Isaiah Thomas was the last pick in the 2011 NBA Draft. Depending on how you classify some of the combo guards from that class, anywhere from a handful to a dozen point guards were selected before of the former Washington Husky.
Two-plus seasons later, only Kenneth Faried, Chandler Parsons and Kawhi Leonard have contributed more Win Shares to their respective teams than Thomas, who tops all other lead guards in that category -- even Kyrie Irving, who was the No. 1 overall pick.
Despite being the last player taken, Thomas stepped in and immediately played a significant role with the Sacramento Kings. He has started 146 of his 209 career games -- including more than half as a rookie.
The Kings have legitimate scoring options in Rudy Gay and DeMarcus Cousins, but that hasn’t transformed Thomas into a pass-first guard. He averages 15.4 shot attempts, just a touch behind Cousins (16.2) and Gay (15.6). The trio have accounted for 57.1 percent of Sacramento’s attempts since Gay arrived via trade in December.
“I’m just continuing to progress and learning how to lead an NBA team. I’m learning how to pick and choose my spots because I’m more of a scoring point guard,” Thomas told RealGM when asked about how he rates himself.
“Just when to be aggressive and when to get my teammates involved. It’s a learning process and I’m doing that by watching other top point guards in the NBA and through the coaching staff.”
Despite featuring three 20-plus point scorers, the Kings have never flirted with playoff contention. They were 5-13 when they acquired Gay from the Toronto Raptors and have gone 17-29 since. They increased their winning percentage by nearly ten-percentage points, but still entered Wednesday in last place.
“I don’t think the season has gone so well. We expected some much out of ourselves, especially with the group of guys that we have now,” Thomas told RealGM last month.
“We are very talented and feel like we can compete with anybody in the league. We just have to translate that to wins. It’s been frustrating because when we lose it’s kind of been the same reasons why. We have to figure out how to execute down the stretch of close games.”
Thomas, 25, is young and figures to have a role in the Kings’ future, but will be a restricted free agent this summer. He figures to have many suitors, if he so chooses, when you consider his numbers -- 20.3 points, 6.3 assists, 2.1 rebounds and 1.4 steals in 34.7 minutes.
The third-year guard has been consistent, scoring at least 10 points in 56 games and 20 or more in 34 contests, but loves how the NBA schedule allows players to quickly erase bad memories.
‘That’s the good thing about the NBA,” he said. “Whether you have a good game or a bad game, the next game will be close enough. Especially when you don’t have a good game or you lose a certain type of way, you always want to get it back by playing better that next game.”
Thomas hasn’t had many poor individual performances this season, but the Kings lose enough to make him long for another chance to get out on the court.
If general manager Pete D’Alessandro plays his cards right, the Kings could reverse their fortunes sooner rather than later. They should have a top-eight pick this June. They owe a first rounder to the Chicago Bulls, but it’s top-12 protected in 2014. Grabbing one of the best prospects from this draft to pair with their current core would certainly be a step in the right direction.
Regardless of his Sacramento’s short and long-term future, Thomas has carved himself a place in this league at 5-foot-9 despite the growing trend towards bigger point guards. In the Western Conference, Thomas is consistently matched up against some of the game’s biggest stars.
“It’s always going to be a big man’s league, but there are some talented guards out there, especially at the point position,” Thomas said.
“You usually don’t have a night off. Every night you’re playing against a very talented guard, whether it be an All-Star or an up-and-coming guy. You have to have your guard up and just be ready for whatever happens. I love competition. I love going against the best and showcasing my talent.”
As impressive as his statistics look, Thomas deserves credit for maintaining his numbers while also having to carry a strong defensive load against the best guards in the West.
“The hardest guys to guard are guys like Steph Curry and Russell Westbrook,” he admitted. “Westbrook because he’s in attack mode every play and you can’t take a play off defensively. With Curry, once he gets over halfcourt it seems like he’s in shooting range, so those are my two toughest covers. At the same time, you’ve got to try and make it tough on guys like that and take away what they are comfortable with.”
Thomas has logged the fifteen-most minutes in the NBA, but he has yet to slow down. He’s shooting 49.1% since the All-Star break and has averaged three more minutes per game.
“Yeah, but that’s what you work all summer for, to be in the best condition you can possibly be in,” he said when asked if his defensive assignments take away from his offense.
“You’re not going to have time off on the defensive end. Any point guard you go against, you’re going to have a tough time on both ends. You have to play. Like I said, I love competition and to get the best out of me.”
So far, the highest level of basketball competition has gotten plenty out of Isaiah Thomas.