Isaiah Thomas: A new David in the land of Goliaths
The 65th NBA All-Star game was an occasion that saw a journey of hard work, perseverance, dedication and self-belief reach its pinnacle at the Air Canada Center. No, I am not talking about Kobe Bryant's final farewell - although, it was a very special occasion to see the Black Mamba wave goodbye to the All-Star crowd one last time - I am talking about a triumphant story of David and thousands of Goliaths, as Isaiah Thomas made his bow at the annual event.
Thomas scored nine points, including one three-point shot, and provided one assist on what was a quiet personal night for the Boston Celtics point guard, but despite not stuffing the stats sheet - a la Paul George, who finished a point behind Wilt Chamberlain's record of 42 - the 27-year-old played every second of the 18 minutes and 59 seconds of action in Toronto with a beaming smile.
His arrival at All-Star capped a journey that many could never have envisioned; the 5-foot 9-inch guard was rubbing shoulders with LeBron James and Bryant - the two players who have defined basketball in the 21st century. Thomas has faced detractors from the moment he stepped onto the hardwood in high school but he has defied those criticisms and supposed shortcomings to assert himself among the best in business right now.
But it has been a long, tiresome journey for the former Washington Huskies man. The son of James Thomas has always had the talent, there has never been a single doubt about that. However, it was, unsurprisingly, physical capabilities that were seen as a downfall as he continued to age, and opponents began to dwarf him.
Of course, Thomas is not the first small man in basketball to face challenges - Muggsy Bogues, Spud Webb, and Allen Iverson all laid the foundations for the current star to have a career in the league. But that does not diminish his accomplishments. Isaiah's story is still unique.
The Washington native has been embroiled in the basketball world since his first couple of months on this planet. Where do you think he got the name from? James wagered his friend that the Los Angeles Lakers would overcome the Detroit Pistons in the 1989 NBA Finals.
The Pistons swept the series and the named was settled. Even though the younger Thomas was already born, he was named Isaiah after the Pistons legend. Although it is spelt to resemble the biblical figure.
Isiah Thomas was a shining light during Detroit's back-to-back rings in the late 80s, the former Indiana Pacers, and New York Knicks head coach was a fighter who inspired his team, and we asked the younger Thomas if he saw any similarities in their games: "Probably just the heart, never giving up. He was a guy who continued to fight, continue to play hard and never gave up on his game."
From his formative days at Curtis High School in Washington and South Kent School in Connecticut, that has been a trait of Isaiah's game and it has been the driving force behind the Boston Celtics' somewhat surprising rise to a contender in the Eastern Conference.
The 2011 AP honorable-mention All-American averaged 31.2 points as a junior at Curtis and was seen as a four-star recruit by Rivals.com. However, being rated as the 14th best point guard graduating from high school in 2008, it seemed a long shot that he would make it to the NBA, let alone become an All-Star.
However, while many people doubted him, Thomas never questioned his own ability and always knew within himself that he had what it took to make it. Speaking at All-Star weekend, Thomas said: "I could see myself becoming an All-Star, but I do not think anybody else could. That is the honest answer." The burning desire and self-belief are qualities befitting the greats; Michael Jordan, Wilt Chamberlain, and Kobe Bryant are just a few names who shared those characteristics.
The detractors did not stop in high school; after declaring he was going to join the University of Washington, Thomas played the only way he knew how; full of intensity, drive, and passion, but always with a huge smile - it is an image that has become synonymous with the guard as his stock has risen.
The two-time Pac-10 tournament MVP averaged 15.5 points per game as a freshman and was named Pac-10 Freshman of the Year. As a junior, having been selected as first team All Pac-10 as a sophomore, his point outlay had risen to 16.8 and the former Huskies number two finished college in the best way imaginable.
With the scores tied at 75, Thomas picked up the ball at half-court and produced a game-winning jump shot at the buzzer, from just inside the three-point line, that gave the Huskies a win in the Pac-10 Championship game over the Arizona Wildcats. 28 points from 10 of 16 from the field, including four three-pointers and seven assists, showed exactly what he could produce in a high-pressure situation.
However, there were still no guarantees. The detractors were still there. Cries of 'he's too small', 'he can't handle the NBA' and 'he's not physical enough' came with every mention of Thomas' name. His actions were constantly judged alongside bigger guys. If Thomas was scored on, he was considered out of his depth, but if he scored on a 6'1"-6'2" guy, it was considered a 'good shot'.
But that is part of the package, and Thomas appreciates that: "I would not buy the height, I guess I wouldn't be as cool as I am if I was a little bit taller because they would be saying he is supposed to do that."
