Isaiah Thomas is excited.
It’s August in New York City, and the Sacramento Kings point guard is about to make his debut at Harlem’s world-famous Rucker Park. I meet him inside the concrete handball court adjacent to the outdoor hardwood, which for today is doubling as a makeshift locker room. Only a chain-link fence separates the talent from the assembled spectators.
He’s wearing his team-issued three-quarter length adidas sweats, Sacramento’s logo stitched over the right pocket, an untied pair of blue and white Reebok Kamikaze IIs and a tight-fitting black t-shirt with the word MICROPHONE across the chest. When I turn mine on, Thomas begins talking about the future and grins. He’s excited not only about the prospect of putting on a show for the considerable crowd gathered at the notorious Mecca of streetball, a rite of passage for NBA players of note, but also about his third season in the League. And he’s adamant about what he wants: “To be the starting point guard, and let it be known that I’m a legitimate starter in this League.”
Fast-forward six months, and when Isaiah Thomas picks up his cell phone on a Monday afternoon, we both know he’s far exceeded that goal since our last chat. It’s mid-April, and the Kings will wrap up a disappointing 28-54 season a few days later. But along the way, IT has established himself as more than just a viable starter—he’s one of the most electrifying and gifted young lead guards in the game today.
Not like he did it by the skin of his teeth, either. Career-high numbers of 20.3 points and 6.3 assists, along with 45 percent shooting, were enough to put the rest of the League on notice. Spurs star Tony Parker went so far as to call Thomas “the whole package” at one point this season. His mid-March triple-double against the Wizards was just icing on the cake.
During the 2013-14 season, Thomas wasn’t just the most efficient offensive player on the admittedly disappointing Kings, leading the team with 1.14 points scored per possession. Among NBA players who use at least a quarter of their team’s possessions, only eight in the League were as good or better in that statistic—Kevin Durant, LeBron James, James Harden, Dirk Nowitzki, Anthony Davis, Stephen Curry, Damian Lillard and Blake Griffin—and all were All-Stars in 2014. Among point guards, only Curry, Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook finished the year with a better Player Efficiency Rating (PER) than Thomas’ 20.54. Plus, IT had the highest true shooting percentage (which takes into account free throws and the added value of three-pointers) and the highest assist rate on Sacramento among players with at least 500 minutes played.
All of which is to say, Thomas is even better than his fans think.
In December, when the Kings dealt Greivis Vasquez to the Raptors in a package for Rudy Gay, critics slammed the SacTown brass for taking on Gay’s big contract. More importantly, Vasquez’s departure made way for Thomas to take over the reigns at starting point guard. While the merits of acquiring Gay may still be up for debate, plugging in Thomas at the point made head coach Michael Malone and GM Pete D’Alessandro look pretty damn smart. The Kings won 21 of 54 games with IT in the starting lineup. They only won seven others.
“It was like, finally,” Thomas says of the moment he learned of the trade, which would make him the full-time starter. “I felt like I had earned that spot. Even through training camp and the first 20 games of the season, I felt like I was the starting point guard. I told myself, Here’s your opportunity, now take it and run with it.”
After sharing a backcourt with veterans like Tyreke Evans, Marcus Thornton, Francisco Garcia and Aaron Brooks for his first two seasons, the 25-year-old was suddenly Sacramento’s elder statesman. And, along with Gay and big man DeMarcus Cousins, Thomas quickly became part of the only trio in the NBA to each average at least 20 ppg.
To call the little lefty’s breakout season unexpected, given the way he entered the League, would be quite the understatement. The Kings selected Thomas with the 60th and final pick in the 2011 NBA Draft, which has made his flourish surprising to nearly everyone around the League—save for lifelong friend Nate Robinson, who starred at the University of Washington three years before Thomas arrived on campus.
“I love his game. If he were to go up against any guard in the League right now, I’m picking Isaiah,” Robinson told SLAM before Thomas had played a minute in the NBA. “If I’m going to war, I’m picking him to go with me.”
Much was made of Thomas’ draft position during a rookie season that saw him not only stick on Sacramento’s roster, but get serious consideration for Rookie of the Year. These days, his draft status is an afterthought—like he was to 29 NBA teams on Draft night.
Thomas doesn’t mince words when it comes to why he was overlooked.
“It was because of my height,” he says flatly. “That was the only reason. I know that for a fact.
“People still doubt me now. Not to sound cocky, but I average 20 points and 6 assists. There’s not a lot of guys in the League that do that on a nightly basis,” continues Thomas, who’s officially listed at 5-9. “People always want to knock what I can’t do, that’s just the way it’s been my whole life. ‘Oh, he’s 5-9. Oh, he can’t defend. He’s a scoring point guard.’ Doubters are always going to doubt you. I’m going to just continue to keep working and prove them wrong.”
Coming up in Tacoma, WA, young Isaiah modeled his game after small, athletic, feisty guards like Damon Stoudamire, Nick Van Exel, Allen Iverson and Robinson. Even before he traveled across the country to South Kent (CT) School to repeat his 11th grade year (“I hated prep school. But when I look back at it now, that was the best thing to happen to me, because I had to put aside all the BS, and focus on my schoolwork to get to college.”), it was clear Thomas would be the smallest man on the court at all times for the rest of his life.
“People always ask me how I do it, but when I’m out there, I feel like I’m the same height as everybody else,” explains Thomas. “That’s been my mindset since I was a little boy. I wish some day, they’ll just look at me like they look at everybody else. Height is nothing. It’s all about heart and what you can do with the height that you have.”
Size notwithstanding, Thomas has already accomplished some of his long-term goals, like making the League. Others, like finishing his career as one of the greatest little guys to ever play the game of basketball, are still on his list. Priority No. 1 now, though, is winning. Through his first three NBA seasons, Thomas has yet to sniff the Playoffs.
“Once you’re a winner, guys look at you different. I know that’s the next step for myself and this organization next season, if I’m here,” says the restricted free agent-to-be. “I try to tell guys on the team, ‘When you win, that takes care of all the individual success you want. You can see Miami, Indiana, Oklahoma City—the teams that win, their individual success comes with the territory.’”
He says he has stats in mind for next season, too, but won’t get specific. Given how particular he is about his breakfast special at local Sacramento eatery Bella Bru Café—two scrambled eggs, scrambled hard, with bacon (“fat chewy bacon”), French toast with no butter, and grapes on the side—you can bet he’s got the numbers drilled down to a 10th of a percent.
“Given the opportunity, I feel like I can be one of the best guards out,” Thomas says emphatically. “I want to be an All-Star, I want to get to the Playoffs. I want everything. And I mean that.”