AUBURN HILLS, Mich. This season has been a bit of a roller coaster for Isaiah Thomas.
He's been a starter. He's come off the bench. He's played a lot. He's even not played at all.
What hasn't changed through the ups and downs is Thomas' approach. The point guard continued to be a leader, a role he's embraced since arriving as a rookie last season.
For now, Thomas is starting again. But his playing status had no bearing on what he saw as his responsibility to remain a leader.
"I've always been the same person since Day One," Thomas said. "That's how I was raised, to never change no matter what the circumstance. And I just stayed the same person, stayed trying to lead these guys, stayed trying to be the first guy and the last guy to leave the gym."
Tonight's game against the Detroit Pistons marks a return to the arena where his leadership put him in the starting lineup for the first time as a rookie.
Thomas stepped in to help organize an offense in need of direction. This season, he started the first nine games before coach Keith Smart went with the more experienced Aaron Brooks.
When Brooks was signed in the offseason, Thomas believed he still would be the starting point guard. And even as a reserve, Thomas' work habits didn't change.
"(Thomas is) a guy that's very vocal," fellow point guard Jimmer Fredette said. "He's a guy that will tell you what he thinks, what's on his mind. He tries to get everybody to play to the best of their ability, and he expects a lot out of people."
Smart said he never lost faith in Thomas. The coach said Thomas, Brooks and Fredette have formed a solid partnership.
The coach also noted Thomas' work routine never changed. He understood Thomas' frustration but reminded him that things can change quickly in the NBA.
"I kept talking to him all the time," Smart said. "I kept telling him keep yourself ready at all times. And also as a leader I told him no matter if you start or come off the bench, your leadership qualities should always stay, and he always said, 'I'll always be ready.' "
Sunday, Thomas scored a season-high 27 points in a victory over the Boston Celtics.
Not starting didn't discourage Thomas. It only gave him another reason to keep the figurative chip on his shoulder after he was the last player drafted in 2011.
"Yeah, that's never going to go away because there's always going to be doubt," Thomas said. "I'm only 5-9, and they're always going to say something, so I've got to use that to my advantage."
Thomas said that not starting didn't provide an opportunity to take in the game from a different perspective.
Thomas already knew he needed to "be highly aggressive and bring energy" whenever he was in the game and to lead.
"Ever since I started playing basketball, I've been like that," Thomas said. "My dad taught me to be a leader, and I just took that to heart.
"Every team I've been on, I've tried to be a leader, even though I might have been the youngest. Guys just respected me because of my work ethic. I feel like guys on this team respect me and listen to what I've got to say."
Starter or not, that hasn't changed.