New twist to rebirth of former Duke basketball champ

One Duke basketball face in the bubble fits in well with stunning underdogs.

The 32-35 Brooklyn Nets, minus eight or so of their key players, took on the NBA-leading 54-14 Milwaukee Bucks on Tuesday. They had next to no chance of pulling off the win. But despite starting Duke basketball alum Lance Thomas — a 32-year-old forward the lowly New York Knicks waived last summer and who didn’t land anywhere this season until his desperate current franchise came calling in mid-July — the team managed a 119-116 shocking victory.

According to David Purdum of ESPN, after being 19-point underdogs at the tip, Brooklyn’s feat marks the No. 1 upset in the league since 1993. Now, in a tie with the Orlando Magic at No. 7 in the Eastern Conference standings, the Nets are eight games ahead of the No. 9 Washington Wizards, meaning they have all but punched their playoff ticket.

And the Nets are now 2-1 combined inside the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex, with the lone loss coming at the hands of the Magic in their restart debut and then the other W coming against the Wizards on Sunday. Their surprising competitiveness is possibly a credit to having a roster full of energetic replacements like Thomas with nothing to lose and everything to gain.

The Duke basketball product has a limited role, but he chips in nonetheless

No, Thomas was not the star of the show against the Bucks or in either of Brooklyn’s previous two outings. However, in addition to earning the starting nod in all three games, the 2010 Duke basketball national champion has played at least 10 minutes in each game. He’s averaging 4.0 points and 2.0 rebounds. Also, his four points in the first four minutes of action on Tuesday helped the Nets stave off what was looking at the time like an eventual Milwaukee blowout.

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Thomas, who might have been playing alongside fellow former Blue Devil Kyrie Irving if the All-Star point guard wasn’t still recovering from season-ending shoulder surgery in February, is certainly adding to his résumé. Of course, should the Nets continue to serve as the top Disney World surprise, then it’s possible the 6-foot-8, 240-pound New Jersey native could extend his NBA career a few more years as a result of what would be newfound respect.

After all, if nothing else, Thomas offers leadership and is willing to do the dirty work around the basket. Plus, as a career 37.9 percent 3-point shooter — interestingly, he never even attempted a shot from downtown as a Duke basketball player from 2006 to 2010 — he serves as a respectable threat when left open on the perimeter.

Brooklyn’s next test comes against former Duke basketball one-and-done Jayson Tatum and the 44-23 Boston Celtics at 9 p.m. Wednesday (ESPN).

Stay tuned to Ball Durham for more on Lance Thomas plus other news and views regarding all things Duke basketball.