For years, ever since a devastating hip injury disrupted his NBA career, two-time All-Star point guard Isaiah Thomas has been tirelessly fighting to get back to being the player he once was. He might not reach that All-NBA level again, but Thomas more than made the most of his opportunity with the Hornets this season and quickly became an integral veteran leader.
Following stints with USA Basketball, the Los Angeles Lakers and Dallas Mavericks earlier in the season, Thomas inked the first of two consecutive 10-day deals with the Hornets starting on March 3. The now 33-year-old vaulted onto the organization’s radar following a three-game stretch with the G League’s Grand Rapids Gold in which he averaged an eye-popping 41.3 points, which included 46 points and nine 3-pointers against the Greensboro Swarm on Feb. 26.
Thomas, who was eventually signed for the rest of the season to provide added backcourt depth following Ish Smith being traded to Washington, ended the 2021-22 campaign with averages of 8.3 points on 43% shooting and 1.4 assists in 17 appearances off the bench in Charlotte. Utilizing his trademark craftiness and smooth shooting stroke, he also shot 39.7% from 3-point range on 3.4 attempts per game and notched seven double-figure scoring performances, as well.
“I was thankful for the opportunity,” said Thomas during exit interviews. “It meant a lot for the organization to call my name and allow me to be myself on and off the court. I believe I made a positive impact each and every day. That was the plan – being able to impact these young guys, this organization any way I can, whether I play or not. I think I did what I was supposed to do.”
Thomas’ journey through the league is one of the most complex ones in recent memory. Drafted by Sacramento with the final pick in 2011, he grinded his way to becoming one of the NBA’s most unstoppable and popular players by the time he landed in Boston in 2015. His sky-high standing quickly dissolved because of a torn hip labrum suffered late in the 2016-17 season. Since then, he’s bounced around from team to team, often times spending long stretches just staying ready and waiting for somebody to call.
But it’s likely because of these varying experiences that Thomas has become so relatable to a wide range of different players. He’s been the late second-round rookie trying to earn rotation minutes all the way up to the All-NBA superstar with the weight of the world on his shoulders. Many on the Charlotte roster spoke glowingly about Thomas after the season, a true testament to his presence and adaptability, regardless of whatever role he’s given.
“For them to shower me with praise, that says a lot about who they are,” said Thomas. “They’re in a space right now where they’re the main guys. They don’t have to shout out a 10-day guy or a guy that they don’t even know is going to be here. It’s been real since Day 1 with this group. Some days, I’ll be quiet and they’ll say, ‘IT, we need you to say something because we’re going to listen.’ That goes farther than they will ever realize and I can’t thank those guys enough, for real.”
Thomas also touched on his connection with fellow point guard LaMelo Ball, who is coming off his first NBA All-Star campaign this past season.
“Melo needs to know how special he is,” he said. “If I’m able to show and tell him what I’ve experienced, that place he’s trying to reach is only going to allow things to be way easier for him. The things he’s able to see out there on the floor, I was able to see at one point. When you hear it from somebody who’s done it before at a level that he’s trying to get to, obviously the respect is there, but it’s easier to connect with a guy like myself rather than anybody else. I know the things that I say to Melo, he’ll take differently than anybody else saying them.”
Unrestricted free agency awaits Thomas again heading into this upcoming offseason and only time will tell if he winds up back in Charlotte. Needless to say, though, his future intentions are pretty clear in terms of where he wants to play.
“I want to be here,” he stated. “I see something special in this group. I see a place where I can really help. I would love to be here. This team gave me a chance when really nobody was giving me one. They allowed me to come in, be who I am and embraced that. Obviously, it’s out of my control. There’s a lot that goes into it, but if you get the right pieces around these young guys and build for the future and build for winning right now, I think the sky is the limit. All it takes is a few pieces to make that happen and you don’t look back after that.”