Isaiah Thomas has had an unusual basketball life. He’s only 5-foot-9. He bounced across the country during high school, waited until the very last pick of the 2011 draft to hear his name, and could only keep a tenuous hold on a starting job in Sacramento despite prodigious numbers.
He thrived after the Rudy Gay deal delivered him the starter’s job free and clear, and then watched in July as the Kings signed a demonstrably worse player in free agency.
Thomas discussed his strange hoops journey during an extended one-on-one with Grantland in Los Angeles last week.
How are you liking Phoenix so far?
I’m liking it a lot. I like the organization, and I like the city. I’m getting used to things, but I’m liking it.
How do you like the dry heat they all talk about? Used to it yet?
I don’t think I’ll ever get used to it, honestly. You know, I’m from Tacoma, Washington.
Whenever someone leaves a team under semi-controversial circumstances, the people left on that team the next preseason sometimes come out with those passive-aggressive comments about how things are really looking up. I’m sure you’ve seen the comments from DeMarcus Cousins and others, about how the ball isn’t “sticking” any more, and things like that. Do you hear that stuff? Do you care?
It definitely is a jab at me. I see it, and I use it as motivation. I don’t think too much of it, because I definitely wasn’t the problem there. But I do see the shots thrown at me. I wish the people throwing the shots would say my name, but they don’t want to. I just go about my business and worry about what I’ve got to do with the Phoenix Suns.
The Kings offense was better with you on the floor. The percentage of baskets that came via assists was even a little higher.1 Do you see that data and feel kind of validated?
It was low relative to league-average regardless.
I see those numbers, but at the end of the day, they’ve got to blame somebody. I know at the end of the day, this league is a business. They feel the way they feel, and that’s how it is. I’m with the Phoenix Suns now, and I’m worried about making the playoffs.
Bottom line: If DeMarcus tells the Kings he wants you back, do you think you’re a King now?
I mean, he’s the franchise player, so, I think anything he says, they’d probably take into high consideration. So … I guess.
You took way more midrange shots last season and a lot fewer corner 3s, and that kind of goes with being the lead ball handler and not working as much off the ball. Do you see that reversing a bit this season, since you’ll play a lot with another point guard?
I think it might switch back, just because of the style of play we have. Coach [Jeff Hornacek] wants us to shoot 3s, and I’m not always the ball handler. So I think it might switch back. But either way, I’m going to take what the defense gives me. I’ve worked on my midrange game. If it’s there, I’m going to shoot those. But for the most part, with the style of play the Suns run, we’re gonna shoot a lot of 3s. If the ball goes in, I’m fine, either way.
You do have a fun midrange game. It’s tricky. You might have the best hesitation dribble in the league. It fools me sometimes just watching.
Yeah, it’s one of my go-to moves. It just gives me a little bit of space to get a shot off, or get a pass off. I use it when I really need it. Being small, you gotta have that move to get you your separation. Without separation, you’re nothing — especially being little.
How’d you learn it? Did it just come naturally?
It just came naturally. One day, I did it and it worked, and then I just started working on it.
Have you ever fooled any defensive player in a game, and had that player joke with you, like, “Come on, man. You’re making me look bad!”?
Not really. In practice, some guys will say something. But I gotta do what I gotta do.
You even took a couple of hook shots. I remember seeing one and rewinding my DVR.
Was that just an improvised move? You must be the smallest guy ever to use a hook shot.
It actually wasn’t! Me and Dee Brown, one of my coaches with the Kings, we worked on hook shots. For a little guy, you gotta have so many different types of layups and finishes around the rim because you have to be unpredictable. I can’t always do a floater or a regular layup. I have to make adjustments in the air.
We definitely worked on that hook shot. It’s funny — when I did the hook shot, people were like, “Hey, what are you doing?” And I was like, “It’s a shot I can make.”
Goran Dragic is a tricky player himself.
He’s got all of those weird pivot moves, fakes, step-throughs. Have you guys talked about learning tricks from each other?
Probably during the season, we’ll have more discussions about how he does the things he does. But when I’m on the bench watching, or even when I’m in the game with him, and I see the things he does — man, he’s just so crafty. He has that Euro game in him, where you can never be off-balance at all, because he’ll get you.
OK: You, Dragic, and Eric Bledsoe line up at one baseline, each with a ball. You have a dribbling race across the court to the other baseline. Who wins?
I mean, with the ball, Bledsoe’s fast. I’m not gonna lie. I don’t know. I’m fast, but I’m not that fast. He’s the fastest.
You transferred to South Kent School, way out in Connecticut, to get your grades up during high school. I read that while you were there, you thought about giving up your dream of playing in college and then in the NBA. What made you feel that way? Academic stuff?
It wasn’t grades. That helped me get the grades I needed. It was just being away from home, man. Being 16 years old, being away from your parents, being away from your family and friends — all the way across the country. I was in an all boy’s school in the middle of nowhere. It was tough for me.
But like I tell people to this day, without that I wouldn’t be here.
That made me become a man. That made me depend on myself and take care of my responsibilities. I hated it while I was doing it, but it was the best thing for me.
Lots of players go through that struggle of juggling grades and basketball. Do you think about what it might have been like for you had there been a robust D-League system — or some other option? Do you think about the age limit and things like that for guys coming up now?
I don’t think about it anymore, but I think there shouldn’t be an age limit. Let guys make decisions on their own. It’s their life. If they are good enough to make it to the NBA out of high school, let that be. Other sports do it that way. If a guy wants to do it, let him do it. You never know his background. You never know what he’s going through. School isn’t for everybody, honestly.
