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Salt Lake City — The minutes are starting to mean more for rookie Khyri Thomas. It’s not just mop-up time at the end of lopsided games; it’s turning into quality playing time during critical junctures.

With Ish Smith’s injury throwing the reserve backcourt rotation in a flux, Thomas has emerged as a beneficiary, with the work he’s done early in the season to hone his defense and shooting consistency.

Playing time has been hard to come by in the first half of the season, but for the first time, Thomas played in back-to-back games, against the Kings and Clippers, getting 17 minutes and four minutes, respectively. In the blowout loss to the Bucks on New Year’s Day, Thomas had his breakout game, scoring a season-high 13 points in a season-high 19 minutes.

Along with fellow rookie Bruce Brown, Thomas is carving out a niche as a defensive specialist, but Thomas’ shooting is a little further along, which is a needed element in the reserve group when they get into scoring ruts.

“I had a gut feeling with Khyri and that gut is getting stronger and stronger because that young man is growing,” coach Dwane Casey said. “He’s a pit bull, just like Bruce, shooting the ball with a lot of confidence.

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“He’s put in a lot of time, the work and hours and you want to reward a young man like that. He’s going to be a player in this league.”

Thomas has provided an alternative to veterans Jose Calderon and brings a different energy and pace when he’s on the court. He’s providing 3-point shooting, at 54 percent, but also gets looks because defenses will relent those looks. Thomas says he just tries to stay ready.

“When I do something, I’m in limited minutes so (coaches) want me to shoot the ball,” he said. “Shooters shoot, so I stay ready. The guys are throwing it to me for a reason, so I just shoot the ball.”

More playing time for Thomas means he’s cutting into the minutes for vets such as Langston Galloway, Luke Kennard or Calderon. Brown was quicker to get playing time, ascending to a starting role. Both were second-round picks but Brown excelled toward the beginning of the regular season, which got him an early nod.

With Smith coming back from the injury, it’s not clear how that might impact Thomas’ minutes, but it seems that he’ll continue to get a look.

“My gut going more and more (toward the rookies) and you guys are going to question why somebody isn’t playing — and it’s because that kid is playing better,” Casey said. “Coming out of training camp, Bruce went ahead of him and now he’s getting back to the same level.

“Both of them were highly regarded defensively coming out of college and he hasn’t lost that. One thing Khyri has done is improve his jump shot.”

Casey likes the development that the rookies are making and with the roster looking like it could change dramatically in the next year or two, it’s looking more like the rookies will be part of the long-term plan.

“The young guys are the foundation. We’re going to build around (Blake Griffin). He’s the hub of all we’re doing. Whatever we do, our development is going to fit his skill set, the spacing and everything. That’s where we start.

“I really like where all our young guys are. It’s unfortunate for Henry (Ellenson) in that the injuries have slowed him down. Luke is coming; his development is behind because of his injuries, in the summer and then in the season. The young core is coming and I’m really happy with where they are right now.”

Smith OK'd

Smith went through shoot-around and was cleared to return to action, a welcome addition to help the reserve unit get some traction. He’s been getting close to being ready for game action, but the medical staff is being cautious with his return, as groin injuries tend to linger if they’re not cared for properly.

Casey has lauded Smith for his speed and ability to change the pace of a game, but as the second half of the season starts, it could be the catalyst for helping turn things around.

“When you realize you haven’t had the game of basketball in five weeks, you miss it,” Smith said. “I had a lot of restrictions and couldn’t even pick up a ball, just form shooting. Some days, I could only do a little bit. Being out there with the fellas allows you to (cherish it).

“Being back out there is more exciting.”

Rod.Beard@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @detnewsRodBeard

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