Defying Draft Odds & Role Shifts in Sacto, Little Man Isaiah Thomas Keeps Rising

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Defying Draft Odds & Role Shifts in Sacto, Little Man Isaiah Thomas Keeps Rising
Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

On the night of June 23, 2011, the NBA future of draft prospect Isaiah Thomas, who had decided to forgo his senior season at Washington, wasn't looking good.

Thomas' representatives had told him he could hear his name called in the latter part of the first round or early second round of the draft, but that didn't happen—most likely because teams were scared away by his 5'9" size. He also didn't end up on the Los Angeles Lakers, the one team he thought would choose him as they had four picks towards the end of the draft and needed a point guard.

However, as deputy commissioner Adam Silver read the name of the Lakers' 58th pick, Ater Majok, Thomas' luck changed: His agent called to tell him that the Sacramento Kings would select him with the 60th—and final—pick of the draft. Ironically, the Kings had been the first team that Thomas worked out for during the pre-draft process.

"I felt like it was one of my best workouts; I shot the ball really well," Thomas told Bleacher Report this week. "I felt like I outplayed all the guards that were in that workout. I just always dreamed of making the NBA and people always told me I couldn't because of my height, and I always just wanted to prove them wrong."

In the two and a half years since the last-minute change of fortune that night, Thomas has gone from Mr. Inconsequential to potentially the next great short player in the NBA, proving true what Chauncey Billups once told him in 2011 during pre-draft workouts: "Being little is not that bad as long as you know how to play little."

Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports
Source: basketball-reference.com

This season, Thomas is the second-best scorer among players 6'0" or shorter in the NBA at 18.9 points per game (Chris Paul is first at 19.9 points). He's continuing in the proud NBA tradition of such small scorers as Michael Adams, Dana Barros, Terrell Brandon, Calvin Murphy, Damon Stoudamire and Spud Webb. The best, of course, is NBA legend Allen Iverson.

Thomas also has improved his passing (5.7 assists per game, up from 4.0 last season) in only 31.3 minutes per game this season. He currently ranks 17th in player efficiency rating (22.3), better than Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Blake Griffin and Tim Duncan.

Another standout small-baller, Nate Robinson—who is also Thomas' mentor and close friend, and who gave Thomas his blessing to wear his jersey number (No. 2) at Washington—called the Kings point guard "a true testimony of a player that works hard and just loves to play basketball."

"Zeke's a competitor, man," Robinson said. "He plays hard. He plays with his emotions. He's got that little man's complex like I have—that chip on our shoulder. We just play as hard as we can, and we love the game."

Also in those two and a half years, Thomas—who was named after Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas after his father, James, lost a bet—has outplayed every point guard in front of him on the depth chart.

First, it was Jimmer Fredette in 2011-12, a player who was actually drafted ahead of Thomas in the 2011 draft, 10th overall. By Feb. 17 of that season, then-Kings coach Keith Smart called up Thomas to the starting lineup for the first time—29 games into his career—and he had 13 points and four assists in 23 minutes. In his first five starts, Thomas scored 96 points, which tied Otis Birdsong's franchise record, set in the 1970-71 season when the team was the Cincinnati Royals. Thomas went on to be named the Western Conference Rookie of the Month for February and March.

In 2012-13, Thomas eventually beat out new signee Aaron Brooks for the main point guard spot, making 62 starts. This past summer, after the Kings established a new ownership group, led by Vivek Ranadive, and traded for Greivis Vasquez, Thomas still was the better point guard. In fact, in the Kings' second game on Nov. 1, Thomas scored a season-high 29 points in only 31 minutes off the bench. While Vasquez continued to struggle in the aftermath of having missed five months from May to October this year due to surgery on both ankles, Thomas continued to shine.

That's likely why the Kings felt comfortable letting go of Vasquez in a trade for Rudy Gay from the Toronto Raptors in early December. And it's been working out in the Kings' favor since making the unheard of switch from a 6'6" to 5'9" point guard starter.

In nine starts, Thomas is averaging 20.9 points, 7.1 assists, 3.2 rebounds and 1.6 steals per game, while shooting 47.9 percent from the field. Sacramento is 3-6 since the trade due to major defensive issues—earlier this week, coach Mike Malone called his bunch "a bad basketball team"—but the Kings are plus-0.1 with Thomas on the court and negative-11.2 without him.

They've also only had about two practices since the personnel changes. Alongside scoring swingman Gay and center DeMarcus Cousins, who's playing like an All-Star, the biggest surprising bright spot on the team, Thomas, believes in his guys looking ahead.

Rocky Widner/Getty Images

"We're not winning as much as I would like, but at the same time, we are getting better each and every day," he said. "Last three or four games, we haven't played well defensively, but it's getting better and if we just keep working and keep grinding it out, I think we can win a lot of games this year and also make some progress in the right direction."

