Always confident, the 5-foot-9 All-Star guard has worked his way to NBA stardom
POSTED: Apr 1, 2016 10:01 AM ET
The last pick of the 2011 Draft, Isaiah Thomas has left a large impact since his arrival in Boston 14 months ago.
BOSTON — It seems longer than 14 months ago that the Boston Celtics were losing aimlessly, without floor leadership. Then, in the final hour of the trade deadline, they landed their least likely savior. The trade itself cost the Celtics relatively little, and for good reason: Isaiah Thomas arrived as the tiniest player and lowliest former Draft pick on their roster.
From 45-88, which had been their record over the preceding 16 months, the Celtics have been transformed into a playoff team. Thomas, the No. 60 pick of the 2011 Draft, has become Boston's lone All-Star. At 5-foot-9, he is the leading scorer and playmaker for the young Celtics, and they've gone 57-39 with Thomas on the floor. The Celtics have a chance to improve their record with Thomas when they visit the Golden State Warriors on Friday (10:30 p.m., ESPN).
These outcomes have been surprising and yet typical. Thomas, the little giant, has made a habit of bringing together terms that ought to be mutually exclusive. It's as if his unexpected triumphs were always meant to be. Along the way Thomas, 27, has helped propel the new generation of NBA stars whose leader is Stephen Curry: Altogether they have succeeded in elevating the NBA by downsizing it.
Danny Ainge, president of the Celtics, insists he was able to see into the future when he acquired Thomas from Phoenix in a three-team trade on February 20, 2015.
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"I'm not surprised at all that he's playing the way he's been playing for the last two years," says Ainge, who can recall sitting in his office last year with Thomas shortly after the trade. They were watching a Celtics game together on TV, days before Thomas would make his Boston debut, and even then Ainge was telling the last pick of the Draft -- the so-called "Mr. Irrelevant" -- what he could accomplish. Thomas, to quote the exact phrasing of his new boss, had it in him to become "a legend" for this franchise of 17 championships and 21 retired numbers.
"I've never had that," says Thomas; and then, true to his better irony, he lists the many exceptions. "Other than my friends and family, and [University of Washington] coach [Lorenzo} Romar and [former Sacramento Kings coach] Mike Malone, I've never had nobody be saying you're going to be that good."
Romar was his coach for three years at Washington. Shortly after Thomas had been chosen as the ultimate afterthought by the 24-win Kings, Romar put together a plan to help him punch above his weight.
"I worked out at the University of Washington with Coach Romar," Thomas said. "He got me game film from the previous year from the Kings -- where I would get my shots, where I would get my opportunities, where I would be if I did play. When I got to training camp, all I had to do was perform. I knew all the plays; I knew where I had to be. I was a step ahead of the rookies going in."
The 2011 lockout was going to shorten training camp, further reducing Thomas's chances of earning his place. He made the most of every minute by running in between plays, during breaks in scrimmages, or from one drill to the next.
"That's what we did at the University of Washington -- you had to run, or you don't get a water break," he says. "That was already in me. So when I was doing it in the NBA, guys were like, what are you running to go get a drink for? They had to tell me to stop. That was me."
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Isaiah Thomas has 36 points and 11 assists in the Celtics 139-134 win over the Clippers.
The way he was playing four years ago when he had nothing to lose is the same way he is playing today for this team with everything to gain.
By March 2012 he was being awarded as Western Conference rookie of the month -- for the second straight month. By that midseason he was the Kings' starting point guard. By year three, when Malone arrived as the coach who invested fully in his potential, Thomas was averaging 20.3 ppg, which led to his 2014 recruitment by Phoenix as a free agent. Thomas, the source of so many happy surprises, was himself surprised by none of this.
"I always carried myself like I was the best," Thomas says. "Not to be overconfident, but I think the best players have a different type of swagger, a different type of walk about themselves."
This is why Thomas remains grateful, in some small way, to everyone who has ever looked down upon him or dismissed him at first glance.
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Isaiah Thomas scores 28 points, dishes out seven assists to help the Celtics defeat the Magic.
"When they said that," he says of the common assumptions that the NBA wasn't meant for someone of his size, "that just motivated me even more to make it."
It's as if he is expressing sympathy for all of the high draft picks -- the prototypes with the God-given height and strength who have never experienced the gift that he received. Players with the build of LeBron James or Kevin Durant or Carmelo Anthony have been expected to be stars long before they were drafted, whereas Thomas, lost in the back of the picture, hidden behind the taller bodies, had to give everything to the game. Which, as it turns out now, is the best way to play.
"For me it was never that I can stop working, that I know I'm going to make it," Thomas says. "It made me want it that much more. I wanted to be in the position they were in so badly. I would do anything."
