OLD AS David and Goliath from the Old Testament are the stories of hope and heart. The size of the fight in the dog, rather than the size of the dog in the fight; basically, any underdog cliché one could think of is upheld by the likes of point guard Isaiah Thomas.
In a basketball world loaded with freak athletes and dominating builds, an average looking player is anything but common. Thomas has been overlooked since he got into the NBA and now as a polished veteran, and MVP candidate behind the likes of Russell Westbrook and James Harden, Thomas has found what seems to be a home with the Boston Celtics — one of the two most historic franchises in NBA history.
But, nothing came easy for Thomas, whose confidence in himself is reflective of his friendship with Floyd Mayweather Jr., who can be seen sitting court-side at Thomas’ basketball games on occasion.
IT’S DECEMBER of 2011 and upwards of a thousand fans sit inside Power Balance Pavilion in Sacramento to witness the first showing of Kings basketball. The lockout’s coming to an end in a couple of weeks and fans are eager to witness another “revamped” Kings team. The addition of Chuck Hayes, John Salmons and J.J. Hickson are something Kings no fans are looking forward to. The real reason thousands flocked to the arena on that Thursday? Jimmer Fredette.
A team scrimmage is set for the evening after fans get to enjoy games and prizes, among other festivities.
As some fans scream, “Shoot!” just about every time Fredette touches the ball, others in attendance begin whispering about another rookie. The 5’9” Thomas. The player who came to be known by Kings’ fans as “The Hustlin’ Husky”, thanks to Jerry Reynolds, was outperforming every guard that was put on him that day, including the first-round pick Fredette.
Thomas was the third player drafted by Sacramento in 2011; the other two being Fredette and Tyler Honeycutt (both of which are now playing in overseas). Known by most only for his name being similar to the Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas and for hitting the “cold-blooded” game-winner during the Pac-10 championship earlier that year.
“People still tweet the video at me,” Thomas wrote in a 2015 Players’ Tribune article. “Every time, I watch it over and over. Aside from getting drafted, it was the biggest moment of my basketball life.”
While all eyes were on him as the clock hit zero of that college career-defining game, Thomas was all but written off as the last pick — Mr. Irrelevant — of the NBA Draft.
And when Kings fans met the draft picks at Sacramento International Airport, lost in the crowd was Thomas. Men and women gawked at the sight of Fredette as they practically chased him around the airport after the three rookies descended from the escalator. Thomas, along with Honeycutt, seemed just happy to be there. He chatted with a few members of the crowd that didn’t flow with the majority as he signed some items, but it was clear Thomas was an afterthought to many.
If it wasn’t obvious enough for Kings fans at that scrimmage, it became more clear who the better guard was when the regular season began.
IT TOOK Thomas 28 games to become a starter for the Kings that season.
Fredette had six starts in Jan. as Sacramento attempted to implement him into the starting lineup. However, outside of merchandise sales, Fredette never had an impact with the Kings. His best game as a starter came against the Denver Nuggets when Fredette dropped 19 points in 36 minutes of work, going 5 for 8 from beyond the arc, according to Basketball Reference. It was one of the eight times in his 61-game season Fredette had a shooting percentage of better than .385 while shooting the ball 10 or more times (BBR).
To compare, Thomas (who got his first start in Feb.) had 24 games with double-digit field goal attempts where he shot better than .385 that year (BBR). In Thomas’ 37 starts for the Kings, he played 31 minutes per game and averaged almost 15 points, 5.4 assists and 3.1 rebounds. In Jimmer’s starts, he played 28 minutes, averaged 11 points, 2.1 assists and 1 rebound.
Thomas never backed down from competition. Three times the Kings brought point guards in to start and three times Thomas came out on top.
“They didn’t want me.” That’s what Thomas told ABC10’s Sean Cunningham when Thomas made his return to Sacramento as a two-time NBA All-Star.
Just like Fredette, though, Aaron Brooks and Greivis Vasquez each got their opportunity to run the point for the Kings and the result was always Thomas bringing up the ball.
That was until Thomas was traded to the Suns.
In between his three-year stint with the Kings and his successful makeover in Boston came a season of questionable lineups and a lack of support from the front office to put Thomas in the starting rotation.
He only started in one game that season while he came off the bench 55 times. Thomas played almost 26 minutes per game that season. In that single start, Thomas had 26 points and five dimes in a two-point loss to… Sacramento. Thomas’ next game two days later against the Houston Rockets would be his last on the Suns.
Thomas was traded to the Celtics where he played his final 21 games of the season.
Once again relegated to the bench, Thomas this time didn’t mind, he says. He played on a team that made it to the playoffs and, though swept by the Cleveland Cavaliers, Thomas got his first taste of the NBA Playoffs.
In three of Thomas’ four playoff games, he topped 20 points, with 22, 22 and 21 points in Game 1, Game 2 and Game 4, respectively. However, Thomas’ scoring came with a price that some would say at the time was the reason for him playing on three teams in two years: he shot too much. Thomas had shot .300 in the playoffs. In addition, he only secured a 2:1 assist-to-turnover ratio in the series racking up 28 assists and 14 turnovers in the four games combined.
STILL, EVEN after the All-Star selections, some say Thomas, who’s averaging a career-high 29.9 points per game (second-best in the league) and more than six assists this season, can’t be a leading scorer on a championship-caliber team. Part of that would have to be due to the LeBron James-led Cavs being the pinnacle in the East, but the other concern is the amount of dribbling and shooting Thomas does.
He’s a score-first guard, which has been the new wave that basketball’s been trending towards for the better part of a decade. It’s not happenstance that some of Thomas’ favorite players were the likes of Damon Stoudamire and Allen Iverson. Two height-challenged (by NBA terms) guards that looked for their shot first, then the pass. That mindset has led to Thomas being the highest scorer in the fourth quarter this season, however.
When it comes to players 6’ and under, Thomas’s best season (measured by win shares) is buried by the likes of Chris Paul, Allen Iverson, Mark Price and Tim Hardaway. But, if the height requirement is dropped two inches (5’10”), Thomas is the only player in the last 15 years at his height to have more than 7 WS.
In his sixth year, Thomas already has three top-15 win share seasons for a player 5’10” or less. The only player with more win shares in the top-15? Calvin Murphy who made his mark in the ‘70s for the Rockets.
And it’s no coincidence that it’s been over 40 years since there was a player of that stature competing at the level of Thomas. It’s also no coincidence that Thomas’ stats as a starter in his career (20.8 ppg, 5.8 apg, 2.8 rpg) are eerily similar to Kyrie Irving’s career stats (21.2 ppg, 5.5 apg, 3.2 rpg), who was taken with the No. 1 pick the same year Thomas was selected last. As a starter, Thomas also has a higher true shooting percentage, .585 to .558, than Irving with less usage percentage, 27% to 28.5%, per BBR.
While fads in the NBA come and go, any signs of Jimmer-mania and Lin-sanity are all but covered in dust as the NBA world continues on. One thing’s becoming obvious: Isaiah Thomas is a stalwart in the league. He’s not going anywhere any time soon, so get used to him.