Despite people doubting him, Thomas was given the chance he craved in the dying embers of the 2011 draft. With the 60th and final pick, the Sacramento Kings threw the guard a lifeline and, with that, must have made the small guard feel like the biggest man in the world. All those hours the diminutive number four had put in paid off, and it was time for the young guy who would 'never make the top level' to try and mix it with the best of the best.
Initial success came in Sacramento, the former Kings 22 recorded a first career double-double in February 2012 against Kyrie Irving - who had been selected first in the draft - and the Cleveland Cavaliers. Two Western Conference Rookie of the Month awards would follow in a promising first NBA season for the Tacoma-born guard. He was given the prize on back-to-back months and became the first player to ever win the title having been drafted last. He was also named to the All-Rookie Second Team and finished seventh in the Rookie of the Year race in what was a promising debut season.
Sac seemed to be a good fit. Starting 62 games in his second season - Thomas averaged 13.9 points and four assists per game - before breaking the 20 PPG barrier as a third-year. But, the 2014-15 season was where it all began to become tough for the then-25-year-old.
Thomas was forced to play second fiddle behind starting point guard Eric Bledsoe at the Phoenix Suns after being acquired by the Pacific Division franchise in a sign-and-trade deal that also sent the rights to Alex Oriakhi to the Suns. Playing minutes were restricted at the Talking Stick Resort Arena and, unsurprisingly, his productivity took a hit.
Averaging a whole nine minutes fewer than his then-career-year at the Sacramento Kings, Thomas' points per game drop by five. Assists and rebounds also took a hit, and his field goal percentage was worse than it had been throughout his whole career in the NBA.
The stay in Phoenix was short lived and just six months later the 185lb guard was on the move. This time, to a franchise that would bring much more success and set him on a path to an inaugural appearance at the All-Star game. Thomas had already tasted the atmosphere at the showpiece weekend having competed in the 2015 Skills Challenge while with the Suns, however, it was the Boston Celtics who would help him go one step further and team up with the likes of LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony.
The Celtics gave up Marcus Thornton and a 2016 first-round pick to bring in Thomas, but it was not an instant success in the Athens of America. In an interview with the New York Times, Muggsy Bogues - the smallest man to ever play in the NBA and a mentor to the younger guard - told how he gave advice to the struggling Celtic: "He was coming off the bench, and he was feeling some kind of way about that. I said: 'Keep making the guys better, keep being a pest on defense, and most importantly, keep doing what you do: You're a scorer.'"
And that is exactly what Thomas did. Averaging 19 points per game off the bench in upon arrival at TD Garden, Thomas made the point his own in his second year and is in the process of producing a career year as the Celtics continue to surprise in the Eastern Conference. Upon selection to the 2016 All-Star game, the Celtics were riding high in the Conference and held a record of 26-21.
"I said: 'Keep making the guys better, keep being a pest on defense, and most importantly, keep doing what you do: You're a scorer.'" – Muggsy Bogues
They have continued that form in the weeks post-All-Star and are now six and a half games back from leaders Cleveland – at the time of writing- after losing just two of their seven games since the weekend in Toronto. But what has made the most successful franchise in history the perfect fit for Thomas?
The fifth-year pro insisted: "Them [Boston] embracing me for who I am. The organisation wanting me to be who I am and nothing else. They support me for who I am and I think that is the biggest difference. The opportunity was there for me to be the Isaiah Thomas I know how to be and I think that is the biggest thing. They love me for what I do and what I bring to the table.
"It was from day one; not just Brad Stevens, but the players. When I played my first game against the Lakers, they were like, we are going to adjust to you. You go out there and play your game and it has been like that since that day."
When questioned on whether he could have made it to the All-Star game had Thomas stayed with former franchise, the Phoenix Suns, the guard was uncertain, but refused to rule out the possibility: "It would probably be a lot tougher. The situation I was in before was not like it is now. It would have been hard, but never say never."
While the Boston Celtics have had a huge influence on his fortunes, the talents of Thomas were there for all to see. Brad Stevens and the Celtics just gave him a platform to be himself. Following the All-Star break, that form has continued in the same vein and Washington man has established himself as premium point scorer in the league this season. In an age where three-point shooting continues to become the go-to game, Isaiah is something of a novelty. Stephen Curry is making the game look easy with shooting from distance that has never been seen before, but that is not the only way to score.
"They support me for who I am and I think that is the biggest difference. The opportunity was there for me to be the Isaiah Thomas I know how to be and I think that is the biggest thing."
While Thomas is not a bad range shooter himself - with a career average of 35.8 percent - the 27-year-old has become somewhat of a phenomenon inside the paint, the land of the giants - the 'goliaths'. Amazing composure and touch under and around the rim make him a threat from all areas. If it's not a jump shot, it's a layup, if it's not a finger role under pressure, it's a three-pointer; he can do it all at the attacking end.