From his point of view, looking up to the larger basketball world, Thomas is able to see now that he was as fortunate as anyone.
He did not always have this point of view, of course. It was natural to focus on what he lacked rather than to be grateful for the glass half-full.
"He's a real basketball player," says Ainge. "He's one of those kids who grew up playing basketball. He's got all the tricks, one-on-one moves. He's very entertaining."
Growing up in Tacoma, south of Seattle, Thomas was always the underdog. When he was forced to leave home in order to repeat 11th grade on the far side of the country at South Kent School in Connecticut, he was never so miserable.
On the night of the Draft, which dripped along like torture, pick by pick without hearing his name despite his 16.8 points and 6.1 assists at Washington, he doubted whether he would ever receive the opportunity to fulfill his brimming self-confidence. He was still thinking about that Draft just a few months ago as he wondered whether he would be selected by the Eastern Conference's coaches for NBA All-Star 2016 in Toronto.
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Isaiah Thomas discusses his first All-Star appearance with Kristen Ledlow.
"Everyone was texting me, 'You're going to be an All-Star, you deserve it, don't worry,' " says Thomas, whose 22.3 points and 6.3 assists are career highs. "I was not responding to those text messages or calls until my name is really called. One thing with me, I've never expected anything. And I'm not going to. Because I've always been let down."
Even so, and for as long as he can remember, the elder stars from Seattle who were in the NBA -- Jason Terry and Jamal Crawford especially -- were able to recognize his potential. Thomas was not part of basketball's high society, but the best players could see he was one of them.
"Players know," says Celtics coach Brad Stevens. "Players know who is really hard to guard and really hard to play against."
Thomas was still in high school when Terry and Crawford recognized the charisma, the winning personality that won them over and separated him from everyone else.
"People always tend to fall in love with me," says Thomas, with a sense of confidence that would be absolutely unattractive if not for his inspiring style of play. "I think for the most part it's because I'm small and a normal guy. I've just always loved this game and it was fun to me. So me smiling and being happy, it's just me being me."
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Thomas felt that love from his coaches in Sacramento, who could see that he was dying to win more than he loved to score. He has never been one to wait for the double-team so much as he has forced defenders to respect him by launching himself insistently into their paint. His playmaking while airborne has progressed since he came to Boston, along with his defense -- especially crucial as the Celtics rank No. 4 in defensive efficiency.
"He has improved within the system so much," says Stevens. "He's usually in the right spots, he fights over screens, he's a competitive guy who gets hands on balls. He has figured out how to mask his size at that end of the floor. He wants to be good, he wants to watch more defensive clips, he doesn't want to be one we talk about in the film sessions."
I always carried myself like I was the best. Not to be overconfident, but I think the best players have a different type of swagger, a different type of walk about themselves.
– Boston Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas
As impressive as he is now in speed-reading the defense, applying his smooth-yet-credible fakes before deciding to either pull up safe for his lefthanded jumper or rise up (at great personal risk) to the basket was even more dangerous when he was younger and more reckless. But he kept getting back up.
The optimist Thomas competing against so much pessimism, and the validation of Terry, Crawford and so many others added to the confidence and certainty that Thomas saw each day in his own mirror. The odds against him shrunk in inverse proportion to the prosperity of his imagination. Everyday he saw his better self-smiling back, and he believed.
The highest Draft pick on the Celtics is Evan Turner, the college player of the year from Ohio State who went No. 2 to Philadelphia in 2010. Turner was all that Thomas wasn't: a versatile 6-foot-7 prototype who had everything going for him, and yet they were going to wind up in the same place. During Turner's first four seasons with the 76ers and the Pacers, when he did not become the franchise star that a No. 2 pick is expected to be, he had to learn how to overcome his own brief (but more intensive) version of the same doubts that Thomas had juked forever.
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NBA TV's Steve Smith sits down with the Celtics' diminutive point guard Isaiah Thomas.
Yet neither Thomas nor Turner is defined by the negatives. Each has lived with hard criticism at his own end of the spectrum -- Thomas as the underdog, Turner as the can't-miss star -- and yet their play expresses joy. In turn, now, their attitude has become not the exception but the rule: The reason they and their younger Celtics teammates are winning ahead of schedule is because they all appear to be in pursuit of the same higher calling. Defenders rotate for one another, the ball moves freely, and for most of this season, Turner happily took on the sixth man role that used to be Thomas'.
"It molded me to be tougher," says Turner of his first four seasons. "As you grow older, you understand the bigger picture of things. You know yourself, and that's all you need to worry about."
A lot of people say if a player makes the All-Star Game, that's going to make him tougher to coach or less accountable or more full of himself. I would say it has been the exact opposite with Isaiah.
