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From Iowa State to ice baths in the bubble, Matt Thomas and the Utah Jazz have some history together

The guard just acquired from the Raptors was a college teammate and buddy of Georges Niang, and got to know some other Jazz players on the Disney World campus this past summer.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell (45) and Utah Jazz forward Georges Niang (31) welcome newcomer Utah Jazz guard Matt Thomas (21) off the court during a timeout as the Utah Jazz host the Memphis Grizzlies, Mar. 27, 2021 at Vivint Arena.

When Utah Jazz players are getting in some shooting at the Zions Bank Basketball Campus, it’s not unusual for Dennis Lindsey — whose office is upstairs, overlooking the practice facility — to walk around the court and shoot the breeze with various team members.

But when Lindsey, the Jazz’s executive vice president of basketball operations, was making a beeline toward Georges Niang this past Thursday, the reserve forward felt some panic setting in. After all, the NBA’s Trade Deadline was fast approaching.

“He stopped at my hoop and immediately, in my head, I was like, ‘Oh shoot, what is happening right now? Why is he at my hoop? Am I gone?’” Niang recalled. “And then he asked me, ‘What do you think about Matt Thomas?’”

After Lindsey finished listening to Niang extol the virtues of and profess his undying love for Thomas — their college careers at Iowa State overlapped for three years, and they remained buddies afterward — the front office exec grinned and chimed in, “Well, he’s your new teammate.”

Around that same time, Thomas, the second-year Toronto Raptors guard, was being disturbed from his reverie out on the links, informed of his trade to the Jazz for a second-round pick in the 2021 NBA draft.

“I was actually on the golf course playing golf when I found out, so all of a sudden my phone’s blowing up,” Thomas recounted in his first interaction the Utah media following Saturday’s win over Memphis. “I talked to my agent, and I’m talking to the front office people with the Raptors and then also with the Jazz. And I had to get off the course pretty quick because obviously I was going to be on a flight here in the next 12 hours.”

Both of the former Cyclones were thrilled to be on the same team once again.

“I’m ecstatic. I’m ecstatic. I’m really excited,” said Niang, who admitted he cut that workout short in order to FaceTime his friend. “… [He’s] just a great overall human being. Obviously I’m smiling, talking about it. Me and Matt lived across the hall from each other in college for three years. It was a fun experience. Matt’s a great guy, a great person, obviously he’s a great player. He has Jazz DNA. He’s a great person, he can really shoot the ball, and I think the way we play really fits his game.”

Thomas, meanwhile, having fallen out of favor with coach Nick Nurse in Toronto, was eager for a fresh start and a new opportunity.

That it would come with a team that places a premium on shooters and which had racked up the league’s best record was just a bonus.

“I think the way I play is a perfect fit for the way the Jazz plays. Obviously, coach Q likes to play fast and get up a lot of 3s, and that’s what I love to do, that’s what I’m best at doing, and that’s why I’m in the league, right?” Thomas said. “… I was excited because I’m joining the best team in the league and, I keep saying it — I don’t want to sound like a broken record, but I do think it’s a perfect fit for me in the way I play and also just from a personality and a teammate standpoint. I think I’m just going to fit in really well with the guys here.”

Not just with Niang, either.

The NBA bubble on the Disney World campus near Orlando, Fla., wound up giving Thomas and Niang a chance to hang out, and as a result, wound up bringing the 6-foot-4 sharpshooter into contact with some of his future teammates.

“Just from me being around Georges and grabbing breakfast with him or a meal or stuff like that, I was actually around other guys from the Jazz. I know Donovan [Mitchell] — I met him out there and got to know him a little bit — Joe [Ingles], and just a few other guys,” Thomas said. “We all had ice baths out by the pool together, a bunch of the team. So there was times where we were all together out there, and that just gave us some familiarity with each other.”

Mitchell marveled on Saturday night at how those seemingly innocuous instances of cooling down under the Florida sun would wind up paving the way for integrating a new teammate down the regular season’s stretch run a few months later.

“Every time I did the cold tub in the bubble, Matt was there, so we’ve actually gotten to know each other pretty well,” Mitchell said. “He’s a great person, first and foremost. I think the biggest thing that obviously stands out is 3-point shooting, but [also] his knowledge of the game — he’s cerebral, he knows where to get to.

“[Saturday vs. the Grizzlies] was just his first game out here with us, but he was running plays after one morning of scripting, which is trying to figure out where to be. That tells you everything you need to know about his IQ,” Mitchell added. “And we trust him to shoot the ball; if his number is going to be called, he’s gonna be ready to shoot, ready to do his thing.”

Coach Quin Snyder agreed.

“We wouldn’t have traded for him if we didn’t think highly of him as a player,” he said. “I’ve watched him play since he was back in Valencia [Spain]. He can shoot the ball, he can shoot it with range, he can shoot it coming off screens, he can shoot it off the dribble. … If he’s in the game, he’s going to have the green light.”

The past few days have been “crazy” and “wild” for Thomas, he conceded, as he’s had to pack up his life, move across the country, and try to learn a completely new system on the fly, with not a lot of practice time to do it.

And even though his Jazz debut in garbage time of the 126-110 victory over the Grizzlies was pretty inauspicious — 0-for-3 shooting, three turnovers in 6 minutes, 32 seconds of action — Thomas nevertheless remained awed by his sudden opportunity to be a part of a team with realistic championship aspirations.

“I’m just trying to do everything I can to pick things up, ask questions, and my teammates have been amazing, and same with the coaching staff. From the top down, it is just a first-class organization,” Thomas said. “It’s no coincidence why we’re the number one team in the league, have the best record in the league, and have consistently been going to the playoffs every single year.”

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