UW men's basketball coach Lorenzo Romar compares Thomas to a great actor — he's so talented you've got to let him ad-lib.
The program is in Isaiah Thomas’ hands now. Don’t be alarmed. He won’t shoot it until it goes flat.
That is the fear, no? Despite his incredible talent, despite how much his game has evolved over his first two collegiate seasons, you’ve always expected Thomas to do more. In particular, more passing.
The 5-foot-9 dynamo, as tough as he is quick, has already established himself as one of the greatest players in Washington men’s basketball history. But he has done so with a game that needed refining and maturation, with a scorer’s mentality that needed the complement of a lead guard’s unselfishness.
When to shoot? When to pass? Thomas’ freshman and sophomore seasons were about acquiring the proper playmaking feel. Now, as his junior year officially begins with the Huskies’ first practice Friday, Thomas appears to have it all.
If so, he’ll easily be the most dangerous player in the Pac-10. And the Huskies will continue to do what they’ve done throughout Thomas’ time here — win.
Ultimately, for Thomas, victories are what always matters. His competitiveness helped him become an explosive scorer in high school. And his competitiveness helped him tweak his game to play secondary roles to stars such as Jon Brockman and Quincy Pondexter at Washington.
But now it’s his time to be the unquestioned primary offensive option. And if you think that means he’ll jack up 25 shots without giving it a second thought, prepare to be surprised when he reads defenses, examines what’s best for the team on any given night and alternates between 25-point performances and 17-point, seven-assist, three-steal efforts.
“I’ve matured so much the past two years,” said Thomas, whose 1,134 career points are the most a Washington player has ever scored to start his career. “Knowing when to take over, when to get my teammates off, when to shoot, when to pass, I’m so much better at it. I don’t think too much about it. I just can read what’s happening on the floor. At the end of the day, you’ve just gotta hoop.”
For a player who has accomplished so much so fast, Thomas has been criticized heavily at times. He’s so gifted that we forgot there would be a learning curve for him. He has endured his down moments, and he received a large portion of the blame for forcing things too much during the Huskies’ poor 12-7 start last season.
At times, the critics made Thomas angry. But he was also mentally tough enough to improve and help lead the team to a 14-3 finish and Sweet 16 berth.
When the Huskies needed him most, Thomas was at his best. During the NCAA tournament, he played a near flawless floor game, averaging 15.7 points, 6.3 assists and turning the ball over only seven times in three contests.
Coach Lorenzo Romar compares Thomas to a great actor. Instead of making him recite every line perfectly on a script, you explain the essence of the character to Thomas and allow him to ad-lib. For Thomas, freedom spurs inspiration.
“He’s one of those delicate scorers,” Romar said. “The last time we had one was Nate Robinson. If you give them a script, you handcuff their initiative. You take away their instinct. Isaiah understands our basic structure, but you’ve got to let him play. Because he is a winner, he’s going to do what’s best.”
Matthew Bryan-Amaning once played at South Kent School in Connecticut, the same prep school where Thomas, a Tacoma native, landed after he left Curtis High School. Bryan-Amaning remembers players joking with Thomas, who averaged 31.2 points at Curtis as a junior, for shooting too much during pick-up games when Thomas first arrived.
“We used to tease him about it,” Bryan-Amaning said. “It was like, ‘I’m not even going to go down the court this time’ or ‘Don’t worry, Isaiah has got this one.’ He’s changed a lot since he first came to South Kent. He’s always finding the open man now, making everybody better.”
With this Huskies team, Thomas could be even scarier. Last year’s squad only had two double-digit scorers, Pondexter and Thomas, and they accounted for 45 percent of the team’s total points. This season, they don’t have Pondexter, but they should have better balance. More scorers. More shooters. More explosive athletes. It means the defense will have to pick its poison: Don’t help and let Thomas drive to the basket, or help and watch him dish to a pure shooter.
Either way, Thomas will be happy.
“I just play my game,” said Thomas, who spent much of the summer in Dallas working out with Dallas Mavericks guard Jason Terry, a Franklin High graduate. “If I score 50, people will probably say I didn’t pass enough. If I get 12 assists, they will say I didn’t shoot enough. But as long as I play my game and we get the win, that’s all that matters.”
Scoring is still what Thomas does best, but his game has dimensions now. He quietly waited a long time for the Huskies to be his team. Now that it is, he’s quite comfortable sharing.
It makes the little guy an ideal steward of this program.
firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter: @Jerry_Brewer