– Celtics coach Brad Stevens
Prior to 14 months ago, the Celtics were loaded with young players who wanted to defend, run the floor and share the ball. Then Thomas arrived as their finisher and playmaker. Suddenly their efforts were turning into points and wins. Their late-season run to the playoffs in 2014-15 was giving voice to their ambitions. This newcomer, who by all accounts (apart from his own) was not supposed to be in the NBA, was helping them realize who they could become.
"The handchecking rules make it more viable for speed versus size," says Ainge of the 2001 changes that launched the NBA's new perimeter-based era. "But you can't just have speed. You have to have talent. You have to be able to use that speed."
"I think Steph is the best player in the NBA right now," says Ainge. "He's 6-3 and he's the best shooter I've ever seen."
He has improved within the system so much ... He wants to be good, he wants to watch more defensive clips, he doesn't want to be one we talk about in the film sessions.
– Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens
The other side of the argument is made by retired NBA players who maintain that Curry and his small-ball generation could not have thrived in their more physical era. Their reasoning is not invalid, but it is based on a narrow point of view. What it fails to account for is progress. The game is more accessible and inclusive than it was before. The talent in the NBA is drawn from a larger and more diverse pool. Instead of focusing attention on what has been left behind by the rules changes, smaller stars like Curry, Damian Lillard, Kyle Lowry, Kemba Walker, Mike Conley and Thomas -- named after the greatest small guard of them all -- are showing what may yet be.
"Those guys have a chip on their shoulder," says Bradley, who grew up in Tacoma as an AAU teammate of Thomas', and who now starts alongside him in the Celtics backcourt. "I remember Jamal (Crawford) in Seattle. The way Jamal has played; he has proving to people every single night that he's just as good or better than anyone. And I feel like Isaiah was the same."
Who were the Celtics before they traded for Thomas? They were a young unfinished team, and he was the unrecognized star who scored prolifically for the lottery-addicted Kings before becoming the third wheel in a dysfunctional point-guard rotation in Phoenix. And now, 14 months after his arrival, the same encouraging point of view that carried Thomas from Tacoma to Boston is circulating through all of the Celtics in a way that anyone can see.
"People always box me in as a defender, and I wanted to prove that I could do more," Bradley goes on. "Every single year I'm improving in all parts of my game. It's only going to get better for me if I continue to work hard and focus, because I do have the mentality that those guys have."
Then, on behalf of all of his fellow Celtics, Bradley recites that which Thomas believes.
"I feel like we don't get as much credit, but it's fine," Bradley says. "Because it drives us even more."
It is a point of view that is just beginning to take shape.
"I've been fortunate -- for most of my career I've been around guys like that," says Stevens. "Guys who, for whatever reason, people aren't focused on the things they do really well -- instead the focus is on what they don't do or how tall they are. And there is nothing better.
"A lot of people say if a player makes the All-Star Game, that's going to make him tougher to coach or less accountable or more full of himself. I would say it has been the exact opposite with Isaiah. I see a guy who has even more desire to improve."
Arena Link: Isaiah Thomas
Boston's Isaiah Thomas joins GameTime to talk about the Celtics' win over the Raptors.
Becoming an All-Star hasn't changed anything that matters: Thomas can see that clearly now.
"The last month I've been getting more respect than I've gotten in my whole career," he says. "And I'm doing the exact same thing. It's that label."
There is every reason for him to keep pushing forward. The Celtics have a roster deep with young inexpensive talent. They have more picks than they can use -- eight in this upcoming draft alone -- including the unprotected first-rounder of the Nets, which Boston will also be able to access in 2017 and '18 as a result of the 2013 trade that sent Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Terry to Brooklyn. That deal may turn out to become one of the great moves of the modern era: It also created the trade exception that enabled Ainge to acquire Thomas.
Between the potential to make trades, pursue a max free agent and add possibly the No. 1 pick in the Draft, the likelihood is that at least one star will be joining Thomas in Boston this summer.
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Isaiah Thomas is a nominee for the Kia Eastern Conference Player of the Month.
But first comes the postseason, and Thomas remembers better than anyone that he shot an ineffectual 33.3 percent in his playoff debut last spring, an opening-round sweep at the hands of the Cleveland Cavaliers. For him this is the next vision of a dream that has become self-fulfilling.
"I was really sure that this was how it was going to happen," Thomas says. "It sounds crazy, but I always thought I was going to be an NBA player, always thought I was going to be an All-Star and one of the best to play. That was in my head since I was a little boy. Before I loved anything, I loved the game of basketball. Before I knew what love was."
Now he knows. There are a wife and two sons, James and Jaiden, 5 and 4, who chase around the house like he used to. For how many years of childhood did he wish he could be taller? And never fully realizing, not until now, that size isn't the half of it.
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