By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com
HANG TIME SOUTHWEST — About one month into the lockout shortened 2011-12 season, a new basketball movie trailer burned up the Internet. A documentary, it chronicled mostly unknown 5-foot-9 point guard Isaiah Thomas‘ improbable path from a junior in college all the way to the NBA.
The title of the of the film was “Mr. Irrelevant,” the name bestowed upon the last pick of the NFL Draft. Thomas, a Tacoma, Wash., product and a terrific scoring guard for the Washington Huskies, was the last pick of the 2011 NBA Draft. No. 60. The Sacramento Kings made him “Mr. Irrelevant.”
Over three seasons, Sacramento never seemed to believe he could be much more, even as Thomas’ production and tenacity became impossible to ignore — and to keep out of the starting lineup. As a rookie he badly outplayed the Kings’ No. 10 overall pick, Jimmer Fredette.
In 2012-13, the Kings tried to unseat Thomas with Aaron Brooks and Toney Douglas, not exactly Allen Iverson and Damon Stoudemire, but still, Thomas refused to be overtaken. Last summer, Sacramento traded for 6-foot-6 point guard Greivis Vasquez and immediately penciled him into the starting lineup. In December, Vasquez, a solid player to be sure, was traded to Toronto. Thomas, a pound-the-rock, take-you-off-the-dribble, finish-at-the-rim point guard went on to average 21.1 ppg and 6.5 apg (plus a career-high 1.3 steals), improving in both categories for a third consecutive season.
It is one of the greatest statistical seasons ever compiled by a player under 6-foot. His PER (player efficiency rating) checked in at 20.5, well above the league average (15.0) and again was one of the all-time best marks for a player of his stature.
Yet the Kings, even after revamping the front office, never viewed Thomas through the same prism as he viewed himself: as a 5-foot-9 playmaker, scorer, starter and leader. Sacramento, seemingly suggesting it wanted more of a facilitator at the point, signed free-agent journeyman Darren Collison to a three-year, $16 million deal on July 10. It was a hefty raise for Collison, a backup last season with the Clippers, but much less than what Thomas, 25, felt he deserved in line with his production.
“They went after Darren Collison, which they felt was a better feel for whatever direction they’re going in,” Thomas said. “I just felt like I needed to go somewhere where I was wanted and Phoenix was a place where they wanted me for who I was. They wanted me for being 5-9. They wanted me for being a scoring point guard.”
Thirteen days after signing Collison, the Kings signed Thomas to a four-year, $27-million contract and traded him to the Suns.
“I’m not surprised just because every year it was somebody new,” Thomas said. “Every year I felt like I proved to them that I was a capable starter and I proved to them I was a pretty good basketball player. More than anything I was consistent, but I wasn’t surprised.”
Thomas spoke to NBA.com about his opportunity for relevancy in Phoenix, an upstart last season that won 48 games and missed the playoffs by one game in coach Jeff Hornacek‘s first season.
NBA.com: Do you think the Kings viewed you as irrelevant, in the sense that you don’t fit into a tidy description of a point guard and therefore you never could be their answer at the position?
Thomas: I guess. I guess because I’m 5-9 and I’m not the prototypical point guard they just kept trying to find … which every year I would beat out the guy. Like I tell people, it’s a business and I know where they’re coming from, but three years in a row it happened. I mean, it’s definitely not going to happen a fourth year so I was kind of fed up with that and that’s why I wanted a little change. I wanted to be somewhere where I was wanted for, like I said, being who I am, being 5-9 and being a scoring guard.
NBA.com: To be clear, you never asked to be traded did you?
Thomas: No, I didn’t. I never asked. I was always professional about every situation. I always came in with my hard hat on willing to do whatever is best for the team. When they signed Darren Collison, I knew I was going in a different direction.
NBA.com: Perhaps if the team had more success last season (28-54) things might have turned out differently. The Kings traded for Rudy Gay (acquired in the deal for Vasquez) to go along with you and DeMarcus Cousins under first-year coach Mike Malone. So what went wrong?
