At 5’9″, he looks up with no fear in his eyes
Taking on players twice his size
He’s the Mighty IT.
It’s hard to be a good basketball player when you’re usually the smallest guy on the court.
As a 5’9″ point guard growing up, I know what it’s like to be overlooked and forgotten on the basketball court. If a scout or coach ever showed up to one of my games, I knew they were never there to watch me. No matter how hard I worked, it just seemed that I could never get ahead.
Isaiah Thomas probably knows how I feel.
Even though Isaiah Thomas made First-Team Pac-10 twice at the University of Washington, his NBA dreams were far from a reality. When he declared for the NBA draft in April of 2011, people thought it was an April Fool’s joke. After all, it was (and still is) hard to see how a severely undersized point guard who’s essentially a traffic cone defensively can stay on the court in an NBA that is increasingly centered around versatility. To be sure, his size (or lack thereof) was the biggest reason that he was the last pick in the 2011 NBA draft.
Thomas’ status as an afterthought wouldn’t stop after he made the league. At every stop of his NBA career, it seems that he has never been truly valued. In Sacramento, he quickly found success as a scorer and playmaker off the bench. However, the Kings decided that his defense was too deficient for him to be their point guard of the future. He never really did find his footing after the Kings traded him to Phoenix, spending 46 games there before the Suns traded him to Boston in 2014.
It was perhaps the best thing that ever happened to him.
Maybe it was the simplicity of a fresh start. Maybe it was the fact that he played under perhaps the smartest basketball mind on the planet in Brad Stevens.
Regardless, Isaiah Thomas didn’t just prove his skeptics wrong in Boston; he effectively silenced them. During the 2016-2017 season, he averaged a ridiculous 28.9 PPG (on 46/38/90 shooting splits) and 5.9 APG as he appeared more and more like the second coming of Allen Iverson rather than an (even more) undersized Lou Williams. He finished 5th in MVP voting and also led the Celtics to their first Eastern Conference Finals appearance since 2012, even after the death of his sister before the playoffs began.
Isaiah Thomas wasn’t an afterthought anymore. He wasn’t just a bench gunner who was simply trying to find a place in the NBA. No, he was the King of the Fourth. Not only did he want to become one of the best players in the league, but he also wanted to be one of the greatest players ever.
And then he got hurt.
It was never clear when exactly Isaiah Thomas injured his hip. However, it did cause him to finally miss the final three games of the Eastern Conference Finals series against the Cleveland Cavaliers. Even after the Celtics unceremoniously traded him to the Cavaliers the following summer, Thomas remained optimistic about his future.
“I am not damaged,” Thomas told ESPN in August of 2017. “I’ll be back, and I’ll be the same player.”
Unfortunately, Thomas hasn’t proven himself to be any type of prophet so far.
It would not be hyperbolic to say that last year was an unmitigated disaster for Thomas. He played only 15 games with the Cavaliers before they traded him in their mid-season fire sale to the Los Angeles Lakers, and he played only 17 games with them. Offensively, he looked like a broken shell of his former self as he posted career lows in FG % (37), 3PT% (29), eFG% (44), and PER (12.6).
The explosiveness and quickness that have come to characterize his game were virtually non-existent. On the other side of the ball, he had the worst defensive rating of his career (113.9), and his negative-0.014 defensive win shares ranked 494th out of 502 players. To further put his regression in perspective, he had 12.5 win shares for the 2016-2017 season. He only had 0.2 win shares last year.
To makes matters worse, the consequences of Thomas’ disastrous play go beyond simply this past season. After his incredible play during the 2016-2017 season, he could have received a max contract this offseason if he had been close to the same player this past year. Thomas himself figured as much, telling a New England news station that “they know they’ve got to bring the Brinks truck out.” Instead, he recently signed a one-year, $2 million deal with the Denver Nuggets after most of the summer’s top targets had already made their decisions.
And now, Isaiah Thomas once again finds himself at the beginning. He once again finds himself as a super-sixth man for a Michael Malone-coached team. Even though he once showed himself to be among the top guards in the league, he again has to prove that he belongs in the NBA.
There is much reason to believe that a Thomas-Nuggets union can work. After undergoing minor hip surgery in March, Thomas has now had a full offseason to get closer to fully healthy. If he can get close to somewhat healthy, he will be a perfect fit off the bench in an explosive Nuggets offense that ranked 6th in the NBA last year. You can definitely salivate at the thought of Thomas-Jokic pick and rolls, as well as running him off screens so that Jokic can find him with his incredible passing from the high post.
However, while there may be plenty of reasons to think that Isaiah Thomas will succeed in Denver, it goes without saying that he must succeed. There is no room for failure. Whether it’s fair or not, this will likely be the only chance that he has left to prove that he can remain an effective NBA player. If he plays like he did last year, he could very well find himself out of the league
For the sake of all the other hopeful 5’9 ballers out there, let’s hope that does not happen.