The Kings players are also behind Thomas, who they wanted to start at point guard last year. They also turned to him when he organized team workouts the past two summers.

So how could Thomas, the floor leader of the Kings, have just been one pick away from not earning a roster spot?

As Thomas recalls, "A lot of teams were scared of my height, but I felt like all my workouts were pretty solid and I showcased that height doesn't really mean anything. I remember my coach in college, Lorenzo Romar, said one time, 'Isaiah is not a point guard; he's a guard that's going to go out there and do whatever it takes to win.' You can't just put a label on a guy that can score pretty well and also get his teammates involved."

Thomas' longtime trainer for the past three summers, Joe Abunassar, who's worked with hundreds of NBA players through the past 20 years and has prepared many of them for the NBA draft, said teams likely shied away because he wasn't "outstanding in one area." He pointed to Thomas at the time not being a "lights-out shooter" nor "freakishly impressive in the pre-draft workouts" as probable reasons for the huge drop in the draft based on his experience seeing how talent is evaluated.

But Abunassar knew Thomas had a special understanding of how to play the game at his size, while observing his "incredible vision" and watching him have his way with Avery Bradley, Jeremy Lin and Lance Stephenson during some drills in 2011 at the trainer's main facility in Las Vegas.

"In the draft preparation where these guys are ranking and rating on their wing span, their jump shot and all these different things, I want a column that says Player or Not A Player," Abunassar said. "I think that some people in the game know exactly what that means. Some guys are just good basketball players and make people around them better, and that's Isaiah. He has great drill work, he's an incredibly hard worker and real detailed."

Abunassar said unlike many shorter players, Thomas can get to where he wants to on the court because he plays with "great shiftiness and has amazing balance and control of his body, which enables him to change speeds well even though he's not lightning fast." But he does have a quick first step and is aggressive attacking the basket, not afraid of jumping right into contact.

In addition, Thomas is adept at creating space with his step-back jumper, especially driving to the right to benefit his off-hand setup. And he uses his strength—a solid 185 pounds—to bump off and draw fouls against skilled big men, like on Monday night during a couple of drives against the league's leading shot-blocker, Anthony Davis of the New Orleans Pelicans. Being a lefty also gives Thomas an advantage, as well as his trickery around the basket.

"His change of speed is probably better than mine because he's left-handed," Robinson said. "Lefties got that extra little gear I guess you could say. There's something about left-handers. Zeke's a hell of a player."

Many of Thomas' trademark moves came from watching film of standout shorter players before his time, notably Stoudamire, who he calls his "favorite player growing up" and the one he "modeled" his game after as a youth. Whether it's at the rim or out to 20 feet, Thomas is an efficient shooter from most areas of the court. He's skilled at reverse layups, smart about which angles and spins to use to get shots off and showcases the right arc and timing on his floaters and touch shots.

NBA.com

"The floater is my go-to move when I get into the paint, especially around shot-blockers," said Thomas, whose top NBA moment came on a game-winning floater last season against the Washington Wizards. "I have a pretty good floater that I can go to off one foot or two feet. And then, just my left-to-right or right-to-left crossover to get separation. It doesn't matter really which way I go. I just need a little bit of separation, and then I go from there."

From a point guard perspective, Thomas has demonstrated leadership qualities—directing his teammates in offensive sets and being communicative during dead balls (he's the third-oldest player in the starting five)—and has a strong sense of reading the defense quickly and setting the appropriate tempo while still managing to play under control.

"I think that's just learning the game of basketball and me watching a lot of film with (assistant coach) Dee Brown, knowing that even if you're the fastest guy out there, you can't always go 100 miles per hour," Thomas said. "You've got to be under control, and one thing about the NBA: It's a change-of-pace league.

"Guys are harder to defend when you have a change of pace, and I feel like that's when I'm at my best—when I can go from going very fast to slow and then back to fast again, just to keep the defense guessing."

The biggest leap Thomas made from his first two seasons to this one has been his outside shooting, especially from three-point range. After hitting 37.9 and 35.8 percent from downtown in his rookie and sophomore years, respectively, he's now at 41 percent. Among point guards who have taken more than 100 three-pointers this season, only Jose Calderon (.490), Damian Lillard (.426) and Stephen Curry (.416) have better percentages.

Three-point shooting was an emphasis working with Abunassar this past offseason, when he grouped him in point guard workouts with Billups, Will Bynum, Kyle Lowry, Brian Roberts, Sebastian Telfair and C.J. Watson.

"He was drilling them this summer," Abunassar said. "He's one of our young guys that we take a lot of pride in, and we do a lot with."

