Isaiah Thomas is Mr. Irrelevant

by January 11, 2013

by Daniel Friedman / @DFried615

When I asked Isaiah Thomas how he felt about getting selected dead last in the 2011 NBA Draft, he said he felt disrespected that I even posed the question, jokingly of course—but not really. “People always had doubt in me. I’m not the tallest guy out there at 5-9, so that scared a lot of teams away,” Thomas replied coolly. “I’m just so blessed for Sacramento to be the team to pick me up and give me a chance. All I ever asked for was a chance, that’s all I needed.”

As Thomas and I sat in the visiting locker room of the Barclays Center, we sat and reminisced about what transformed the former University of Washington star into one of the greatest underdog stories of all time.

After graduating from the South Kent School in Litchfield County, CT, and ranked Thomas in the top-100 of overall high school prospects in the nation. He elected to stay close to home at the University of Washington, where he would carry the team to three consecutive seasons with 24 wins or more. In his final year, Thomas led the team in scoring (16.8), assists (6.1) and steals (1.3) per game. He capped off his college career by sinking a game-winning buzzer-beater against Arizona in the championship game of the 2011 Pac-10 Tournament, earning the Huskies an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.

Following Thomas’ junior year, he declared for the NBA Draft. And by an act of mere social serendipity, Thomas sent out a tweet saying that someone should make a movie of his life. TJ Regan, an amateur filmmaker who grew up in the same area as Thomas, remembers reading about him in the local newspapers. So Regan responded to Thomas through mutual friends and the idea for the film dubbed “Mr. Irrelevant” was born.

“He’s got that juice,” explained Regan. “When he gets around people, they like him, they attract to him. He’s just got that personality, just so cool. Everybody respects him right off the bat.”

Regan began filming for the documentary in April 2011 during pre-draft workouts in Las Vegas. Regan says the time was mostly spent shuffling from gym to gym for workouts. “His work ethic is there,” confirmed Regan. “We were in the gym every night, we’d go in at 10 or 11 o’clock and just get 500 shots up.”

Despite his dominance at Washington, scouts doubted Thomas. They highlighted aspects of his game that would translate to the next level like his quickness and leadership skills, but always circled back to his height as a potential drawback. The disbelief that Thomas could make an impact at 5-9 prompted his draft stock to plunge.

“All he needed was a chance.” – James Thomas

On draft night, Thomas opted to spend his time shooting jumpers in the gym at the University of Washington. His family and friends gathered for a party in his honor, anxiously waiting to hear his name called by NBA Deputy Commissioner Adam Silver.

When the Draft started, rumors circulated that the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers were interested in selecting Thomas. But as the night wore on, tension grew. ESPN NBA Analyst John Hollinger had predicted that Thomas would be picked 57th by the Dallas Mavericks, four picks away from oblivion. Other analysts left Thomas off their draft boards completely. The uncertainty was inescapable. Everyone, including Thomas, knew the possibility he wouldn’t get selected was real.

“It’s just against all odds right now,” Thomas’ childhood friend, Rogers Mingo, said to the camera as Regan filmed. “It just shouldn’t be happening to him.”

With the first round in the rearview, the second round looked encouraging. The Bulls and Lakers had a combined five picks left and had shown significant interest in Thomas. But after the Lakers selected Andrew Goudelock with the 47th pick, both teams had already spent three of those five selections on point guards. As the Lakers proceeded to use their last two picks (56 and 58) on power forward/centers from overseas, Thomas finally arrived at his party to catch the tail end of the Draft.

As he stood with his family, the Kings’ two-minute countdown went up on the clock for the final pick. When Thomas thinks back to that moment, he says anxiously, “I didn’t think I was gonna get drafted.”

Then came the announcement. “With the 60th pick in the 2011 NBA Draft, the Sacramento Kings select—Isaiah Thomas.”

Everyone in the room shot to their feet in celebration. Thomas confesses he had overlooked the Kings completely by that point. “I honestly forgot about Sacramento. I think the Lakers’ last pick was 57 or something. I wasn’t thinking about the Kings,” Thomas said. “And then they called me…I just thank God because it was a blessing.”

After Sacramento selected Thomas, the crowd poured outside on to the porch to congratulate their hometown star. Then came the infamous phone call every draft hopeful waits for. It was the Kings calling to welcome Isaiah to the family, and to the League. Isaiah’s father, James, stood outside in a state of joy, unfazed by the rain coming down, “All he needed was a chance.”

