NBA PM: Isaiah Thomas Becomes Mr. Relevant
Mr. Irrelevant isn’t supposed to emerge as a starter during his first season in the NBA. Mr. Irrelevant isn’t supposed to win Rookie of the Month twice. Mr. Irrelevant isn’t supposed to average 14.7 points and 5.4 assists in the final month of the season.
Nobody told Isaiah Thomas.
The 23-year-old was the final pick in the 2011 NBA Draft, but he exceeded all expectations during his rookie season with the Sacramento Kings. Entering the season, there was no guarantee that Thomas would make the team. He had to fight for his roster spot during training camp and prove that he belonged in the NBA. However, by February, Thomas was one of Sacramento’s most consistent contributors and was moved into the starting lineup.
Thomas was one of the biggest surprises of the 2011-12 season, someone who will likely receive Rookie of the Year votes just 10 months after being overlooked by every team in the league. At 5’9, Thomas has always had doubters, and being dubbed Mr. Irrelevant only motivated him more and solidified his underdog status.
“I’ve always played with a chip on my shoulder and that just motivated me even more,” Thomas told HOOPSWORLD. “I went into every game thinking, ‘Okay, this team passed on me. They didn’t pick me.’ Every day, it was on my mind. I wanted to go out there and show them that they missed out on something special. I looked at other players and thought, ‘This guy was drafted ahead of me. I may not be better than him, but I’m going to outwork him.’ It made me work harder because I wanted to show the NBA and the world that I could compete on this level. I think I did an okay job of that this year.”
“I’m always going to have doubters and I love proving them wrong,” Thomas added. “From day one, when I first picked up a basketball, I had doubters. They said I was too short. They said I wasn’t going to succeed in high school. They said I couldn’t duplicate that success in college. They said I couldn’t play in the NBA. I just laugh at it because I know that I’m working my butt off every single day to become the player that I am. I’m always going to have doubters. Right now, they’re probably saying, ‘Oh, you had a good year, but you can’t do that for the rest of your career.’ I use it as motivation to work even harder.”
Prior to Thomas, no player who was selected with the final pick in the draft had ever won Rookie of the Month. The point guard was given the award twice for his outstanding play in February and March. Thomas put up numbers comparable to Kyrie Irving, the top overall pick in the draft, and finished with the third-highest PER among rookies behind only Irving and Kenneth Faried. Most 60th overall picks end up overseas or in the D-League, but Thomas made an impact right away.
“It’s a blessing from God,” Thomas said. “I didn’t even know if I was going to make the team. Then, during the first two months of the season, I didn’t know if I was going to play at all. I just tried to stay patient and control the things that I could control. I didn’t let my highs get too high or my lows get too low. I just kept working. I was in the gym before and after practice, before and after games. I wanted to show that, no matter what, I was going to be in the gym and I was going to get better. Later in the season, I was able to play more and showcase my skills to everybody.”
Playing in the NBA always seemed like a foregone conclusion for the guard, especially with a name like Isaiah Thomas. Growing up in Seattle, Thomas was mentored by NBA players like Jamal Crawford, Jason Terry and Nate Robinson from a young age.
“Every guy from Seattle who has made it to the NBA has helped me and taught me so much,” Thomas said. “I can’t thank them enough. Jamal Crawford is a mentor and big brother to me. He has helped me since I was a freshman in high school and we talk every day. He’s someone that I’ve learned a lot from, on and off the court. He’s a hell of a person and he really cares about others. He’s kind of like the OG of the group, the OG of Seattle players. Everyone looks up to him. Jason Terry has helped me a lot as well. Nate Robinson has been great too and he’s someone who I can really relate to. We went to the same college, played for the same coach and play a similar style. Not to mention, he’s the exact same height as me so he can give me specific advice and tips on the court. Those guys have really helped me, which means a lot.”
“I love his game,” Crawford said of Thomas. “He plays with that chip on his shoulder. He’s been doubted his whole life, but he always finds a way. He’s just getting started. He’ll have a great career. I’m proud of him.”
While Thomas shocked the basketball world with his exceptional play, he didn’t surprise himself. Because he has been around NBA players for most of his life and always expected to achieve success in the league, he knew he would be ready to contribute when his number was called.
“I wasn’t surprised,” Thomas said. “I always felt like if I was given the opportunity, I could play at a high level. Coach (Keith) Smart came to me during the season and said, ‘I’m going to give you an opportunity. Take it and run with it.’ I did that. My coaches and teammates trusted me. They were the reason that I was able to go out there and play my game. Once I got the opportunity, I was able to contribute and show what I can do.”
“The biggest surprise was probably just how good everyone is,” Thomas said. “It’s a lot different than college and high school. You can’t take any nights off. Every night, you have to play your best game otherwise you’ll get shown up. The next guy is just as good if not better than you, and he’s coming for you. I had to always be ready. I had that mentality at every practice and every game.”
Thomas’ ascent would be impressive during any season, but it was particularly astounding during this unconventional year. The lockout made life difficult for rookies, with Thomas and his peers having to learn on the fly without much structure or assistance. He’s happy that this year is behind him and he’s looking forward to his first traditional season.
