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Breaking Down Isaiah Thomas' Ceiling as Sacramento Kings Starting Point Guard

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Breaking Down Isaiah Thomas' Ceiling as Sacramento Kings Starting Point Guard
Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

“I want to be the best little guy to ever play.”

That’s what Sacramento Kings starting point guard Isaiah Thomas told SLAM Magazine’s Tracy Weissenberg in December, and his play on the court is certainly backing up those words.

Since taking over the starting role following the Rudy Gay trade that sent Greivis Vasquez and three other Kings players to the Toronto Raptors, Thomas has thrived with the reins to the team’s offense.

In addition to averaging 21.3 points and 7.8 assists per game as a starter, the former Washington Husky has been a ridiculously efficient scorer. In a starting role, Thomas is shooting 47.1 percent from the field and 44.4 percent from three-point range, according to stats.NBA.com. He’s the 15th-best three-point shooter in the NBA with a 42.6 percent clip overall.

Every team in the league slept on the youngster’s ability to perform in the NBA—mostly due to his 5’9” frame. He wasn’t selected until the 60th pick of the 2011 NBA draft.

Thomas was taken 39 picks after Nolan Smith, 19 slots after Darius Morris and four choices after Chukwudiebere Maduabum. (And no, I didn’t make that last one up.)

He has made his “Mr. Irrelevant” label as the last player taken in the draft look downright laughable through three professional seasons. He’s upped his level of play on a yearly basis despite an evolving supporting cast and not knowing whether he’d be starting or coming off the bench.

Stats by year for Isaiah Thomas:
2011-12: 65 GP (37 starts) 11.5 PPG 4.1 APG 2.6 RPG
2012-13: 79 GP (62 starts) 13.9 PPG 4.0 APG 2.0 RPG
2013-14: 32 GP (14 starts) 19.3 PPG 6.2 APG 2.7 RPG

Stats courtesy of ESPN.com

His scoring output has improved in three straight years, but it's truly impressive that Thomas is having a career season despite a changing role within the offense. Of 32 games played for the Kings thus far, only 14 have been starts.

Thomas’s NBA draft profile via nbadraft.net labeled his weaknesses as, “Very small, even for a point guard,” and, “Ability to get inside will be largely negated by the size of NBA players.”

Although scouts thought Thomas would struggle in the NBA as a result of his size, the opposite narrative has played out. The vertically challenged point guard has been able to use his quickness and crafty play to get shot attempts at the basket, even against elite interior defenders.

Thomas is clearly a score-first point guard. His ability to knock down threes and drive to the bucket makes him a dual threat that's very hard to stop. When he's setting up teammates, however, the Kings truly thrive.

In Sacramento's 10 wins this season, the Kings' floor general has posted an assist-to-turnover ratio of 3.3, according to stats.NBA.com. In other words, he's dishing out 3.3 assists for every turnover, which is stellar. For reference, that mark would rank him sixth in the entire NBA if sustained through every game.

By contrast, his assist-to-turnover ratio in 22 losses is a lackluster 1.9.

If Thomas can find more consistency on the offensive end by protecting the ball and setting up teammates more regularly, then he'll be that much closer to realizing his offensive ceiling. And, consequently, the Kings will have a much better chance of winning games.

For "IT22" to solidify his place as one of the NBA's elite point guards, however, he'll have to improve on the defensive end of the court.

Through 32 games played, his defensive rating—points allowed per 100 possessions by the team when he's on the floor—sits at 106.4, which is actually worse than his offensive rating—the number of points scored by the team when he's on the court—of 105.2, per stats.NBA.com.

Granted, the Kings rank 29th in the NBA with a defensive efficiency of 106.9, according to ESPN, but Thomas has been part of the problem, not part of the solution.

In Sacramento's matchup against the Charlotte Bobcats on Saturday—a 113-103 loss—Kemba Walker carved up Thomas and Co. like a Thanksgiving turkey en route to 30 points on 12-of-19 shooting.

Unfortunately for Kings fans, Walker's performance fits the norm for point guards facing Sacramento's shoddy defense. According to 82games.com, opposing point guards have posted a player efficiency of 18.3 against the Kings, which is the highest mark out of all five positions.

Thomas has played great basketball this season, especially as a starter. Nevertheless, he'll have to face the dreaded "good stats, bad team" label if Sacramento continues to lose the majority of its games.

For Thomas to reach his ceiling as a professional basketball player, he'll have to focus on his assist-turnover ratio and apply himself on the defensive end of the court.

The latter won't be an easy task, considering he has to face guys like Chris Paul, Stephen Curry and Damian Lillard in the Western Conference, so head coach Mike Malone needs to continue working on team defense.

I have a soft spot for the 24-year-old, considering that I predicted in November 2011 that he'd be the best second-round pick of his draft class. With that said, he still needs to tweak his game and become a better defender before he's seen as a truly elite point guard.

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