Isaiah Thomas keeps running the same play. He never deviates, never stops to reflect, never asks how a 5-foot-9 youngster from Tacoma, Wash., the last player drafted in 2011, could become the starting point guard for an NBA franchise.
It all sounds totally crazy, and it all happened.
In his two-plus seasons with the Kings, Thomas has transformed Sleep Train Arena from an NBA obstacle course into his own private playground. He steps over and around anyone who gets in his way, often while a grin escapes and flits across his cherubic features.
Since being drafted at No. 60 in 2011 – a resounding last – Thomas has nudged Tyreke Evans off the ball, outperformed his more celebrated teammate Jimmer Fredette, outplayed veteran Aaron Brooks, beat out Greivis Vasquez, the pass-first point guard who was acquired during the offseason and traded again before the turkey and dressing had cooled.
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Finally, or for now at least since there should be nothing final about a team with an 8-19 record, Thomas has his own team to run. And he has shown no signs of slowing down. In his eight games as lead guard, he is averaging 20.9 points, 7.1 assists and 3.2 rebounds, numbers that most diminutive NBA guards of the modern era (Muggsy Bogues, Earl Boykins, Nate Robinson, Keith Jennings, Spud Webb, among them) couldn’t reach with a step ladder.
“I’ve always been the shortest guy out there,” Thomas said the other night, “and always had to make adjustments. You have to use different moves, tactics, either to shoot over the defense or get past people.”
A sampling of the left-hander’s favorite offerings include high-arching floaters, 3-pointers in transition, stepback 19-footers, hesitation dribble-drives that freeze defenders and open the lane for dunks, bank shots, layups and an increasing array of off-balance circus shots he admits stealing from colleagues Steve Nash, Jason Terry and Chris Paul, all of whom beat him by a few inches.
“In his mind, Isaiah is 6-foot-8, and he’s Superman,” said Lorenzo Romar, Thomas’ coach during his three seasons at Washington. “He’s very competitive, very smart. He’s not one of those guys who wants to get his (points) and doesn’t care about winning. But we all know the most difficult transition in basketball is going from any position to point guard. You have to keep everybody happy, but you don’t want your own offense to disappear. By his junior year, he was showing the ability to get 30-40 points a night, but he was beginning to be a point guard, to set up his teammates much better.”
The elite lead guards – Paul, Nash, John Stockton, Mark Price, Jason Kidd, Magic Johnson, to name a few, understand when to score and when to facilitate, and where and when their teammates should receive the ball. DeMarcus Cousins can’t do anything with a pass at his ankles. Jason Thompson isn’t a threat from beyond the arc. Fredette gets lost in a crowd, but with good spacing and an occasional screen, is a dangerous shooter. Ben McLemore is comfortable spotting up in the corners when he isn’t disappearing.
“I told Ben after the game the other night that it was on me to get him more shots,” Thomas said. “I’m not doing a good job at that. As a point guard, I’ve got to see what’s happening with him. I’m either going to DeMarcus too much ... got to get other guys going. I don’t want to say it’s a burden, but it is my responsibility. My role has changed.”
Thomas’ progress these last few weeks is trumped only by Cousins’ significant improvement. But Cousins is a 6-11, 270-pound center who is scoring and rebounding at All-Star levels. He doesn’t have to expend an ounce of energy explaining why he starts for an NBA team.
The Thomas debate, by contrast, rages 24/7, from coast to coast, around the league and within the organization. Vasquez wasn’t acquired to play center, nor was rookie Ray McCallum drafted to play power forward. But every time Thomas appears overmatched, he squirms or explodes or races out of the pack with the ball.
Some of his decisions should be X-rated, of course, like the times he dribbles into a crowd of defenders. Some of his passes will make you wince. (That casual toss to Rudy Gay coming out of a timeout late Monday left coach Michael Malone twitching in anger). Then there are all the other occasions – often in the same game – where he is nothing short of a mini-marvel. The one-handed, no-look, between-the-legs pass he bounced to a trailing Cousins on Sunday was a prime example.
So what does Thomas do for his next act, the one that consists of two parts? He certainly has to become more committed and attentive defensively; opposing guards and wings are greeted with far too little resistance on the perimeter. Part Two goes back to something Romar said the other day.
“You can’t underestimate the Pied Piper effect Isaiah has on his teammates,” said the Huskies coach.
The smallest King, who arguably is the most popular King, is being asked to lead, and in what comes as no surprise, swears he is up to the task.
“I’ve always had to prove something,” Thomas said. “I still look at getting picked last (in 2011 draft) as being disrespected. Some teams passed on me twice. The Lakers had four picks and passed on me four times. The questions, all that stuff, it just motivates me. I play with a chip on my shoulder, and I want to win. We have to get better.”