“There were so many obstacles,” Thomas said. “There was a lockout, no summer league and then a shortened training camp. There were a lot second-round picks, people in a similar position as me, who didn’t even get invited to training camp. Thank God, I was invited to training camp but I didn’t know if I was going to make the team. I just worked as hard as I could and tried to show them that I could play at this level. Now, it’s going to be a little more normal. I’ll have a normal offseason and I can prepare myself to have a great second year. I didn’t know what to expect going into my rookie year and everything happened so fast. I’ll definitely be ready coming into next year.”
While Thomas’ season can be considered a huge success, there were times that he looked like a rookie.
“I had two welcome-to-the-NBA moments,” Thomas said with a laugh. “In the first game of the season, we were playing the Lakers. Now, Kobe Bryant is my favorite player. When I checked into the game, Paul Westphal said, ‘Okay, Isaiah, you got Kobe.’ I kind of looked behind me. I didn’t think he was talking to me. I asked, ‘I got Kobe?!’ It didn’t seem real. So I start guarding Kobe. As he was backing me down, I was smiling. That’s my favorite player and I was guarding him. It was crazy. He scored a couple of times, but I stopped him a couple of times. I was happy with that.”
“Then, when we were playing the Heat in Miami, I blew past LeBron James,” Thomas said. “He did it on purpose, but I didn’t realize he was letting me go by him. I got past him and put up a lay-up, but he swatted it off the backboard. That was one of his biggest blocks of the year. He looked at me and said, ‘Welcome to the NBA, lil homie.’ Those were my two welcome-to-the-NBA moments, from two of the best players to ever play the game.”
Thomas enjoyed his rookie season and couldn’t be happier with his situation. Entering next year, he hopes to duplicate his individual success and help the Kings reach the playoffs for the first time since 2006.
“Sacramento is great,” Thomas said. “The fans have been great. They welcomed me in with open arms from day one. The organization has been great to me. They gave me the chance to showcase my skills at this level and I can’t thank them enough. The only thing I want to do now is win more games and hopefully get to the playoffs next season. That would be great for Sacramento.”
Mr. Irrelevant isn’t supposed to lead his team to the playoffs and make the franchise relevant again.
Nobody told Isaiah Thomas.
Hibbert Makes Huge Strides: Roy Hibbert is having the best year of his career, averaging 12.8 points, 8.8 rebounds and two blocks for the Indiana Pacers. He was selected as an All-Star for the first time and emerged as a consistent force for the third-best team in the Eastern Conference. In the playoffs, Hibbert has continued to elevate his game, posting 11 points, 10.8 rebounds and 3.8 blocks in the first round.
This has been a breakout year for Hibbert, who is reaping the rewards of hard work that he put in during the offseason. Rather than taking time off over the summer, Hibbert added 15 pounds of muscle and traveled to San Antonio to work out with Tim Duncan.
“I work hard every single summer,” Hibbert told HOOPSWORLD. “We had the long lockout and I was working hard every day. I just wanted to get better so that I could help this team out. I’m going to keep working because I know that I have a lot more room to grow. As long as the team keeps winning, I know I’m going to keep getting better. I have a drive, an ambition, and that’s what keeps me going.”
Hibbert is only 25 years old and he’s only begun to realize his potential. Centers are often considered the hardest players to develop in the NBA. When big men enter the league, they tend to be extremely raw. Young centers are often uncomfortable in their body after undergoing a huge growth spurt in a short period of time. The learning curve for centers is much different than the learning curve for other positions. Some of the league’s best centers weren’t successful early in their career, with Tyson Chandler serving as a perfect example. Hibbert acknowledged how difficult it is for a center to develop in the NBA.
“You have to get used to some different things,” Hibbert said. “Some centers have a harder time. Look at myself and look at Hasheem Thabeet. Sometimes it takes time to develop. Also, you just have to want to learn. Some guys get it really quickly and some guys don’t.”
Fortunately for Hibbert, he’s had the right people around him to help his development, starting with Pacers head coach Frank Vogel. Vogel and Hibbert have been close since 2008, when the former was a young assistant coach for Jim O’Brien and when the latter was a wide-eyed rookie.
“He’s been great,” Hibbert said of Vogel. “Even when I was a rookie, he had my back. He has always encouraged me and he’s doing the same thing now. We’re playing well as a team with him at the helm and I’m really happy.”
David West, who was signed by the Pacers last summer, has also been instrumental in Hibbert’s development. Not only has West been a mentor, he has also taken some attention away from the young center in the paint.
“For me, personally, he’s the reason I was an All-Star,” Hibbert said. “The past three years I was here, we had (power forwards) who couldn’t really score so that brought all the attention to me in the post. Now, they have to respect David West’s scoring presence. Defensively, he’s been great. Offensively, he’s been the horse that’s carrying us in terms of scoring in the paint. I’m happy that we have him on the team.”
Hibbert will be a restricted free agent this summer and all signs indicate that the Pacers will match any offer sheet he receives. He has shown glimpses of what he’s capable of, such as his nine-block outing against the Orlando Magic in Game 1 of the first round, and Indiana is looking forward to watching him develop further.
Twitter: Make sure you are following all of our guys on Twitter to ensure you’re getting the very latest from our team: @stevekylerNBA, @AlexKennedyNBA, @jfleminghoops, @TheRocketGuy, @EricPincus, @joelbrigham, @alexraskinNYC, @TommyBeer and @YannisHW.
NBA Chats: If you are looking for the next NBA Chat, you can find them here: Upcoming NBA Chats.