LOS ANGELES — Almost all of the stars held out of the Nets-Lakers preseason opener, giving others the chance to shine.
Cam Thomas didn’t waste the opportunity.
With the Nets’ Big 3 all sitting out — as well as LA’s LeBron James and Russell Westbrook — Thomas was the leading scorer for either team in his first NBA game. He sparked the Nets to a 123-97 rout of the Lakers before 16,000 at Staples Center.
Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving all watched from the bench in stretch clothes, as did veterans Blake Griffin, Joe Harris, Patty Mills and James Johnson. The Lakers managed superstar Anthony Davis’ minutes as well.
Still, with Nets team owner Joe Tsai seated courtside opposite their bench, he had plenty to smile about, starting with Thomas’ game-high 21 points. Less than two weeks from his 20th birthday, the rookie finished 7 of 14 from the floor and 6 of 7 from the free-throw line.
“Cam can score. We know he’s a guy that can get to his shot and make shots. He made some [Sunday],” head coach Steve Nash said of Thomas, who had his way with Wayne Ellington, known as a solid defender.
“Cam’s a scorer. He can score. … He’s got a lot to learn and a lot of growing to do, but he starts with a lot of ability. I’m not surprised. He has that type of talent and game just got to continue to develop him and teach him and get him up to speed with the NBA game.”
Bruce Brown’s energy and floater were both in midseason form, but he’s added range, too. He hit two quick 3-pointers, showing his offseason work with player development assistant Kyle Korver could be paying early dividends as he finished with 12 points and 2 of 2 from deep.
LaMarcus Aldridge — who retired after detecting an irregular heartbeat in the April 10 loss to these same Lakers at Barclays Center — looked in Sunday’s return to the court like he’d never been gone. And Paul Millsap (10 points, 10 rebounds) had a double-double midway through the third quarter.
The pair started together in a big front court, but the 36-year-olds have long résumés and proven track records. There is little they can show in a preseason opener. Thomas, on the other hand, had an auspicious debut.
The teenager had been both the co-MVP and top scorer in the Las Vegas Summer League, but that was against draft picks, second-year pros and undrafted hopefuls. In his first action against seasoned pros — albeit preseason — he quickly settled in after a chaotic first two possessions to let his natural scoring ability take hold.
“Scoring is scoring. I don’t know why people always think stuff can’t translate. Scoring is scoring. If you can score, you can score. It doesn’t matter who you’re playing against,” said Thomas, who has been picking up tricks of the scoring trade from both Irving and Harden.
“Me and Kyrie have been talking a lot, talking about little stuff. So I’m trying to take from him as much as I can because it can help me in the long run.”
Thomas showed an ability to shoot through contact and draw fouls, à la Harden.
“They were giving me the midrange, so I got a lot of pull-ups in the midrange and the floater game,” said Thomas. “They were giving the midrange up, so stay with what the defense gives you.”
The Nets jumped out to a 13-3 lead after an Aldridge bucket. It was 25-19 after one, behind 10 points from Brown.
They led 57-49 at the break, behind Thomas’ 12 then opened it up into a blowout in the fourth quarter by opening the period with an extended 28-2 run.
Day’Ron Sharpe, the Nets’ other first-round pick, had a hand in that. He’d been in for just two minutes in the third quarter when he got tangled up with Lakers center Dwight Howard, not once but twice.
Howard got hit with a flagrant and a technical after getting Sharpe in the face with an elbow. The veteran left with 11 points, six rebounds, six fouls.
While Sharpe had a solid outing (13 points, six boards), Nic Claxton struggled. He fouled out with three points and 1 of 4 shooting in 13 minutes.