man defensively through his high school career so that's been new to him but as he's continued to develop and get more comfortable on that end, in turn it's made his offense turn on," Hoiberg said. "He's starting to understand our spacing concepts. He's a guy, with the way we like to play, can get a lot of minutes for us."
Thomas concedes that at 6-foot-3, 190 pounds he'll never be the most athletic guy on the floor, but has one thing going for him: "I think a lot of it is being smart and being in the right positions, and you can take shortcuts," he said. "I'm not the most athletic guy, I'm not the fastest guy, but I'll be smart and be in the right position."
When crossing paths with somebody so good at their craft, the curious tendency is to ask, How? How did this happen? How many shots do you take every day? What's your routine?
"I'm not a guy who comes in and counts shots," Thomas said. "It's a little different now being here having managers work us out, so we go through drills. When I was on my own (at the Onalaska YMCA) I'd just go through things I need to work on, like ball-handling, make sure I work on my free throws, catch-and-shoots, off-the-dribbles. I try to simulate game-like settings."
Thomas obviously starred in high school and shined in the AAU circuit last summer. He even finished third in a three-point competition. A smooth shot transcends levels and leagues. Ask Steph Curry (.412 career percentage on threes in college; 44.6 in the NBA), Ray Allen (48.7; 40.1), or J.J. Redick (40.6; 3.90). The difference is off-ball movement — fighting through screens, footwork, reading defenses — and a release.
"The speed of the game in college is so much quicker," Thomas said. "You don't have as much time to get your shot off as you did in high school or AAU. You can't sit and think about, Oh should I take this shot or should I pass it? You've got to be ready to catch and shoot it right away. That's a big transition."
A slump for Thomas, he says, consists of four or five consecutive misses. A hot streak, we suppose, is somewhere between three straight makes and 259.