Gregg Bell Unleashed: `Excited' Isaiah Thomas Poised To Defy Doubters Yet Again
June 22, 2011
By Gregg Bell
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SEATTLE - Go ahead and doubt Isaiah Thomas. Again.
Join the many so-called draft "experts" whose mock boards don't have Washington's two-time Pac-10 tournament Most Outstanding Player and finalist for national player of the year last season as one of the 60 players that will be selected Thursday in the two-round NBA draft.
Go ahead and believe he is too short to play in a league that has just two current players listed under 6 feet: former Husky Nate Robinson, one of Thomas' many mentors who is, like Thomas, 5-9, and 5-11 John Lucas III.
Then go ahead and stand in line behind the other countless souls who have told Thomas "no way" at every step since junior high in Tacoma, Wash.
"That's not really in any possibility. That's not going to happen," he told me Tuesday night of not getting selected.
Thomas was speaking with the experience of just having finished working out for 10 teams over a whirlwind six weeks, of absorbing wisdom of NBA Hall of Famers and decision makers such as Miami Heat president Pat Riley. Thomas' hectic tour of self-realization and affirmation began when he stunned Huskies fans by declaring on March 31 he was leaving as a junior to turn pro.
"I've been great, man," he said. "Really, really great."
We talked on his cell phone upon minutes of him returning to his hometown from his final workout for teams, this one in Dallas with the newly crowned NBA-champion Mavericks. The two-time All-Pac-10 guard has spent a lot of time in Dallas these last six weeks working out with close friend and mentor Jason Terry, the Seattle native who stars for the Mavericks.
The extraordinarily confident and driven Thomas says NBA teams are telling him he may be selected as early as Thursday's first round.
"I have a little bit of a feel for how it may go. Some teams give you hints that they like you. Some teams keep everything to themselves and you don't know anything," he said. "I have gotten good feedback that I could go late in the first round or early in the second. My agent has been getting good feedback from a lot of teams that that's where I may go.
"Hopefully, I do get my name called. But I can't control any of that now. I did everything I possibly could to be ready for this. I leave it in God's hands."
He says NBA teams have told him they think he could be the next J.J. Barea, a great comparison these days. Barea is the undersized and similarly fearless point guard who just got done shredding the inside defenses of the Lakers, Heat and everyone else in the postseason as Dallas won its first NBA title.
Thomas also acknowledged to me that he would still be at Washington had Abdul Gaddy not blown out his knee last season. The injury thrust Thomas into the point-guard role he is now preparing to play in the NBA.
His words were as decisive and confident as that "cold-blooded" shot he swished through Staples Center's nets as the overtime buzzer sounded in March to beat Arizona for UW's Pac-10 tournament title.
Knowing him as I do, I didn't expect anything else.
"I mean, the group I consulted with when I made this decision to leave early, my circle, we had to go through every scenario, including if I didn't get drafted, just so I knew what I was getting into," he said. "But now, I have so much confidence about how this is going to go."
The how, yes. The where still has him edgy.
"I'm excited and nervous at the same time," he said, less than 48 hours before the most important day of his 23 years on earth. "I'm excited, but I really want to get it over with and find out where I am going to play next. That's the thing with this process, even if you are top pick. You just don't know."
He and I do know this: Thomas hasn't just recently gotten short. Turns out he's actually been that way forever.
"People have been doubting me my whole life," he says.
He petitioned his school district to allow him to play for the varsity as a freshman at Curtis High School in University Place, just outside Tacoma, because he was that good. The district said no - then Thomas averaged more than 26 points per game for Curtis as a sophomore and 31 points as a junior. The latter was when he was the 2006 Washington state Class 4A player of the year. He set a state tournament record with 51 points in the semifinals and a 40.5-point average for the state tourney that season.
Many then doubted he'd survive two years at prep school among the rural hills of Connecticut, a world away from home. He overcame homesickness to boost his grades and maturity for college and flourish on a team loaded with Division-I talent - including future UW teammate Matthew Bryan-Amaning, who along with fellow Husky senior Justin Holiday also hope to hear their names called by an NBA team Thursday.
Then people said he was too short to flourish inside the Pac-10. All he did was score 27 points in his first exhibition game at UW and immediately become the league's freshman of the year. He was the Huskies' leading scorer as a sophomore, on a team that had current NBAer Quincy Pondexter.
Thomas was a midseason candidate for national player of the year this past season, then took his career to another level when he moved to point guard full time following Gaddy's injury. In his first weeks in the job, Thomas became the first player in Division I since - get this -- Barea at Northeastern in February 2006 to have back-to-back games with at least 20 points and 10 assists.
He averaged 16.8 points and 6.1 assists per game for the Huskies in 2010-11, led the Pac-10 in assists, ranked fourth in scoring, eighth in steals (1.3 per game) and eighth in three-point makes per game (1.7). His 213 assists were second most in ever at UW in a season.
THE REAL REASON HE LEFT
Thomas understands why Huskies fans don't agree with his decision to turn pro now. After all, who in purple and gold wouldn't want his tenacity, his bold and wondrous, left-hand drives down the lane and his unique bravado around UW for as long as the NCAA allows?
But he wants you to know the true reason he's gone: His NBA stock wasn't going to rise any higher in 2012 past where it is right now, even if he had been a national player of the year and the Huskies made the Final Four with him as a senior.
