Washington junior Isaiah Thomas is still scoring after making the move to point guard, but now he's also keeping teammates happy by getting them the ball.
What will they say next?
Isaiah Thomas has heard it all.
Too short to play basketball. Too freewheeling for Division I. Too young to lead Washington back to prominence.
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Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.
In his first two years, the 5-foot-9 guard led the Huskies to back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances, and he began the 2010-11 season 25th on the school’s all-time scoring list.
Despite his many accomplishments, the naysayers didn’t go away. He admits the latest knock stung more than the previous criticisms.
The skeptics said he’s a selfish gunner looking to score. Maybe there was some truth to the claim. Thomas has never been shy shooting the basketball, and he loves to score points.
“You can say a lot of things about Isaiah Thomas, but I would never say he’s the kind of guy who only plays for himself,” said UW assistant Raphael Chillious, who coached Thomas two years at South Kent School in Connecticut. “I’ve been with him now going on five years, and in these past few weeks, he’s coming into his own as a leader and someone who can pass and direct an offense.
“You know he has that in him because we’ve seen flashes of it. Now we’re seeing it over the course of a game and over a period of time.”
It took a season-ending knee injury to his childhood friend, Abdul Gaddy, to put Thomas in position to unlock dormant passing and leadership skills.
Without Gaddy, Thomas moved from shooting guard to point guard, and in the past four games he’s averaging 9.3 assists and 20 points.
“I’ve got the ball in my hands a lot more than I did when he was playing,” Thomas said of Gaddy. “I’m just pushing the ball and seeing things that he sees. He was a good distributor and a good player.
“I just probably got a little better scorer’s mentality, so it opens it up that much more for myself.”
Through six conference games, Thomas leads the Pac-10 with 8.2 assists per game and he’s fourth in scoring, averaging 17.8 points.
The Huskies (13-4 overall, 5-1 in Pac-10) face Arizona (15-3, 4-1) at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at Edmundson Pavilion.
Much is on the line, including first place in the conference and Washington’s 10-game home winning streak.
Thomas can also improve his chances of winning the Pac-10 Player of the Year award with a stellar performance against another front-runner, Arizona sophomore Derrick Williams.
“He means as much to Washington on the offensive end as probably Derrick Williams means to us on the offensive end,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said. “He just makes the game easy for his teammates.”
The best example of Thomas’ maturation as an all-around guard was his 27-point, 13-assist showcase Sunday in a 92-71 victory at California.
Coach Lorenzo Romar said it was the finest performance from a Huskies guard he’d seen in his nine seasons at Washington.
“I know Nate (Robinson) had some games where he’s close to maybe a triple-double,” Romar said. “Brandon Roy and Will Conroy had some games where they had double-doubles.
“But on the road — 27 points, 13 assists. I can’t recall one game being like that.”
Before the season, Romar talked to Thomas about raising his assist-to-turnover ratio and shooting a higher percentage from the field.
Thomas is shooting a career-high 45.7 percent on field goals, and he’s fourth in the Pac-10 with a 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover-ratio.
These days, Thomas is taking as much pride in making a pass as he does scoring.
“Right now, it’s more fun to make a pass,” said Thomas, who is 16th on UW’s all-time scoring list. “See others happy, especially guys like Aziz (N’Diaye) and Matt (Bryan-Amaning) and our shooters on the wing.
“I’m just glad to keep a smile on their faces. As long as I’m doing that and we’re winning, I’m good.”
Thomas is on track to collect postseason hardware if he continues leading the Huskies like he has the past three weeks. He was selected to the John R. Wooden midseason top-30 list as player of the year and is one of 20 Cousy Award finalists, for the award given to the nation’s top point guard.
Admittedly, Thomas had fed off the criticism in the past, and Romar isn’t worried he’ll lose his edge now that he’s receiving accolades.
“When you play basketball and you’re 5-9, you’re (always) being told: ‘You can’t,’ ” Romar said. “He’s always been told he can’t on the basketball court. So he just has this built-in chip on his shoulder.”
Thomas said: “They always talk about me good or bad. So it doesn’t bother me.”
Still, when the national conversation turns to the best college point guards, hardly anyone mentions the Washington junior.
Miller doesn’t need to be convinced of Thomas’ credentials.
“He deserves to be put in the category as the nation’s best point guard,” Miller said. “He isn’t getting one-tenth the credit he deserves in that category, because he is a true point guard.
“The guy is getting the job done at such a high level that when I turn the TV on and they’re talking about the nation’s best guards, for him not to be mentioned is really not fair. We have — like all teams that play Washington — our hands full in trying to deal with him, because it’s not an easy task.”
Percy Allen: 206-464-2278 or firstname.lastname@example.org