Times columnist Steve Kelley thought former Washington guard Isaiah Thomas made a mistake when he decided last year to enter the NBA draft. He sees now that Thomas has proved him wrong.
PORTLAND — Keith Smart laughs as he tells the story. The Sacramento Kings’ coach sounds like a proud father talking about the day his son didn’t back down from the bully.
In a game earlier this month, Kings rookie Isaiah Thomas got caught in a switch and was forced to guard Orlando’s all-star big man Dwight Howard in the low post.
Howard is 6 feet 11. Thomas is 14 inches shorter. This wasn’t just David and Goliath. This wasn’t a mismatch. It was a can’t-miss match for Howard.
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“Here Howard was with the ball, one of the best post-up players in the league, and Isaiah stayed right with him, defending Howard the same way he’d defend somebody his own size,” Smart said Monday night in the tunnel underneath Portland’s Rose Garden. “Isaiah held his ground until help came and we were able to get the ball out of Howard’s hands.”
It was the kind of play that describes the incandescent character of Isaiah Thomas, the former Washington guard, who left school last April after his junior season.
Thomas understands long odds. He’s used to people telling him what he can’t do. He thrives on proving people wrong.
“In that one play, you saw the confidence factor that he has,” Smart said. “You saw how he likes to compete and you saw how much workability he has.”
At the end of the third quarter of Monday’s game here, the Trail Blazers tried to isolate Jamal Crawford one-on-one against him.
Crawford calls Thomas his “little brother.” When Crawford, who played at Rainier Beach High School, was with the Knicks and Thomas was attending prep school in Connecticut, Thomas used to come into the city and sleep in Crawford’s guest room. Crawford often made the hour-and-a-half drive to watch Thomas play.
But as Crawford shoulder-shaked and flashed crossover dribbles in front of his little bro Monday, the Kings’ rookie stood his ground and finally flicked his hand at the ball and knocked it out of bounds with one-tenth of a second on the clock.
“He kept yelling at me, ‘I know those moves. I’ve seen ‘em a thousand times,’ ” Crawford said.
When Thomas declared for the draft, I thought it was a big mistake. I didn’t think he was ready for the NBA. I wasn’t sure he would get drafted. I figured he would spend this season playing in the D-League. I hoped he would like living in some place like Erie.
Wrong! The last player chosen in the 2011 draft, Thomas made the Kings’ roster and is averaging 5.9 points and 15.1 minutes.
“I just had a lot of confidence in myself that I could perform at a high level,” Thomas said. “I knew what I was getting myself into.
“I felt like there was nothing left that I could do in college to prove myself. What I proved from January to March, when (Abdul) Gaddy got hurt, was that I could play the point if I was given the chance. I could be the point guard they wanted me to be. I think I proved enough.”
Still draft day was tough.
“Yeah, it was frustrating,” he said. “The guards that were chosen ahead of me, I had outplayed. But I know this game has a lot of politics in it. And I’m also 5-9, and I know that scares a lot of people away.
“Every level I’ve been at, I’ve always had things I’ve had to overcome and I’m still overcoming them to this day. People still say I can’t play at this level and I won’t be in the league that long. All of that motivates me … I’m motivated by the doubters.”
Thomas has had a bizarre introduction into the league. Because of the lockout, there was no summer league for him to play, no supervised workouts with other Kings players and coaches. For the first time in his life, he didn’t have a real game to play.
A week into the season, it was reported that one of the young Kings stars, DeMarcus Cousins, wanted to be traded. Early this month, coach Paul Westphal was fired. And, after one month, Thomas already has lost more games (12) than he did in any of his seasons at Washington.
“It’s been a little weird. I guess that’s the life of an NBA player,” Thomas said. “On any given day, you just don’t know what’s going to happen. I guess it was meant to be like that. The lockout and everything, it was against-all-odds for me. But I always had faith in myself. Now I’m waking up every morning with a smile on my face knowing I’m still playing the game that I love and getting paid to do it.”
After the game, Crawford found Thomas at midcourt, hugged him and draped a brotherly arm across his shoulder. Thomas had finished the game with 11 points in 28 minutes and a career-high eight assists.
“A lot of people said he wasn’t a point guard, just a scorer,” Crawford said. “But you saw it tonight, they’re putting the ball in his hands and letting him make decisions. He’s just a basketball player. He’s always played with that chip on his shoulder. For Isaiah, that chip’s been more like a boulder and I’m proud of him for all the hard work he did this summer. The best is yet to come.”
For Thomas, this rookie season is a long, arduous audition. Understandably his playing and his playing time have been erratic. He scored 20 points in a win over Toronto and 15 in a loss to Memphis. But there also have been a DNP and two appearances under a minute.
But the thing about Thomas, since his days at Curtis High School in Tacoma and his AAU years at Friends of Hoop, he has never been dogged by the bad days or inflated by the good days. He looks at every morning as another opportunity to play basketball, another chance to get better.
“He calls the coaches and tells them he wants to do extra work. He wants to be in the gym,” Smart said. “He’s a gym rat. He loves to play. There are times he’ll walk by me during timeouts and say, ‘I’m ready, coach. I’m ready, coach.’
“He understands how hard he has to work, based on who he is, the way he came up to get a chance to be in the NBA. He’s growing at the right pace. He’s a willing student.”
The eyes of former NBA great Bill Walton lit up when I mentioned Thomas.
“He is the personification of what the NBA is about,” said Walton, who is the Kings’ radio analyst. “A young man chasing his dreams, using basketball to make a better life for himself.
“In the short period of time that I’ve had the privilege to know him, I’m just so impressed with every aspect of him, as a person, as a player and as an NBA professional. That guy’s doing great.”
On opening night against the Lakers, Westphal told Thomas that Kobe Bryant would be his defensive assignment.
“I had to look around like, ‘You mean me?’ ” Thomas said. “Every night you play against guys you looked up to when you were younger. This is the funnest time of my life. This is what I dreamed of doing.”
This is his pursuit of happiness.
Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or firstname.lastname@example.org