Layups have become a signature move in his arsenal and his effectiveness in the paint has left a number of league's bigger men almost frozen in disbelief at what they see, but Thomas says a lot of points up close come from just being unpredictable: "It is just something that is a talent of mine, I definitely work on different finishes but when you go into the games it is a different thing, you've got be able to adjust in the air and I'm pretty good at it.
"I think just being a student of the game. That is all I watch, whether it is college or the NBA and try to steal little bits and pieces from all the great players. A lot of it is off instinct but some of it is from the hard work I put in the gym. I'm the smallest guy out there so I try to be unpredictable when I go out there and I have a variety of different moves.
"I just try to keep the defence on their heels, it just depends on what is happening in the game. If my jumper is falling then they are not going to fall back, they are going to pressure me a little more so I can go in around the basket and vice versa if it is not falling, they are going to lay off me a little bit and that is when I have got to take my jump shots."
One of those big men who has been left dumbfounded by his ability is Detroit Pistons center and fellow first-time All-Star, Andre Drummond. The 2012 ninth pick has seen Thomas up close and personal this season; the Celtics took the three-game series 2-1 and the guard played a starring role in both of the wins.
"I think just being a student of the game. That is all I watch, whether it is college or the NBA and try to steal little bits and pieces from all the great players."
He scored 17 points in the 105-92 win in February and matched that tally back in December as the Celtics won 99-93 at The Palace of Auburn Hills, and Drummond, speaking at All-Star weekend, admitted it was unexplainable how Thomas is able to score so many points in the paint.
"I still don't understand it to this day," the 2014 Rising Star Challenge MVP said. "I don't get it, I got cussed out a few times for him scoring on me, I never know when he is going shoot. He is so small, when he shoots it, by the time it is in the air, I am just jumping. He is a very crafty guard, he is a great player. I'm very excited that he made the All-Star team, I was rooting for him, he is the heart and soul of that team. He makes the game fun for everybody."
Making the All-Star game is a special occasion reserved only for the cream of the crop, and he joined that elite in 2016. But does Thomas believe his inclusion among the best of the best will give him the validation he finally deserves?
"I hope, but I would not be surprised if it was not," Thomas said. "That is just how my life and career has been. I hope it is validation and that those questions will go out the window, but like I said, I would not be surprised if it does not."
It is just something every small man in the league has had to deal with. It may seem unfair, but in the sport where he plies his trade, height is always a measure. Small men before him had the same fate; even Iverson, one of the greatest to ever play the game, a man with the most devastating crossover in history, had detractors because of one thing, you guessed it; height.
"I never know when he is going shoot. He is so small, when he shoots it, by the time it is in the air, I am just jumping. He is a very crafty guard, he is a great player." Andre Drummond
Bogues paved the way, Webb won the dunk contest and Iverson smashed down the barriers. Thomas is grateful for everything his predecessors achieved: "Muggsy helped a lot, he paved the way, small guards before me paved the way for me to be able to play in the NBA and he is a guy who played 15 years at 5'3" so he is the definition of a small guard. Damon Stoudemire, Allen Iverson, are all guys I look up to. The list goes on. All the small guards before me, I've taken little pieces from every one of them."
The Washington native is seen as a local hero in the state. Every time he returns home, the fanfare surrounding the point is incredible. There have been successful ballers from the West coast state in the past, but arguably none as impressive as Thomas, and the second round pick is under no illusions that his achievements in 2016 put him among the greatest to ever come out of the Pacific Northwest.
"This would probably put me up there, Brandon Roy is the latest but I'm just going to try and continue to have a successful career and try to be the best guy who ever came out of Washington.
"Roy had a big influence, he is arguably the best, other than Jamal Crawford and Jason Terry, to ever come out of the state of Washington. For him to be a three-time All-Star in five or six years is unbelievable. If he did not get injured, he would have gone down as one of the best shooting guards to ever play."
Thomas has a long way to go before being considered, alongside his namesake, as one of the best point guards to ever play the game. However, one of the best in the business right now is certainly a tag befitting the point guard. The youngster who was drafted last in 2011, has come a long way, but nothing has changed. He is still the same Isaiah who sunk the Pac-10 winning shot, the same Isaiah who averaged 31.2 points as a junior in high school, and the same Isaiah who won the hearts of fans of every team he has played for with continual showings of tenacity and a love for the game.
In the land of the Goliaths, there is a new David. The Celtics are riding high on the back of his personality on and off the court, and Thomas has become an important cog in their machine as they look to end their long wait for a championship ring.
If the doors of the NBA were still somewhat ajar before, he has smashed them to pieces. Thomas' advice to any small guys looking for a career in the 'big league': "Work hard, work harder than the next guy and do not let anyone tell you cannot become what you want to become and do it your way.