The B-Side: Seeing Isaiah Thomas for Isaiah Thomas
The B-Side is a recurring feature here at Bleacher Report that gives kudos to the unheralded: the brilliantly executed set that leads to a bland layup, the swarming coverage that causes a shot clock violation or even the phenomenal move that ends with a blown finish. Every night in the NBA is filled with plays that are noteworthy for a wide variety of reasons, and this space is set aside to enjoy the alternatives to the standard highlight—one clip at a time.
Isaiah Thomas—officially, anyway—stands five feet and nine inches tall. He was drafted with the 60th pick in the 2011 draft after a successful three-year career at Washington and began the season firmly behind the gridlock of guards on the Sacramento Kings roster.
He was and is incredibly undersized by NBA standards but disregards his disadvantage with each burst toward the rim or scurry among the trees.
Today, on the merits of his play alone, he stands as Sacramento's starting point guard. It's a post he earned without need for attention or gimmickry and that he created for himself in an almost unprecedented silence.
The NBA and the sphere of coverage that surrounds it has a way of turning every unusually small player into something of a sideshow—Spud Webb, Muggsy Bogues, Earl Boykins, Nate Robinson and J.J. Barea were treated as niche attractions first and players second, despite the fact that every one of those professionals has (or had) considerable game.
That peculiarity has worked to their advantage in some cases (Spud Webb and, interestingly, Nate Robinson became household names as a result of shock and awe), but otherwise, has manifested as eye-roll-worthy tripe.
Such portrayals marginalize the efforts and contributions of talented players for the sake of an easy angle or punchline, and though the intent is ultimately pretty harmless, it's silly to term such capable basketball assets as midgets in the same way that it was a disservice to look on Yao Ming as a mere giant.
A joke or a sight gag is one thing (after all, who to this day doesn't get a smirk or a chuckle out of Bogues' classic photo with Manute Bol?), but considering how productive and committed many of these players are, what right is it of ours to ultimately define them by their height, unless they, themselves, first choose to?
Spud embraced his stature, and Robinson branded himself on the notion. But when guys like Barea and Boykins—who merely go about playing ball to the best of their ability—become point-and-laugh targets, it's likely high time to re-examine our process as fans and observers of the game—if only so that we do right by Thomas and whatever undersized players are sure to come.
This is an oddly serious conversation for a player who approaches basketball with the appropriate levity, but one that's almost necessary to avoid the mischaracterization of fantastic plays like this one:
That's not a spectacular clip because Thomas stands shorter than his opponents; it's spectacular because, if only for a moment, Thomas taps into a preternatural court awareness. It may have come of desperation, but Thomas finishes a play that few could make. In that brush with greatness, he creates a highlight worthy of YouTube enshrinement.
He's not always so spectacular, but Thomas' tremendous play over the last several months warrants a fair gaze without being drawn in cartoonish terms. He's undersized. He's fun. But he's a basketball player capable of immediate production and boasting a pretty intriguing skill set.
Keep your David and Goliath tropes or underdog stories if you must, but in some ways, it's good that Thomas has been able to carve out a place for himself on a Kings team that's managed to escape relevance all season.
As a result of the resounding quiet on his narrative front, the League Pass junkies have come to know Thomas on his own terms—and hopefully, the rest of the basketball-loving world will soon do the same.
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