How long should I stay dedicated?
How long till opportunity meet preparation?
Nipsey Hussle rhetorically asks this on the first verse of "Dedication," the fifth track of his debut album, Victory Lap. He's reflecting on the frustration felt during his rap career, a journey spanning over a decade that he often describes as a marathon in his music.
But he could have also been asking the same questions for Isaiah Thomas, who has been a Hussle fan since 2008. While at the University of Washington, he and his teammates would roll up to Hussle's shows in Seattle and Tacoma. In the process, Thomas built a friendship with the Los Angeles-based rapper.
Hussle, born Ermias Asghedom, feels he and Thomas have had mirrored success in their respective fields. Hussle, 32, has traveled a long road from underground rapper to independent artist, label owner and savvy entrepreneur. Thomas, 29, started his marathon as the 60th and final pick of the 2011 NBA draft. He is now a two-time All-Star and was a second-team All-NBA point guard last season for the Boston Celtics, despite a journeyman resume, having played for five teams in seven NBA seasons.
Thomas makes another pit stop in his marathon career Sunday night as he takes on his former team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, for the first time since they dealt him to the Los Angeles Lakers at the trade deadline.
Due to a slow return from a hip injury, Thomas spent more time on the sideline than he did on the court for the Cavs, which is why he said he won't be "more hyped" on Sunday than he would be for any other game. But he remains determined to prove that he's capable of duplicating his success in Boston if given the chance.
"The world knows, the NBA knows, the players know, I'm an All-Star in this league. I'm an All-NBA point guard," Thomas said during a recent media availability sponsored by Opus Bank. "That's just what it is. That's facts. I'mma show the world and everybody else I can still play at an MVP level. That's what I'mma do when I do get that opportunity, and it does come back around. I'mma just take full advantage of it. That's all I can do.''
So Thomas is still searching for his victory lap after being traded twice in a six-month period.
"That's just my story," said Thomas, who will be an unrestricted free agent this summer. "I'm just going to have to keep proving [myself] each and every year.
"Nobody else goes through what I've been through, being a two-time All Star, All-NBA point guard and top-five MVP finish but still having to continue to prove [myself]," said Thomas, who is the shortest active player in the NBA. "Nobody else goes through that, and the only reason is because I'm 5'9". That's the only reason. I can't do nothing about it but continue to laugh and make people eat their words.''
His confidence hasn't diminished, even as Thomas has gone from an everyday starter to a sixth man with the Lakers—a similar role he held when he arrived in Boston.
It's why Hussle feels "Dedication" is a track that resonates with Thomas. Hussle has seen Thomas' commitment to being great, and now he has the opportunity to cheer him on courtside at Staples Center for his hometown team. "I count [Thomas' success] as my win, and I think he counts [my success] as his win."
"We all know it's frustrating to get moved around," Hussle said of Thomas. "That's what the game do sometimes. It ain't got nothing to do with Isaiah Thomas. It's how the cookie crumbles sometimes, but it's how you react to it and how you embrace it."
So how long until opportunity meets preparation for Thomas? He's in the final year of a four-year, $27 million contract he signed with the Sacramento Kings as part of a sign-and-trade deal with the Phoenix Suns in 2014. In a free-agency class that features LeBron James, Paul George and DeMarcus Cousins, there has already been speculation that there may not be a max deal available for Thomas this summer.
Thomas combats the noise with optimism that his defining moment will occur in 2018.
"I think this is my victory lap right now, going into free agency this summer," Thomas said. "I've been running my laps and running my marathon, and I feel like this is my big break. I understand the opportunity at hand. It's a big summer for me. I'm excited about it."