Breaking Down What's Behind Isaiah Thomas' Success with Sacramento Kings

Jonathan Wasserman@@NBADraftWassNBA Lead WriterMarch 19, 2014

Sacramento Kings's Isaiah Thomas in action during an NBA basketball game against the Philadelphia 76ers, Wednesday, March 12, 2014, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)
Matt Slocum/Associated Press

Isaiah Thomas was passed on 59 different times in the 2011 NBA draft. And it didn't seem unreasonable. Despite his production at the college level, Thomas' sales pitch to the pros just wasn't very enticing.

A 5'9" scoring point guard with an erratic jumper? No thanks. 

He isn't the athlete Nate Robinson is, either—the guy who every little man points to when looking for an NBA comparison out of college.

Thomas lacks the jet-pack explosiveness that allows Robinson to play above the rim. If you're wondering, Robinson registered a 43.5-inch max vertical leap—3.5 inches higher than Thomas'. 

And there's just such a tiny margin for error for undersized point guards with scoring mentalities. Big guys who can't play probably won't hurt the team. But an inept, ball-dominant guard can sink your offense and kill your defense. 

The fact that it's 2014 and Thomas is still standing means he's already exceeded expectations. The fact that he's flourishing as a starter, however, is something that many never even considered a possibility. 

Duane Burleson/Associated Press

Thomas isn't there yet, but he's certainly through the door and past NBA security. It's obvious he belongs. The question is where, how and with what job description. Is Thomas a starting point guard you can win with, or is he better off igniting a team off the bench?

Either way, there's going to be demand for Thomas when he hits restricted free agency—demand that didn't exist when he became eligible for the draft. 

And that's because Thomas has proved himself as a destructive, playmaking weapon despite his flaws and deficiencies.  

You just won't find many quicker guards on the planet. He's simply a blur with the ball in his hands, and one who can change speed and direction on the dime. It's what got him drafted in the first place. Thomas is a dangerous, breakdown guard who can beat anyone off the dribble and create scoring opportunities once he's done it. 

But Thomas has been able to pull off a few things in the pros that nobody expected him to do coming in.

For starters, he's finishing at the rim at an extremely impressive rate when you consider his physical limitations. Thomas is making 61.6 percent of his shots there. In comparison, take a look at how he stacks up with some of the bigger names and bigger bodies around the league:

HowThomas Stacks Up as a Finisher at the Rim
Field-Goal Percentage at the Rim
John Wall.653
James Harden.634
Paul George.626
Isaiah Thomas.616
Stephen Curry.581
Kemba Walker.517
Damian Lillard.51

Though I just chose a few players at random, Thomas' numbers are clearly respectable. 

He's just so crafty around the rim. Thomas' feel and touch are terrific, as is his body control in traffic. He finds ways to flip shots over or under defenders with different scoops, floaters and layups, and he never seems to lose too much balance.

In between, Thomas' floater game has been on point—he's got a number of finesse shots he uses to loft the ball over traffic when there isn't an opening to the rim.

The other area of Thomas' game that's allowed him to pose such a threat to opposing defenses is the lethal mid-range jumper he's developed. Whether he's shooting out of a pick-and-roll or he's pulling up in space, the stop-and-pop jumper has been a weapon he's been able to lean on early in his career.

Thomas is shooting a sizzling 46.5 percent from the area inside the arc to outside the paint, which is above league average. And of the 72 makes he's got in the 16- to 24-foot range, 79 percent of them have been unassisted. He's creating and separating into his own shots off the dribble, and you'll occasionally see him curl around a screen for a catch-and-shoot jumper.

As a point guard and facilitator, Thomas still has a ways to go. His shot selection can be shaky, while his 6.4-3 assist-to-turnover ratio is nothing to write home about. 

But there's no denying his playmaking skills. Between his first step, ball-on-a-string handle and elusiveness off the bounce, he's tough to keep out of the paint, where he can draw help defenders or slice to the rim. Thomas has also looked good running the pick-and-roll, something he's always been comfortable doing dating back to his days at Washington. 

Mar 12, 2014; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Sacramento Kings guard Isaiah Thomas (22) high fives a fan during the third quarter against the Philadelphia 76ers at the Wells Fargo Center. The Kings defeated the Sixers 115-98. Mandatory Credit: Howard Smith-USA TOD
Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Still, from his first year in college to his third in the pros, Thomas has never really been recognized as that pure, pass-first point guard. But he's averaging over 20 points and six assists this season for the Kings, and he just notched his first career triple-double against John Wall and the Washington Wizards.

“Isaiah is someone that gets a lot of criticism for being a guy that may not be a true point guard,” Kings coach Michael Malone told Jason Jones of The Sacramento Bee. “You can call him a lot of things, but you have to give him his props because he’s a warrior and he has a huge heart. For him to go out there and get 24-11-10 while being the smallest guy on the court was tremendous."

We always knew about the talent Thomas had. But nobody knew whether or not he'd be able to effectively tap into it as a pro. 

It turns out Thomas has adjusted quite well to the pace and size of the NBA game. His lack of height might always hold him back at the defensive end, but it hasn't seemed to bother him with the ball in his hands. 

It's tough to say whether a team, including Sacramento, will pay big bucks for Thomas to run the show as its franchise floor general. Regardless, Thomas has beat the odds, and he's made a lot of people look silly in the process—both general managers and helpless perimeter defenders.


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