Thomas, Tolliver 'Earned Everything They've Achieved'

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by Matt Petersen

On Monday, the Al McCoy Media Center was filled to capacity with reporters from a couple dozen news outlets and publications. A half-dozen news cameras were rolling and another six or so photographers could be heard clicking madly away during the press conference.

In short, it was exactly the opposite kind of reception you’d expect for a former 60th overall draft pick and an undrafted veteran.

Yet it’s what those players (Isaiah Thomas and Anthony Tolliver) are now that had the Suns eager to acquire them this summer. Thomas is a 20-points-per-game scorer that can create for others as well as himself. Tolliver has developed into what has become a near-necessity – a big man who can shoot well from distance.

These hard basketball facts don’t do justice to the struggle each player endured to achieve them.

Thomas was one pick away from going undrafted in 2011, and to this day is the shining answer to the usually depressing trivia question: “Who was the last player selected in the NBA Draft?”

Even after mercifully hearing his name called, Thomas had to earn a contract and roster spot. Second-round picks are not guaranteed anything, and with another point guard (Jimmer Fredette) drafted 50 spots ahead of him, the odds did not appear to be in his favor.

Thomas Goes for 30 and 8

So he maximized the potential in his 5-9 frame to bend the odds and, in the end, make a mockery of them.

“I’m really not supposed to be here,” he admitted. “Sixtieth picks, [those] guys really don’t make the team. I think that’s just through my hard work and dedication and proving people wrong. People were always saying I couldn’t do this or I couldn’t do that because I was so short. That’s nothing new for me.”

Ditto for Tolliver, who did Thomas one worse by not hearing his name called at all in 2007. The 6-8 forward had hoped his efficient low-post game at Creighton (13.4 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 50.6 FG%) would translate into an NBA career.

Instead he was left searching for another door, one he found only after multiple stints in the D-League and overseas.

“I think somebody tweeted me the other day, ‘hey, this is team number 17 for you!’” Tolliver laughed. “I was like, ‘wow, it’s been that many teams?’”

Tolliver, however, wasn’t just adding experience to his resume. He found a skill beyond the arc, one that saw him hit over 41 percent from distance last season. The process in refining his “craft” was long and usually unappreciated…until Monday’s press conference.

“It’s been an amazing journey but I wouldn’t trade one step of it,” he said. “Where I’m at right now on this stage, it makes it all worth it.”

In Thomas and Tolliver’s respective journeys, the Suns heard the echoes of last season’s uniquely unified team. They saw similar chips on shoulders, scars earned on the paths to respectability that was confirmed in a Suns uniform. Whether the transition was backup-to-starter (Bledsoe), undervalued-to-invaluable (Green), capable to consistent (Markieff Morris) or good to great (Dragic), nearly everyone on the team last season cashed in on a combination of motivation and opportunity.

The hope here is that the process repeats itself with the new additions.

“These two guys have earned everything they’ve achieved,” said Suns General Manager Ryan McDonough. “They haven’t been given anything. I think at different times in their careers they’ve been overlooked. They’ve turned themselves into very good, established NBA players.”

Head Coach Jeff Hornacek appreciates that transformation. He was the last of six draft picks for the Suns in 1986, an unheralded combo guard out of Iowa State.

“These two guys have earned everything they’ve achieved. They haven’t been given anything. I think at different times in their careers they’ve been overlooked.”

— Ryan McDonough

Two years later, he was the only holdover on a team that made the Western Conference Finals. Four years after that, he made an All-Star team and was eventually a key cog in two Finals teams.

Again, those are blips on a resume that doesn’t contain the backstory of countless naysayers – and the even more numerous hours required to make them ultimately go silent.

Hornacek feels those struggles build quality, and that subsequently the Suns’ have added two quality weapons to Phoenix's arsenal.

“I think that’s the best way to get guys, guys that don’t take anything for granted, that worked their way to do it, because they’re going to play as a team,” Hornacek said. “A lot of times, it’s the individual that was maybe given things that feels entitled to minutes and this and that. For me, it was ‘all out all the time’ and that’s what got me minutes. That’s what I think we have with these guys. They’re going to earn their minutes and make it hard for me to take them out of games.”