“The heart of a lion.” – Bobby Jackson

When Thomas was selected, assistant coach Bobby Jackson knew he was “a competitive young guy with the heart of a lion.” Jackson went on to explain that Thomas’ competitive side was “higher than any other person you could imagine to take at that 60th spot.”

“I’ve always played with a chip on my shoulder and tried to prove people wrong,” Thomas says about being the final pick, “that just made the chip a little bigger.”

Jackson and the Kings’ coaching staff were aware of Thomas heading into the Draft, but they didn’t know the extent of his talents. “We knew he was going to compete and work hard everyday, but we didn’t know he was going to be our starter.”

He showed glimpses of his ability scoring 20 points, dishing out 6 assists, and pulling down 3 rebounds in only his 11th game in the League. Then he went on a tear in the month of February, averaging 12.2 points and 4.4 assists per game. Thomas was subsequently named the Western Conference NBA Rookie of the Month, becoming the only player to ever be drafted with the last pick and win a Rookie of the Month award. The selection for the Eastern Conference award that same month was Cleveland Cavaliers guard Kyrie Irving, the No. 1 selection in the 2011 NBA Draft.

On February 17, Thomas and Irving played the only matchup between the Kings and Cavs during their inaugural season. Thomas would go on to post career-highs in points (23), assists (11) and rebounds (8). Irving matched Thomas’ game-high with 23 points, but could only manage to dish out a single assist. Though the Kings would lose the game by one point, it proved to be a dazzling display of draft dichotomy.

Thomas would go on to win the award for the month of March as well, joining teammate Tyreke Evans as the only Kings rookies to win back-to-back Western Conference Rookie of the Month awards. In the midst of Thomas’ hot streak, head coach Keith Smart elected to start him at the point guard position. Thomas wouldn’t disappoint, averaging 15.1 points and 5.2 assists per game, securing his starting role for the remainder of the season.

“Sky’s the limit.” – Isaiah Thomas

When I asked Keith Smart about Thomas’ contributions to the team, he had nothing but praise for his second-year point guard. “I saw from last year that [Thomas] had strong leadership characteristics, which is just what you need from a point guard.”

Then the team began to struggle 10 games into the ‘12-13 season, and Thomas lost the starting job to free-agent acquisition, Aaron Brooks. Smart explained he was simply shaking things up to get the most out of his roster, and he commended Thomas for not letting the demotion get to him mentally.

“When he wasn’t starting, his demeanor stayed the same,” said Smart. “He wanted to play, every guy wants to play, but his work ethic stayed the same, his film study stayed the same, he didn’t change.”

To cement himself back into that starting role, Thomas has been working diligently on his game day in and day out. “I’m always in the gym. I work with Coach Jackson everyday—before practice, after practice, days off—I just want to be one of the best.”

Thomas made it a habit to show up to the arena three hours prior to game time to train with Jackson, “I saw Ray Allen last year getting to the gym that early, so I’m like, ‘If he’s getting there that early, why can’t I?’ That’s my mindset. If those guys are working that hard, why wouldn’t I?”

What exactly does Thomas need to work on? “Seeing the game as a point guard, and seeing where he can get the maximum amount of assists,” answered Jackson. “Competitive-wise, I’d take him on my team any day because he works hard, he don’t back down from anything, and he’s always the first guy in the gym and the last guy out. So those aspects reign supreme over anything because he wants to learn, he wants to get better.”

When asked if he was a legitimate starter, Thomas quickly responded, “Yeah, I feel like once I got that chance, I showed people that I can start at this level. My mindset going into every year is that I want to be the starting point guard. So I’m going to do the things that I can control like coming in and being a professional, you know, giving it my all. I do feel like I’m a legitimate NBA starter.”

Jackson offered his final thoughts on the talented young point guard as we sat in the Kings’ training room: “He just wants to be great. When he got drafted last, I think it created a monster,” he said plainly. “When you’re trying to be an elite player, you gotta progress every year. And from last year to this year, he’s making huge strides.”

As we sat in the visiting locker room in Brooklyn, NY contemplating his future, Thomas appropriately chose the words of the great Notorious BIG, “The sky’s the limit.”