Washington guard Isaiah Thomas spent a lot of time last summer with Seattle native Jason Terry, an NBA veteran. The tough workouts are paying off for Thomas.
Those summer days started no later than 7 a.m., and even that early in the morning, Isaiah Thomas’ Pacific Northwest body objected to the Dallas humidity. This was the hardest part of his offseason transformation, melting at sunrise, huffing around a track, listening to his mentor talk smack.
“I’m 32 years old, and I’m beating you!” Jason Terry exclaimed.
Thomas, the University of Washington star, kept running. Terry, a 12-year NBA veteran, kept making it look easy. Sprints, lunges, defensive slides, running stadium stairs six times — that was the breakfast hour. Then, they lifted weights for 45 minutes. Later, in the afternoon, they hit the gym for shooting drills and a little 1-on-1 or 2-on-2 scrimmaging.
They couldn’t leave the gym without making 500 shots from specific areas on the floor. Terry could do it in an hour. At first, it took Thomas two hours.
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“Let’s just go home!” Terry yelled. “You can’t beat me!”
“Nah,” Thomas replied. “Let’s keep going.”
Is it any wonder why Thomas is playing the most efficient basketball of his life?
Thomas entered this season as a 5-foot-9 combo guard more comfortable with scoring than creating for others. Now, he’s the quintessential point guard, dishing to teammates for easy shots, scoring when necessary and harassing opposing floor generals on defense.
The junior from Tacoma was named the Pac-10 player of the week for the third time this season Monday. He’s averaging 17 points and 5.7 assists. He’s shooting a career-best 45.2 percent from the field, including 37.4 from three-point range.
While there are several reasons and people to credit for his improvement, perhaps the best story involves Terry. He spent much of the summer helping Thomas refine his game, one challenge at a time.
“Last summer, he basically told me that he wants to be a pro,” said Terry, a Franklin High School graduate who has always been known as a hard worker. “I told him, ‘Hey, I can help.’ Once we started working out, he was like, ‘I’ve gotta get more.’ I see where he wants to go, and I believe in where he wants to go.”
Thomas spent three different stints working with Terry over the summer. They trained in Dallas, where Terry is an ace sixth man for the Mavericks. They trained in Seattle when Terry returned home for a visit. And they trained in Atlanta, where Terry played his first five NBA seasons.
To Terry, Thomas is like a little brother. Thomas grew up with Terry’s younger brother, Curtis, who played at UNLV. From the fourth through eighth grades, Terry’s father, Curtis Terry Sr., coached Thomas.
Jason Terry, who turned 33 in the fall, has followed the little guy’s entire career. They’re similar players: quick, smallish guards blessed with unique scoring abilities. At 6 feet 2, Terry is taller, and he’s also a better shooter. Thomas is more of a penetrator who plays a physical style despite being undersized. Their identical trait: a passion for improvement.
Besides workout sessions, the two watched film and talked about playmaking.
“Can you elevate your team?” Terry asked Thomas all summer. “Can you make the right basketball play all the time? Can you make your teammates better?”
Terry showed Thomas video of all the games from his sophomore season. Throughout the summer, they went over concepts that Thomas hadn’t quite grasped. Holding the follow-through after shots. Squaring up and shooting the same shot all the time. Learning when to shoot vs. when to pass. Learning how to make subtle movements to help a shooter get open. Practicing how to stop on a dime and elevate for a midrange jumper.
Terry considered the midrange shot the weakest aspect of Thomas’ game. So they worked on it, again and again. Thomas’ field-goal percentage has increased partly because he has an option other than a three-pointer or a foray to the basket. Now, Terry says, “I think his midrange game is exceptional.”
Said Thomas: “Watching all of that film, I know when the shot is there and how to get it off better. We’d watch so much film, man, and it was the summer. I mean, who does that? He’s just always trying to get better and be the best he can. And I follow him.”
When asked about Thomas’ pro prospects, Terry gives the most effusive praise the kid has ever received. Because the NBA has outlawed hand-checking, Terry foresees Thomas having a long and productive NBA career. It comes as a shock because Thomas is only projected to be a marginal second-round pick right now — and that’s if he stays through his senior season. Terry disagrees.
“The NBA right now is all about guys having the speed and quickness to get into the lane and make something happen,” Terry says. “Isaiah has elite NBA quickness. That’s his NBA skill. The quickness he possesses, that’s what you see in guys like Rajon Rondo and Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook. And they’re all All-Stars.
“So, to me, Isaiah should be a first-round pick when he comes out. He should be a lottery pick.”
Crazy? Well, Terry is biased. But he also watches his “Lil’ Bro” more closely than anyone. Over the summer, he saw him go from needing two hours to make those 500 jumpers to needing just more than an hour. Terry also lost a 2-on-2 game to Isaiah and his brother Curtis in Atlanta. It’s the first time he’d ever lost to that pair.
“He’s still mad about that,” Thomas says, laughing.
Thomas will get to see Terry this week in Arizona. The Mavericks play the Phoenix Suns on Thursday, the same day the Huskies play Arizona State. Then it’s the NBA All-Star break, so Terry plans to return to his alma mater, Arizona, for the Huskies-Wildcats clash on Saturday in Tucson.
He doesn’t hesitate when asked how he’ll root.
“I’ll be courtside at the McKale Center, with my wife, rooting for Isaiah,” Terry says. “I’m sorry to say, but my boy is going to go to work on my Arizona Wildcats. I’m loyal to Arizona. I always want to see them win — except when they play Isaiah. I’m rooting for my boy. He’s family.”
Turning a Wildcat purple? Add it to the list of Thomas’ achievements during his Washington career.
And with Terry serving as Big Bro, Lil’ Bro isn’t done yet.
Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter: @Jerry_Brewer