Thomas acknowledged the reason he is in the draft this week is because Gaddy got hurt. Gaddy was the Huskies' calming maestro of a point guard until he blew out his knee in practice in January. That forced coach Lorenzo Romar to move Thomas from off guard onto the point at the start of the Pac-10 season.
That put Thomas at the position he would play in the NBA - try to name the last 5-9 combo guard to succeed in the pros. He had the ball in his hands most for the crux of last season: the Pac-10 schedule, the conference tournament and the NCAA tournament.
He didn't consider it so much at the time, but the role of running the team and creating most of its offense against the likes of Arizona and North Carolina is exactly what NBA scouts and GMs wanted to see Thomas do before he came into their league. And that wasn't going to happen for him at UW next season.
Romar informed him after the Huskies lost to North Carolina in the third round of the NCAA tournament in March he would be sharing point-guard duties as a senior, just as he had as a freshman and sophomore. Gaddy is due back from reconstructive knee surgery at the start of preseason camp this October, and Tony Wroten, the incoming freshman passing whiz from Seattle, has stardom written all over him.
"Knowing me, the NBA would have happened anyway eventually," Thomas said. "But it wouldn't have happened this year. Me having the ball in my hands as much as I did was a blessing in disguise. Gaddy and I talk about it all the time. He says, `Man, if this didn't happen to me, you wouldn't be where you are right now.'
"Every team I visited, the first question was always, `Why did you put your name in for the draft?'" Thomas said. "And I told each team the reason was the circumstances of next season at Washington had I stayed. With Gaddy coming back and Wroten coming in, I wouldn't have been able to showcase my skills as (primarily) a point guard, which is the position I will be playing at the next level.
"My stock wouldn't be any higher next year, no matter what I did. A lot of people don't realize all that went into my decision. They just say, `Oh, he should have stayed.' They don't see all the circumstances."
THE BAREA BAROMETER
Thomas exhaled while telling me the workout in Dallas on Tuesday was his final team visit. Yet he loved every stop over these last six weeks, from Sacramento to Portland, Toronto, Miami, Chicago, Memphis, Boston, Los Angeles (for the Lakers), and Dallas.
"Just got to have fun with it. I could be stressin', but I don't choose to look at it that way," he said. "It's been great learning so many different schemes in the NBA game. I've learned from great coaches, great, veteran players. It's been a great experience already."
You know that pet pick-and-roll play of Thomas and Bryan-Amaning perfected to create much of the Huskies' offense last season, the play they first started while together at that South Kent prep school in Connecticut before coming to UW?
It's the one set every team Thomas visited asked him to run out of their playbooks, and it's the one with which he's most comfortable.
"It's almost like second nature to me by now, I've done it so much with Matt," he said. "The coaches I've worked out for have been excited at how I've run the pick-and-roll play. They really were a little surprised I am so good at it."
Beyond the familiar X's and O's, Barea's playoff breakout could prove to be the best thing to ever happen to Thomas, and at the perfect time.
"It definitely helped me. I was his biggest fan throughout the playoffs," Thomas deadpanned.
I laughed at that one. He didn't.
"What he did in the playoffs opened up a lot of eyes that you do need a small guard to win in the NBA," Thomas said. "He was the difference in that Lakers series, in the whole playoffs. Those last four games against Miami, he was the difference. They had no answer for him."
Barea is generously listed at 6 feet but plays shorter than that with a pell-mell, through-the-lane-no-matter-what style that is similar to Thomas'. Using the Barea Barometer, Thomas (who is technically 5-8¾) could go to the Lakers, his favorite team for years. They need to replace Derek Fisher, the fading, aging point guard who was one of many taller guys Barea dominated in the playoffs.
"When I meet with these teams, that is the thing they always brought up. They said, `You can be like J.J. Barea in this league,'" Thomas said.
Thomas' biggest surprise of his pre-draft tour? The workouts weren't as strenuous as he suspected they'd be.
"Not that I am saying I am top physical condition or anything, I just thought the workouts would be a little bit harder," he said.
"I was just happy to get the experience. It's a blessing to even meet guys in the NBA who are Hall of Famers, the greats of the game. Guys like Pat Riley. It's an honor and a privilege."
I asked where he will be watching the draft. I thought a guy as popular and charismatic as Thomas would just about rent out the hometown Tacoma Dome for a draft party. The number of people who follow him on Twitter is now pushing 20,000, by the way, though he is leaving http://twitter.com/isaiah_thomas2 dormant until Thursday.
"I'll eventually be in Tacoma, at my mom's house celebrating with a bunch of friends and family," he said. "But at first I'm going to be alone. I'm going to take time out to be with myself during the draft."
The ultra-confident, ultra-competitive soul of UW's program the last two years, the dynamic winner who thrilled so many as a Husky, alone during the biggest moment of his life?
He deserves that.
Actually, he deserves far more than that to happen for him Thursday night.
You still want to doubt it will?
About Gregg Bell Gregg Bell is an award-winning sports writer who joined the University of Washington's staff in September 2010 as the Director of Writing. Previously, Bell served as the senior national sports writer in Seattle for The Associated Press. The native of Steubenville, Ohio, is a 1993 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. He received a master's degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley in 2000.
Gregg Bell Unleashed can be found on GoHuskies.com each Wednesday.