Brooklyn Nets guard Cam Thomas gestures in the second half...

Brooklyn Nets guard Cam Thomas gestures in the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Charlotte Hornets at Barclays Center on Thursday, Nov. 30, 2023. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

It’s fair to ask what was least surprising about Cam Thomas’ return Thursday — that he came out firing with six shots in the first quarter or came off the bench as one of the Nets’ first reserves.

Thomas said at shootaround that he won’t change his approach looking for shots. He finished with 21 attempts in the loss to the Hornets, second-most behind Mikal Bridges.

But coming off the bench was an adjustment. Thomas started seven games before spraining an ankle, and Thursday was only the second time he had been a reserve this season. He had no problem getting shots in lineups with Bridges, as he showed in his 45-point game against the Bucks that tied his career high.

After Thomas scored 26 points in his first game back, there could be murmurs that he should return to the starting lineup. Coach Jacque Vaughn stated the obvious that minutes will be lost as Thomas gets more playing time.

“It will affect dudes who have been playing. That’s just the way it is. That’s what we signed up for in team basketball,” Vaughn said of Thomas’ return. “Some guys’ minutes will be affected, some of their shots will be affected, but if you come into the game with the ultimate goal of winning the game and being part of a team, then you can understand that.”

However, that doesn’t mean Thomas, the Nets’ leading scorer, should be a starter. Remember, he joined the first five only after injuries to Cam Johnson and Nic Claxton.

He came off the bench in the season opener and scored 36 points. It was a perfect fit for someone who can score in bunches and boost the offense. It’s also a role he can thrive in, just as Lonnie Walker IV did before and after Thomas got hurt.

Thomas made strides with his defensive awareness and passing. There’s room to grow, but it’s enough that Vaughn trusts him more than he did last season, when Thomas was in and out of the rotation.

It’s not enough, however, to push someone out of the starting backcourt. Johnson and Bridges aren’t going anywhere. Spencer Dinwiddie is the Nets’ primary ballhandler and facilitator with Ben Simmons out.

Dinwiddie is a free agent this offseason, but the Nets are better served playing him than preparing for a possible life after him. Besides his point guard duties, his 34.8% shooting on three-pointers is the third-highest total of his career and up from the 28.9% he shot in his return to Brooklyn last season.

Thomas, who’s up for a contract extension after this season, is better served as a reserve for now. He can create havoc against other team’s second units and stay in a rhythm facing starters. The possibilities of lineups with Thomas and Walker putting pressure on defenses is tantalizing.

According to Cleaning the Glass, the Nets are outscoring teams by 7.8 points per 100 possessions with Walker and Thomas on the floor. Even Thomas said the Nets’ variety of scorers can make things easy for him and everyone else.

“You always want to have a little bit of freedom not having the defense keying in on you so much, because they have to account for other guys,” Thomas said of the Nets’ offensive depth. “So it was good to see. So I’m trying to look at how I’m going to fit in with that.”

Being a sixth man isn’t a bad role for Thomas. He’ll get his shots and can prove he’s maturing within the Nets’ offense. He should start only if injuries make room for it.

That’s not a knock on Thomas. It’s just a reminder that for now, the Nets’ starting five remains the best fit to open games even as Thomas reclaims his role as their best scorer.

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