by Tracy Weissenberg / @basketballista
Out of the 60 players in the 2011 NBA Draft, Isaiah Thomas ranks sixth in career minutes, fourth in points and third in assists. What is remarkable about those numbers? Thomas was the last selection.
The 5-9 shooting guard is showing that talent can transcend both size and selection. This season, Thomas is recording career highs across the board, averaging 18.9 points, 46.3 field-goal percentage, 41.8 three-point percentage and 5.5 assists. His former draft classmate has become his teammate, as Derrick Williams, the second overall pick in 2011, hopes to find a fit with the Kings. Whether pick two or 60, it goes to show how many variables play into a career after draft night.
The mercurial Kings are hoping to develop the consistency needed to eventually contend. Thomas, in his biggest role yet, is hoping to help get them there.
SLAM: Going back to the 2011 Draft, what was going through your mind when all the names were getting called. When you were chosen 60th, what did you think about your future in the NBA?
Isaiah Thomas: I was just disappointed because I felt like I prepared myself for the Draft. I outplayed a lot of guys in workouts and I just felt that I was better than a lot of guys my name was called after. At the same time, everything happens for a reason. All I ever asked for was an opportunity and a chance. I got that with the Sacramento Kings choosing me and then I just took advantage of my opportunity.
SLAM: What do you think caused you to be so under-the-radar: scouting early in your career, or size?
IT: Just my height. That’s the main thing. That’s how it’s always been my whole life. I felt like, even since high school, I’ve been able to compete at a high level, it’s just people are afraid of my height. I mean, that’s their fault. Once I was given the opportunity, I showed them that height really doesn’t matter.
SLAM: You mentioned opportunity. So much is based on circumstance and situations, like Danny Green barely playing for the Cavaliers and then starting in the NBA Finals with the Spurs. Do situations like those play in your mind? Do you look around the League and see all the lottery picks that may not be playing or may not be in ideal situations and compare that to your own path?
IT: Yeah, I mean the NBA is all about situations and opportunity. Just like the example of Jeremy Lin, when he was in New York. He took advantage of his opportunity and that’s what you have to do. You never know when your opportunity’s going to come. You just got to keep fighting and keep working hard.
SLAM: Since you entered the League, what are some things that people don’t know that you do behind the scenes? How tough was it to make a name for yourself?
IT: It was very tough but every chance I got, whether it be the last two minutes of a blowout win or loss or if I got in [the game] in the first half, I was just going to make the most of my opportunity. I was going to play as hard as I possibly could and make a difference. And let it be known that I should be on the floor. When my opportunity got bigger and bigger, I just made the most out of it and coach started calling my name a little more. Then I somehow got in the starting lineup and I just kept pushing. I kept working hard and I was never satisfied.
SLAM: In the starting role, does your approach change at all since you have to get everybody going early instead of coming in as a spark off the bench?
IT: Just a little bit. But at the same time, coach wants me to be aggressive and to just make plays. So I got to just pick and choose my spots and when to be aggressive for myself and when to make plays for others.
SLAM: You have a cool story about how you were named. (His father, a Lakers fan, bet his friend that L.A. would defeat the Pistons in the 1989 Finals—with his son’s name on the line. Detroit swept, both parents liked the name Isaiah, and the rest is history.) How much contact do you have with (Hall of Famer) Isiah Thomas?
IT: We talk all the time. He actually texted me a couple of weeks ago once the trade happened. He said, “Now your opportunity’s here again, so take advantage of it.” He’s a mentor of mine. It’s funny that I’m named after him and that’s a guy I can call any time and really talk to and get advice from.
SLAM: But your father is a Lakers fan…
IT: He is. He’s an Isiah fan, but…
SLAM: He’s a Kings fan now.
IT: Yeah, yeah. But he’s definitely a Laker fan. He’s from L.A., so you know how that is.
SLAM: Do you and Isiah talk Xs and Os at all? He has a really unique basketball mind.
IT: Sometimes. The summer before [this one], I worked out with him a few times out in L.A. He knows so much about the game, it’s just crazy. After I worked out with him, it made basketball become more mental than physical. I started thinking the game better. He started giving me little scenarios to go through in my head throughout games and stuff like that. He’s been a great help to me.
SLAM: There have been so many changeovers during your time on the Kings, including ownership and relocation talk. What has been the adjustment playing with so many different lineups and under coaches with different schemes?
IT: It’s just the life of the NBA.
SLAM: Sometimes, yeah.
IT: Especially on losing teams, you never know what’s going to happen. There’s change always in the air and you just got to be ready for it. You got to be dialed in at all times. You got to accept change, whether for the good or the bad, you got to work your situation out. That’s what I’m trying to do. I’m trying to just turn this franchise around.
SLAM: What do you think this franchise needs to do to get back to contending?
IT: We’re in the right direction. With the new ownership, new coaches, new trades that we just made, we’re in the right direction. We just got to keep fighting and keep working hard.
SLAM: The roster has been so young the past few seasons, especially with all the different pieces assembled together. Do you think you all finally have enough experience in the League to put something together?
IT: I think so. We just gotta become a more consistent team. That’s what it’s about in the NBA. Once you’re a consistent team, you can be a pretty good team…we gotta be one team at all times.
SLAM: What do you think is the key to that consistency?
IT: Just gotta come in with your hard hat every day and work hard. You can’t take any nights for granted. You can’t take any nights off. We gotta treat everybody like they’re the world champs. You play the Miami Heat, you expect to have a great game because you want to beat them. We got to have that mindset each and every night.
SLAM: Has the game slowed down at all for you? You play at such a quick pace, but a lot of players say experience slows the game down in terms of vision.
IT: It definitely has. I’m still learning, it’s only my third year. At the same time, a lot of things have slowed down and I’m understanding when to pick and choose my spots. When to be in attack mode to be aggressive to score and when to get my teammates involved. It’s still a learning process, but at the same time, I’m learning and I’m getting better at it.
SLAM: Sixtieth pick in the Draft to starting point guard. What do you want your legacy as a basketball player to be? How do you want people to remember you?
IT: I want to be the best little guy to ever play.
SLAM: So you’re coming after AI?
IT: [Smiles] Yup. That’s my goal.
Q+A: Isaiah Thomas (August 19)