Even now, even here at NBA All-Star weekend, the questions are about stature. Isaiah Thomas is a novelty again, a first-time All-Star similar in size to the average American male. So, he’s asked if he would buy height if he could.
“No. Because I guess I wouldn’t be as cool as I am. If I was a little taller they would say I’m supposed to do this.”
Does he have advice for small players in Japan?
“Just work hard. Work harder than the next guy and don’t let anybody tell you that you can’t become who you want to become. And do it your way.”
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How about kids in India?
“Got to have that killer mentality of not backing down.”
There is a power in these shortsighted questions that Thomas has always drawn from. Fuel from doubt began to be stored when most others grew and he didn’t. More pooled during his time at Curtis High School. Then again when his grades sent him to prep school, his skill placed him in the Pac-12 and he made it into the NBA.
He’s trying to hold that edge during his best NBA season, one that made has made him the Boston Celtics’ lone All-Star. Recognition can be its own demon.
He was always “too” something. Too short, mostly, too out of control, too ball dominant. It wasn’t going to work. He wasn’t going to fit. Even if there was support, it entered his ear in whispered tones. The knocks? Disparaging remarks? Those resounded in his head. Maybe he wears a headband to hold them in.
Thomas’ early declaration for the draft after his junior year at Washington raised eyebrows and doubts. An optimist was in his ear, or perhaps it was just what he wanted to hear, when Thomas believed he would be selected in the late first round or early second round in 2011. Huskies coach Lorenzo Romar told him he heard different information. It’s the late second round. Maybe not at all.
“I was very honest with him,” Romar said. “When I told him what I’ve heard, he kind of looked at me in a very respectful way, as if to say, ‘What does that mean? They don’t know me. They don’t know what I’m capable of.’ ”
Low pick in draft
In the 1976 NFL draft, Kelvin Kirk, the 487th overall pick, became the first “Mr. Irrelevant.” The shameful term worked its way into drafts by other leagues. When Thomas was picked 60th overall in 2011 — proving Romar’s informants correct — the label was lobbed onto him.
Since the NBA expanded to 60 draft picks in 2005, 10 others have been attached to the term. Together, they don’t come close to Thomas’ production. Five never played an NBA game. The 10 have scored 1,323 points. Thomas has 1,185 this season and 5,600 in his career. He’s also the lowest draft pick to make the All-Star Game since the league went to a two-round draft in 1989.
But had he been selected in the first round, it wouldn’t fit his life curve. Mr. Irrelevant was selected by the Sacramento Kings, who also traded for guard Jimmer Fredette in the same draft. Fredette was the 10th overall pick. Soon, the league determined who was more relevant among the two.
About an hour after Thomas finished talking with reporters following practice with the Eastern Conference All-Stars on Saturday, Fredette took the court with the NBA D-League All-Stars.
Thomas’ time in Sacramento ended when the woebegone Kings decided to move him in a sign-and-trade. A storyline about friction between Thomas and DeMarcus Cousins emerged. It lost steam quickly, and each said during All-Star weekend that there’s nothing but friendship there.
“That’s my dude,” Cousins said Saturday. “(Drive) separates a lot of people in this league. It’s just something with him. It’s different. That makes him different.”
Thomas was traded to Phoenix. It was warm. He liked that. Also pleasing was his four-year, $28 million contract. The Suns were employing an intriguing idea of using three point guards, combining Thomas with Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe. Thomas played 46 games there before being traded to Boston in the middle of the 2015 season.
“I was upset,” Thomas said Saturday. “Just because I’ve never been traded during the trade deadline. And then, I didn’t really watch the Celtics that much. All I knew was they are rebuilding. So, I thought they were at the bottom of the Eastern Conference. I was like, ‘I don’t want to go back to that.’ ”
The first person he heard from was Isiah Thomas, the Hall of Famer and former NBA star, coach and executive.
“He said, ‘Trust me, it’s weird for me saying it because I always had my battles with the Celtics, but Danny Ainge, he knows what he’s doing,’ ” Isaiah Thomas said. “ ‘The Celtics organization, they’re going to love you and it’s going to change your career.’ I didn’t really know what he was saying then, because I had never been traded like that before, that’s new to me. But what he said was right. It definitely changed my career.”
Celtics uncage him
Thomas has been turned loose in Boston. Much like when he was moved to point guard for the Huskies following Abdul Gaddy’s injury, Thomas has flourished as an unshackled playmaker. In Sacramento, there were debates about shots. In Phoenix, the three-guard experiment failed. The Celtics have embraced him in a way he didn’t previously experience in the NBA.
When he came in the trade, his teammates said they would adapt to him. Boston coach Brad Stevens opened the offense to allow Thomas’ breakdown ability in pick and rolls to be maximized.
Meanwhile, Thomas continued to work. More tricks with the dribble, new stepback combinations, moves to befuddle his fellow All-Stars and big men switched on to him. Boston (32-23) has surged to third place in the Eastern Conference. Thomas is averaging a career-high 21.5 points, 6.6 assists and 3.0 rebounds.
“You look at the Celtics now and how they are playing,” Romar said. “They are probably the first team he’s been on that really understands what he can do for your team. The other teams that he was on, maybe wanted him to be something other than what he was, what he is.”
Phoenix and Sacramento are a mess. The Kings had to confirm last week that George Karl is still the coach. The Suns already have fired their coach, and are among the four worst teams in the league. Thomas giggled a bit before veering onto the high road when asked about the state of his former employers.
What’s tricky now for Thomas is the possible arrival of what he’s been chasing all along: validation. Through all the noes and assumptions, he’s latched onto “stay paranoid” as a mantra for living.
At Washington, he worked out when he didn’t have to, not suddenly when the draft was a month away. He goes back to practice more now. Last summer, he and Romar chatted about how close he was to an All-Star level. The carrot still dangled in front of Thomas then.
During All-Star weekend, he’s been flanked by LeBron James and Kobe Bryant. His parents, kids, fiancée — he’s to be married in August — two friends from Tacoma and business manager all came to Toronto. On Sunday night, he’ll be introduced with the league’s elite players. Three days in Toronto may be confirmation of what he’s believed all along. Maybe.
“I hope,” Thomas said. “But, I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s not. That’s just how my life and career has been. I hope it’s validation. Those questions will go out the window, but, like I said, I wouldn’t be surprised if they didn’t.”
If not, he may be better off for it. Those questions brought him this far.