For Thomas, it was critical that he become a better shooter, with Cousins emerging as a post player who would attract more double teams. So far this season, Cousins has assisted on 18 of Thomas' field goals, per NBA.com/statsand more dimes are starting to come from Gay, too. Since the trade, Thomas has drilled 42 percent of his three-point field-goal attempts, making 2.3 per game.

Gay is also a magnet for traps, which often leaves Thomas alone for routine kick-outs, and when Gay and Cousins occasionally run pick-and-rolls or high/low-post action together, it has opened up Thomas as an off-the-ball weapon. He's also been more confident pulling up from distance in transition.

Off the court, Thomas is a huge hit in Sacramento for his regular-guy size, big smile, infectious personality and connection to the community, like being a fun spokesperson for the regional chain Pizza Guys. In fact, before he became a starter after the Vasquez trade, he usually received more applause from the home crowd when he would check into the game than any starter. The city's mayor, former All-NBA point guard Kevin Johnson, is also a big fan of Thomas.

"He's a class act," his agent, Andy Miller, said. "He always asks how you are doing, thanks everyone and has a resilient personality."

Interestingly, this past summer, the Kings nearly moved to Seattle—only 30 minutes from Thomas' hometown of Tacoma—which hasn't had an NBA team since 2008. But the league's owners rejected the proposal, voting 22-8 in favor of keeping the Kings in Sacramento. While the thought piqued Thomas' interest over the offseason, he felt the same about staying.

"If the Kings had moved to Seattle, it's not like I would've been upset," said Thomas, who believes the NBA will return to Seattle one day. "I mean, who wouldn't want to play at home? But if we didn't leave Sacramento, which we didn't, I wouldn't be mad either because I love this city of Sacramento and the things that they've done for me. They've welcomed me in open arms. I can't say enough about the city of Sacramento."

Based on Thomas' local impact, it would seem logical that the Kings want to keep Thomas, who has an expiring contract of $884,293—arguably the best player value in the NBA. While the source close to Thomas said there have been no contract talks yet for the 2014-15 season and beyond, the source said he believes the point guard's value would be higher in Sacramento, around $5 million, because of his play and marketability. He's also inked as one of Reebok's top endorsers in a multi-year deal signed in 2012. Coincidentally, Iverson was Reebok's former marquee man, and now Thomas is their new leading little man.

With another standout lefty point guard in the league, Mike Conley, making $8 million this season, a $5 million starting amount could be realistic for Thomas, who's not as long, weaker in man-on-man and pick-and-roll defense and doesn't play passing lanes as well.

Thomas is not always a determined defender, as he tends to relax in half-court sets too early where he doesn't pick up his man until the three-point line. With today's point guard class only getting better, with the players' ability to turn the corner quickly and shoot the three-pointer from 25 feet out, he knows how challenging his job is every night.

"There are no days off, there are no nights off at the point guard position," he said. "And with me, I love it, I love the competition, I love going against the best. I learn from those guys, but at the same time, when I'm out there, I'm trying to kill them just like they're trying to kill me. I feel like it's cutthroat when you're out there. There are no friends out there; you want to get the edge on your opponent."

Thomas also has to improve with not leaving his feet so soon in the paint and making passes out of the area, where it's more difficult for him because of his size. His mindset is to finish strong, but he also needs to take an extra creative dribble if need be to draw the main interior defender further out, and utilize more fakes and bounce passes close to the basket. He's better at keeping his dribble alive down the baseline and distributing the ball to corner three-point shooters, as he's able to avoid some congestion down low.

While passing is a work in progress, Thomas is driven to be an all-around point guard.

"I'm just trying to become a more complete guard and just get better—not just at one thing, but at all things, whether it be passing with my off hand, shooting the ball a lot better, defending," he said. "I just want to get better at everything. I want to be one of the top point guards in the NBA and I feel like with the opportunity given, I can be."

Before Thomas can even entertain high offers on the free-agent market from his team or around the league, he'll need to prove that he can engineer more wins as the starting point guard, beyond scoring 20-plus per night. With the Kings sitting at 8-19 entering Friday's game against the Miami Heat, there are still many skeptics about where Sacramento's future is heading—even with their new committed ownership group, which includes Shaquille O'Neal as a part owner. Gay's volume shooting and Cousins' occasional attitude outbursts still need to be cured.

But Thomas feels that Cousins' development and trading for Gay, Quincy Acy and Aaron Gray upgrades the Kings and helps them build continuity looking ahead. That's something they've been sorely missing since Thomas joined the team.

"It's very exciting," he said. "You can see there are changes in the organization that I didn't see my first two years. You can see guys are willing and ready for change. We've had probably the most trades of any team in the NBA to start the season off because the ownership and the coaching staff want to win right now. And I think if we just keep working and keep grinding and keep getting better, we can compete with all the teams in the NBA."

While that's a lofty goal to have, it's about time more of the basketball world listens to—and watches—the little man.

 

Jared Zwerling covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

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