Against All Odds: Best is yet to come for Isaiah

Drafted with the final pick in 2011, Isaiah Thomas stands at just 5 feet 9 inches; hardly your prototypical NBA player. He has already exceeded expectations by making the remarkable transition from being last pick in the draft to starting at point guard for the Kings, but Isaiah won’t settle.

Alongside DeMarcus Cousins, Isaiah has given Kings fans in California’s capital reason for positivity in what has otherwise been an intolerable season. Thomas is making a habit of torching the league’s best defensive units. He has scored 38 points (career-high) this month against both Indiana and Oklahoma City who rank 1st and 3rd respectively in defensive efficiency. He is averaging 23.6ppg against the league’s top 5 defensive teams this season whilst Chris Paul, widely considered to be the league’s top point guard, posts 22.1ppg against the top 5.

Isaiah is overlooked more often than not when people talk about the league’s top Point Guards; just as many scouts overlooked his prolific scoring ability and instead focused on his height.

Talking of height, Thomas is the joint smallest player in the association with fellow Washington alumnus Nate Robinson, a player with whom Isaiah is often compared. Isaiah received Nate’s blessing to wear his #2 jersey whilst playing College ball for the Huskies and the two have since held joint off-season workouts in Washington and expressed their admiration for one another.

Comparisons were bound to be drawn as they both possess monumental explosiveness and ball-handling skill, along with their fearlessness and reputation as streaky shooters. Robinson has struggled to find a place to call home in his 8-year career, largely due to his inefficient shooting and notorious attitude issues. Thus, comparisons between him and Isaiah are no longer legitimate. The young Sacramento guard has moulded himself into an excellent playmaker and scorer whose play is beginning to justify comparisons with the NBA’s elite.

Kyrie Irving or Isaiah Thomas? It’d be difficult to find someone who would pick the latter. The former is considered to be one of the league’s brightest young stars and is regularly included in debates regarding the association’s top Point Guards. If, when reading the question at the start of this paragraph, you immediately thought the choice to be obvious (“I mean, who wouldn’t pick Kyrie?!” ) then think again.

1st vs 60th

2013-2014 per game Minutes Points Assists Steals eFG%
Kyrie Irving 35.1 21.5 6.2 1.3 47.6
Isaiah Thomas 33.3 19.8 6.3 1.4 51.1

As shown above, Irving averages just 1.7 more points per outing than Thomas whilst shooting less efficiently from the field, the three-point line and the foul line. Isaiah also gets to the line at a remarkable rate, averaging 5.5 attempts per game to Irving’s 4.6. You’ve seen the reality, now for people’s perception:

-Kyrie Irving received 860,221 more votes than Isaiah Thomas on the All-Star ballot. The primary reason? Thomas wasn’t even on it.

-ESPN’s group of expert writers and analysts ranked Irving 145 places higher than Thomas in their pre-season rankings. They considered Kyrie to be the 8th best player in the entire league whilst they outright disrespected Isaiah and ranked him at 153.

-As he was drafted dead last in 2011, every single NBA team passed on Thomas. Cleveland passed on him thrice whilst the Kings used their first-round pick on BYU superstar Jimmer Fredette who is averaging 5.7 points in just over 11 minutes for Sacramento. In hindsight, Isaiah ought to have been a high lottery pick.

No doubt should remain: ‘Kyrie or Isaiah?’ is a topic worthy of discussion. While Irving’s recent play has led some to ask whether he is overrated, Isaiah is the exact opposite. He may well be the most underrated player in the league.

Isaiah’s fantastic scoring ability was the cornerstone of his illustrious high school and college careers; he amassed more points in his first two years at Washington than any other player in Husky history. Although his playmaking continues to develop, Isaiah’s ability to score both off the bounce and on the perimeter remains his most potent weapon.

His dead-eye mid-range pull up game ranks amongst the best in the league, with an eFG% (effective field goal percentage) of 47.7. This number ranks above other scoring point guards such as Kyrie Irving, John Wall and Kemba Walker. When driving to the basket, the 5 ft 9 guard converts 46.3% of his attempts. Again, this percentage is superior to that of numerous players considered to be top point guards. Amongst them: Kyrie Irving, Damian Lillard, Jeff Teague.

Statistically speaking: Isaiah’s Player Efficiency Rating of 21.39 ranks 21st in the league and 4th amongst Point Guards.

Above all else, defence will be the inevitable barrier that Isaiah must overcome to make the leap into the realm of NBA superstardom. His much taller opponents register a PER (Player Efficiency Rating) of 15.7 per 48 minutes when matched up against him. By comparison, Chris Paul holds opponents to a PER of 13.8 per 48 minutes, below the league average of 15 (per 82games.com). His role in the Kings’ offence is invaluable but he remains a defensive liability when matched up against his larger counterparts (as do the rest of his team, to be fair). Allen Iverson, the greatest ‘little guy’ in NBA history wasn’t known for his on-ball defensive prowess but, such was his offensive firepower, he made up for it at the other end. Thomas may never be quite the scorer Iverson was but he can compensate by stepping up his defence and becoming a lethal threat on both ends of the floor.

“I want to be the best little guy to ever play” – Isaiah Thomas, in an interview with Slam Magazine, 2013

Isaiah may rightfully belong in a discussion with Kyrie Irving, Damian Lillard and other promising guards but he has work to do to make this generally accepted and recognised. If he is to reach the level to which he aspires Isaiah must continue to elevate his all-round game and improve his defence vastly. Were he 6ft2, his journey to the NBA would have been smoother and his trajectory to greatness significantly easier. As he measures 5 inches below that mark, he will always have to work significantly harder and clearly outperform his competition to garner attention and be awarded with the recognition he deserves. Key to all Isaiah has achieved thus far and to all he is set to achieve in the future is self-belief, as one of his mentors told him whilst he was at Washington:

When former Detroit Pistons floor general Isiah Thomas first met his young namesake five years ago in Los Angeles he had a word or two of advice: “I told him, what separates a good player from a bad player is how much that player believes in himself”

Isaiah is unlikely to become the playmaker that Chris Paul is, or the scorer that Iverson was. What he can become, in his quest to be considered amongst all-time greats such as AI, is a distinctive cross between the two: the silky smooth crossover, a deadly pull up and a sensational ability to score the ball despite being dwarfed by opponents. Isaiah’s lofty aspirations are not misplaced; his best is yet to come.

Image: Getty

Author: Ed McNally