It will be interesting one day when the D-League can pay more than $25,000.
No doubt, no doubt. Once it does get to that point where you can make a little bit more money, I think you’ll see more guys just, like, “Man, I’ll take that route.”
So, the best story about you living in Connecticut was that you’d sometimes come down to New York and hang out with Jamal Crawford and [University of Washington alum] Nate Robinson,2 who were playing for the Knicks.
Thomas had already verbally committed to the Huskies.
What did you guys do? Go to movies? Out to dinner? I mean, you’re 16, hanging with NBA players. How cool is that?
Yeah, I’d take the train to White Plains and stay with Jamal.
Oh, right, you had to stay there, because the Knicks’ practice facility is in Tarrytown, not the city.
I’d stay with Jamal every chance I got. That was my getaway from campus. We would just chill, watch NBA games. I’d go to Knicks games, go to the movies, go out to eat. That was my only family around there. Those two guys looked out for me and took care of me when I was in Connecticut. And Jamal even came to a few games up there in the middle of nowhere.
Wow, that’s cool.
He surprised me a few times, just showing up at my games. That’s the genuine love he got for me.
Do you still talk to Brandon Roy a lot?
Yeah, I actually talked to him two days ago.
He’s still in Seattle, right?
Yeah. He actually plays basketball with us throughout the summer. He can’t play 82 games, that’s the only thing. But he’s still got game.
I heard you had a strong interest in signing with the Lakers.
Yeah, I did.
But they had to wait out Carmelo and LeBron. And now there’s a lot of talk about players not wanting to play with Kobe. What appealed to you about the Lakers?
First off, it’s the Los Angeles Lakers. Who wouldn’t want to play for them? Second off, I felt like they always needed a point guard — a small guard like myself. I always envisioned myself playing with the Lakers, but like you said, they were waiting on Carmelo and other moves. The Suns came out of nowhere and showed a lot of interest, and I fell in love with them.
Point guard is obviously stacked around the league. Who else showed some interest? Which other teams did you look at as potential landing spots?
Dallas was very interested. Miami for a little bit. Detroit was. The Lakers were interested. Those were the four teams, really.
Did the Heat interest come before or after LeBron went to Cleveland?
It was before. And then when LeBron had left, it was kinda like they were going a different direction. Like I said, Phoenix came out of nowhere. I didn’t even list them as a team that I was looking at. I didn’t even know they were looking at me. And then they called, and wanted me to come in for a visit.
The Spurs save wear and tear on players by limiting everyone’s minutes. You guys have the depth to do that at your position. You just got a big contract, so maybe you’re not worried about numbers quite as much. Do you think it’d be cool to play a little less, like 25 minutes or whatever, to save some wear and tear? Or do you want to play as much as possible?
Honestly, I want to play. I want to play as much as I can. But at the same time, I want to win. That was my biggest priority this offseason — the style of play, what my role was going to be on the team, and also my best chance of winning. If it’s all about winning, everything else will fall in place. I work very hard, and when my opportunity is given, I’m going to take full advantage of it.
When you break defense into all the little steps that make it up, what is the hardest part for you? What’s the biggest challenge?
For me, the closer my guy gets to the rim, the tougher it is for me, because I’m small. My advantage is that when I have him away from the hoop, I can get into him. I can pressure the ball, and then use my size to my advantage. People always say, “Wait, how can you do that?” I’m little. I’m sneaky. I can get steals. My disadvantage is when they get close to the rim.
Because if it’s just a one-on-one challenge, you can’t really interfere with their shot as much?
Yeah, it’s just an easier shot for them.
Flip it over: When you’re running a pick-and-roll, what are you focused on? What concerns you the most — the guy guarding you, the big guy guarding the screener, or the three help defenders behind the play. What matters?
I’m not worried about the guy that’s guarding me, even if it’s an isolation. I’m just worried about what this big is gonna do, what the help-side defenders are gonna do — everything I need to know so I can make my play. I just try to read the defense, and whatever move they make, I counter off that.
Being smaller probably helps you split traps, right?
Oh, no doubt. If it’s a hard-hedging team, those are the games where I can definitely get in there and make plays.
For better or worse, you’ll always be known as the guy picked last. Where did you watch the draft? When did you know you were getting picked — like, sometime around the 58th pick? Or when it was announced?
I was actually at the gym at the University of Washington. My family was at my apartment complex, watching. I left them there and went to the gym with a few teammates. We were just shooting around, getting on the phone, looking at the draft, and shooting some more — trying to get my mind off things.
And when picks just kept going, man, I was getting so frustrated.
So you were at least monitoring it, even between shots.
My guys were monitoring it. I was trying to shoot and keep my mind off of it. I was calling [my agent], like, “Yo, what’s going on?”
I remember the Lakers had four second-round picks. They said they were interested in me, and would like to draft me. After their fourth pick [no. 56] went by, I didn’t think I was going to get drafted.
Only a few more picks to go …
I called my Mom. She was like, “Everything is going to be all right. God got you.”
And then I just headed home. I was disappointed. I just wanted to leave the gym, go in my room, and just chill. And right when I get in my elevator at my apartment complex, my agent calls me and tells me: “The Sacramento Kings are going to pick you with the last pick.” And I think the draft was at no. 58, so when I walked in to where my family was, they still didn’t know. And they announced it on TV, it happens, and everyone just runs up to me. It was amazing.
How good can this Suns team be? Is it playoffs or bust?
It’s playoffs or bust. The team won 48 games last year. The next step is the playoffs. That’s all we’re worried about. It’s tough — the West is so stacked. Every game counts.