Nets guard Cam Thomas (24) drives to the basket against...

Nets guard Cam Thomas (24) drives to the basket against Houston Rockets forward Cam Whitmore (7) during the second half at Barclays Center in Brooklyn Saturday, Jan. 27, 2024. Credit: Noah K. Murray

After Cam Thomas scored 33 points off the bench against the Lakers last week, his Nets teammates were in awe. They’re used to his scoring clinics, but they marveled about how efficient he was in a critical win.

“That boy good,” Dennis Smith Jr. said after the 6-4 guard  shot 13-for-18. “We see it every day, though. Training camp, I’m looking like some of [what he was doing] is unbelievable. It’s an everyday thing.”

Fast-forward to Saturday, when Thomas started in place of Cam Johnson, who was out for personal reasons, and scored 37 points. For the second time in less than 10 days, Thomas scored at least 30 points in a Nets win. Before that, they were 1-5 this season when he crossed the 30-point mark.

It has reignited debates about Thomas’ minutes and role. Should the 22-year-old return to the starting lineup? Is he better served as a high-scoring sixth man? Should he permanently be in closing-time lineups?

“The thoughts have always been there,” coach Jacque Vaughn said Saturday about Thomas returning to the starting lineup. “It’s always been about trying to balance that group out.”

Thomas, averaging 21.0 points in 28.8 minutes per game this season, often has said he’s fine doing what’s asked of him. In Los Angeles, he added that he needs to be more consistent in impacting games, knowing he might not score as much as a reserve.

“I’ve just got to do my job, man. Whatever [Vaughn] wants me to do,” said Thomas, who has started 21 of 36 games. “He wants me to come off the bench, I’ve got to do that. If he wants me back starting, I’m more than open to do it. It’s kind of tough, but I’ve just got to do my job.”

Thomas is averaging 22.7 points in 31.3 minutes per game as a starter and 18.5 points in 25.2 minutes per game as a reserve.

He is a scoring savant, but his passing has slightly improved and he’s looked to make the right play more often besides hunting for his shots. But he’s not suited to be a backup point guard and teams also are scheming better against him to limit his scoring.

There’s also his defense. The Nets are 5.3 points per 100 possessions better defensively with him off the court — the worst margin on the team among rotation players.

However, in Thomas’ eight games with at least 30 points, he’s a combined plus-23 on the floor, far better than the combined minus-23 last season in his five games with at least 30 points.

The bigger issue isn’t whether Thomas as a starter can save the season. It’s how his play affects his future, as he’s eligible for a rookie extension this offseason.

As of Sunday, Thomas is one of five players 22 or younger averaging at least 21 points among eligible scoring leaders. Two of them — Alperen Sengun and Cade Cunningham — also are due for extensions this summer.

If the Nets see Thomas as part of their future, they have to pay him. He won’t get a max contract, but his scoring ensures that he’ll command a significant raise when his deal expires after the 2024-25 season.

The alternative to extending him is to wait until after next season, when Ben Simmons’ contract will come off the books. The Nets likely will prioritize Nic Claxton this offseason ahead of Thomas.

That’s a gamble, though. If Thomas matches or exceeds this season’s production, his price will go up.

It’s part of why the Nets need to figure out Thomas’ role and why he needs to stay productive beyond just getting buckets. That happy medium — not just his scoring — will determine his future as a starter or sixth man.

Either way, games such as Saturday’s show why he’s important to have on the floor as much as possible.

“The sky’s the limit for him,’’ Lonnie Walker IV said, “and the best is yet to come.”

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