Thomas: He [Malone] knows his stuff. For whatever reason we didn’t click and we didn’t buy in to what he was trying to instill in us, but everybody knew we were a talented group. We were young, we were talented, we had one of the best centers in the NBA in DeMarcus Cousins, Rudy Gay had come along and there were a lot of changes that happened very quick. It was tough for us, but at the same time there were no excuses.
NBA.com: So you’re off to an intriguing team in the Suns. How closely did you follow their growth last season and what do you think of that situation?
Thomas: I watched them closely. I’m a fan of basketball so I watch basketball all the time, and the Phoenix Suns are one of the most exciting teams in the NBA. It’s a team that I’m very familiar with. Even playing against those guys, they just seem like great guys. There were really no arguments on the floor, it seemed like guys were playing for each other and not just with each other, so it seems like a great group of guys. Then when I got to meet the coaching staff and organization, I was like, ‘oh, that’s why they had the season that they had,’ because guys there, they work hard, they love being around each other and love playing for each other. And that’s what it’s about. If you get guys that play for each other and guys that don’t care about who’s scoring this, who’s doing this, that’s when you’re going to turn the organization around, and they’re going in the right direction.”
NBA.com: The immediate thought when you were traded was you would come off the bench as a scorer behind Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe. However, Bledsoe, a restricted free agent, is locked in a contract stalemate with the club, and there have been rumors the Suns are willing to trade him. Dragic will be an unrestricted free agent next summer. First, what do you make of the Bledsoe situation and, second, after fending off all comers in Sacramento, are you comfortable coming off the bench?
Thomas: When we first met they said, ‘we value you as a starter and whatever happens with the Bledsoe situation is going to happen. If he comes back and you do come off the bench, you’re still going to have a big role and play a lot of minutes.’ That’s what I’m big on. If I have a huge role in whatever happens and I’m playing a lot of minutes I don’t really care if I come off the bench or start because at the end of the day my peers understand that I think I am a starter in this league, and I have shown I can compete on a daily basis and at a high level. I’m here. I’m coming into a new situation trying not to step on anybody’s toes, but at the same time compete, make each other better and do whatever I can to help this team take the next step.
NBA.com: Throughout your basketball life, you’ve always been one of the little guys. You’re listed at 5-foot-9. Lots of players stretch the truth. Are you really 5-foot-9?
Thomas: I am, actually. People always think I’m a little shorter, but I’m definitely 5-9.
NBA.com: Hall-of-Famer Isiah Thomas, who were are named after, was listed throughout his career as 6-foot-1, and maybe he is. The Seattle area and the University of Washington have produced two pretty good little guys, yourself and 5-foot-9 Nuggets point guard Nate Robinson. What is most difficult about being 5-foot-9 and playing in the NBA?
Thomas: I couldn’t tell ya. I don’t feel like I’m 5-9 when I’m out there, honestly.
NBA.com: One would think defending bigger players must be a nightly issue?
Thomas: I’ve always been this short, so it’s nothing new. Guys have always been taller than me and I’ve always been able to hold my own. It’s crazy because when I get scored on people will say he’s too short, but everybody in the NBA gets scored on. You’re not really going to stop a guy; they’re the best players in the world. But I definitely hold my ground. I’m a better defender than people think I am and I think with being on a winning team people will see that I’m not a liability on defense, and I’m going to do the best I can to be able to play great team defense, but also be a great individual defender.
NBA.com: Speaking of Nate, are there any dunk contests in your future?
Thomas: Nah, I don’t get up like that anymore.
NBA.com: Well, if you’re not in the gym perfecting your tomahawk, what are you working on this summer?
Thomas: I can improve in all aspects, but mainly my decision-making. I’m working on my jump shot, becoming a better shooter. At the same time I’m trying to become a better playmaker, learning how to understand when to look for my shot and when to look for others. It’s tough when you’re a scoring point guard because with me, I feel like I can score every time down, honestly. I’m just trying to get better at decision-making and becoming a better playmaker, and overall just trying to work on each and every aspect of my game because I know I’m still young, I’ve got room for improvement and I can get better at all aspects.”