In Phoenix, Thomas Finally Felt Wanted

Barry Gossage/NBAE
by Matt Petersen

When Isaiah Thomas played ball as a kid, he wasn’t the first one picked.

When he received scholarship offers, he wasn’t priority No. 1 for schools looking for point guards.

And on NBA draft night of 2011, Thomas wasn’t the first pick. He was the opposite – dead last.

The biggest factor was his frame, which loomed like a shadow far larger than its actual 5-9 height. It followed him wherever he went, tainting the people around him with doubt and ridicule. Average 31.2 point as a junior in high school? Good luck pulling that off in college. Make first team All-Pac-10 and hit a game-winner to knock off Arizona in the conference championship game? You can get away with that in the NCAA, but not the NBA.

“People were always saying I couldn’t do this or I couldn’t do that because I was so short,” he said.

1-on-1 With Isaiah Thomas

Even after triumphing over the scary, non-guaranteed path that comes with being a second-round pick, Thomas never felt that he was ever doing anything more than buying time in Sacramento.  As much as he progressed, the Kings always seemed intent on upgrading his position. Greivis Vasquez, Jimmer Fredette and Aaron Brooks all came and went as signs of Thomas’ insecure role with the team.

Even after averaging over 20 points per game last season and becoming the shortest player ever to record a triple-double, Thomas watched as another point guard (Darren Collison) with lesser statistical impact was signed to replace him this offseason.

What more did he have to do? Didn’t someone want him? He was tired of wanting to be wanted. He thirsted to be needed.

Ironically, that thirst was quenched in the desert, where a team already laden with point guards convinced him from the moment he stepped off the plane that he was wanted and needed in Phoenix.

Thomas listened as the Suns eagerly laid out how he would flourish in their perimeter-oriented attack, one that needed multi-threat ball-handlers on the floor at all times. He saw the big screens inside and outside of U.S. Airways Center lit up with his image, digitally bedecked in a Suns uniform. He watched as his fiancé and kids were treated with a combination of respect and friendliness hardly ever doled out to him, much less his family.

So this is what it’s like to be wanted without hesitation or asterisks.

“They brought me in with open arms and just…they liked me for who I was,” Thomas said, almost as if he was still struggling to accept it. “They liked me for being 5-9. They liked me for being a shoot-first point guard. That’s what I wanted.”

Isaiah Thomas Goes for 30 and 8

The feeling was more than mutual. In Thomas, Phoenix had found a budding talent that wanted to be here for all the right reasons. They found out that he was a basketball nut and watched as many games as he could.

Turns out Thomas watched a lot of Suns basketball and liked how they played. More importantly, he appreciated and valued exactly what Phoenix’s front office had pinpointed as the main reason for last year’s success.

“It seemed like, even playing on the court against the Suns, there was really no arguing,” Thomas said “The guys were just wanting to play and wanting to have fun and wanting to win. I wanted to be part of something like that.”

The Suns’ recent memory gave them better vision than Thomas’ critics, whose eyesight stopped as soon as it noted his height and split hairs with his game. Phoenix saw the guy who torched them – and nearly everyone else in the league – all of last season. They saw he was only 25 and likely to improve.

Most important of all, they recognized his personality would fit in with and complement the precious chemistry Phoenix had only just established.

“As we went through the free agency process, we wanted to try to continue to build on what we established last year, which we feel to be a group of young, hungry, high-character guys who work hard, who play unselfishly,” said Suns General Manager Ryan McDonough. “We feel like [Thomas and Anthony Tolliver] will fit right in with our culture, with our locker room.”

As for the questions about Thomas before and after his signing, Phoenix felt the journey he’d already made had answered them.

“They brought me in with open arms and just…they liked me for who I was. They liked me for being 5-9. They liked me for being a shoot-first point guard. That’s what I wanted.”

— Isaiah Thomas

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

Thomas heard this in his introductory press conference, a room filled to capacity with reporters and team officials who wanted to see him. The situation was completely foreign. He’d been conditioned to prove himself for so long, it seemed like he still needed to on this day, even if he could only do try in words.

“You’re not going to regret the decision that you guys made,” Thomas said, as if he still needed to convince someone. “I’m just going to come in every day with my hard hat and just give it my all and try to fit in with the guys. I know it’s about winning and that’s the most important thing. I just want to do the best I can to honestly do my job.”

It’s a job for which Thomas, for the first time, knows he’s wanted.