The most recent crop of NBA rookies have endured a tricky first season in the league. Without a full training camp to become acquainted with their new team-mates and the playbooks (yes, although the NBA often looks like five games of one-on-one, there are indeed playbooks) for their new coaches.
Most impressive has been the Cleveland Cavaliers’ Kyrie Irving (did you know that “Kyrie” means “Lord”?), a guard who many thought would struggle to adapt to the rigours of the NBA after a truncated college career at Duke (it’s been a while since we’ve mentioned him, but I know that it’s a source of un-ending pain for Mike Calo that his new favourite player is a Blue Devil). The Australian-born guard (Irving was born in Melbourne when his father was a professional with the Bulleen Bombers. Expert analysis has concluded that that this makes him the third best player ever to have come out of the land down under, after Andrew Bogut and Andrew Dolliver) has impressed with 18.6 points per game on top of 5.1 assists per game, an impressive feat considering how bereft of talent the Cavs have looked since, well, you know what.
Other rookies that have impressed include Spanish sensation Ricky Rubio, who
has mesmerised basketball fans with his range of passing (until his unfortunate knee injury – or, as one Minneapolis journalist described it, his torn “ACL knee ligament”, seemingly unaware that the L in ACL stands for ligament. PIN number users beware!!!), Iman Shumpert, Brandon Knight and Markieff Morris, who has proven that the Phoenix Suns’ policy of drafting the inferior of famed college playing brothers (see Lopez, Robin and Griffin, Taylor) wasn’t as dumb as almost everything else they’ve done since they let Joe Johnson leave.
The Mr Irrelevant of the 2011 NBA draft (the last player drafted in the NFL draft is known as Mr Irrelevant, a name rather more significant in a draft which covers seven rounds, so I’ve borrowed the phrase here) was Isaiah Thomas. I know, that name is familiar, isn’t it? In anticipation of most readers thinking “what, the same Isaiah Thomas who performed the first reading of the Declaration of Independence and was the founder of the American Antiquarian Society?” let me explain.
In 1989, James Thomas of Tacoma, WA, lost a bet that the Los Angeles Lakers would beat the Detroit Pistons in the NBA finals of that year and named his son after the leading player of the latter, Isiah Thomas. Even though Thomas, Jr., was born before the finals took place, his parents had warmed to the name; the extra ‘a’ was added because of his mother’s preference for a biblical name. Young Isaiah excelled at basketball during his time at Curtis Senior High School in University Place, WA (a city just south of Tacoma which was home to Gary Larsen of “The Far Side” cartoon fame, as well as former NFL linebacker Pat Tillman who died in Afghanistan in 2004), and at South Kent School in Connecticut, despite his relatively diminutive stature of five-feet-nine-inches (I know some of you are sitting thinking “hey, 5-9 is pretty tall”. No, it isn’t. Among the never ending scourge of height comments I endure in life, being informed by someone who is under six feet tall that they thought they were tall has to be the worst. “Oh, you thought so, did you? Well, you were wrong”). He signed for the University of Washington to play under Coach Lorenzo Romar in 2006, joining the team in 2008.
During his time on Lake Washington, Thomas’s Husky sides never missed the NCAA tournament. That they should finish first in the PAC-12 conference this season, their first without Thomas, and actually miss the tournament altogether, says a lot about how they have coped, post-Isaiah.
Thomas’s prospects of a successful NBA career were uncertain. He lacks the freak athleticism of his fellow former UW guard Nate Robinson (also a person of limited vertical stature), although perhaps has a more solid all-round game. He was not a particularly great college shooter, although the UW teams he played on usually had at least two gunners on the floor at any time, so the need for Thomas to add to the Huskies’ long-range arsenal was minimal. He waited a long time to hear his name called on draft night, eventually dropping to the very last pick and the Sacramento Kings. This was a further burden for him to bear: the Kings suck and they had already drafted Jimmer Fredette (his name is really James, nobody would be so cruel as to call their kid Jimmer), a man who had acquired a reputation as a deadly long-range shooter, but whose lack of height necessitated a move to the point guard slot at NBA level, with their first-round pick. Teams don’t tend to pick more than one player in the same position on draft night (sorry, what’s that you say David Kahn?) with the intention of playing them both. Additionally, they already had Tyreke Evans, a man who acquired the interest of loctite, so sticky have his hands been at the professional level. Don’t they teach them anything at Memphis? Oh…right…moving on…
Being drafted last in the NBA draft is not necessarily an inhibition to a professional career in the league. Indeed, the names of Jannero Pargo, Chuck Hayes, Mikki Moore, Jose Calderon, Bruce Bowen, Avery Johnson, Udonis Haslem, John Starks and Ben Wallace are all testament to the fact that NBA executives do not always get it right on draft night: all of them went undrafted before going on to have successful NBA careers. Conversely, would anyone take Adam Morrison, the third overall pick in the 2006 NBA draft, over any of those previously named?
Thomas was considered by NBA executives less suitable for their teams than Keith Benson, Chukwudiebiere Maduabum, Tanguy Ngombo (the first Qatari player drafted to the NBA who may actually be called Targuy and may in fact be 27 rather than 22, as advertised), Ater Majok and Adam Hanga.
This was despite increasingly impressive college stats; Thomas averaged 15.5, 16.9 and 16.8 points per game during his three seasons at UW, the latter despite being asked to play the majority of minutes at point guard after Abdul Gaddy went down with a torn ACL knee ligament (insert winking smiley face here) early in the season. He also pulled down 3.0, 3.9 and 3.5 rebounds per game, shot 42%, 41% and 44% from the field (including 29%, 33% and 35% from three) and led the Huskies to a PAC-10 conference championship – in which he hit a buzzer beating overtime shot against Arizona to seal the win – and a Sweet Sixteen appearance.
Anyone who ever watched Thomas play at the collegiate level (and I saw several UW games during my time in Seattle) will know just how tough Thomas is. His game is based around sheer hard-work and an uncanny knack of getting to the rim (I’ve seen him dunk, although only in a warm up) and finishing with some fairly spectacular/speculative fallaways and leaners. Plus, the guy is a flat-out winner.
Thomas’s theft of the Kings starting point guard spot from Fredette may have been ill-received by Brigham Young basketball fans, but has delighted the people of Seattle, a city which had its NBA team unceremoniously snatched away from it thanks to the deceit and downright incompetence of various actors.
Thomas tied a franchise record with the 96 points he scored in his first five starts. On 1 March, Thomas was named the February Western Conference Rookie of the Month, after averaging 12.2 points and 4.4 assists per game during the month. That night, he was taught a lesson by Chris Paul, as the LA Clippers scored an easier-than-the-score-suggests 108-100 win, but on 9 March scored 14 as his side beat the NBA Champion Dallas Mavericks.
Although many NBA players have found themselves overshadowed by the rapid rise (and perhaps fall) of Jeremy Lin, Isaiah Thomas is a player that you should write off at your peril.