Find out how Thomas has played his way into Rookie of the Year consideration. Plus, discover how his impact has helped the Kings succeed and the lowest-picked player to win the 1st-year honor.
While catching Cleveland Cavaliers guard Kyrie Irving may present a tall order, Sacramento Kings floor general Isaiah Thomas, the 60th and final selection in the 2011 NBA Draft, is quickly gaining ground in a hotly-contested race for the Rookie of the Year award.
“It would be an honor to win Rookie of the Year,” says Thomas, who was named the Western Conference Rookie of the Month for February. “It would be a blessing from God to win it, but I’m really just focused on getting better as an individual and us getting better as a team.
“If I win it, I win it, and I’d be really happy if I did.”
In 18 games since his first-career start on February 17, Thomas leads all first-year players in three-point field goals made (31) and three-point accuracy (43.1 percent). The energetic sparkplug ranks second in scoring (14.6 points per game on 48.9 percent shooting), third in assists (5.0) and free throw percentage (89.7 percent – minimum 15 attempts) and sixth in steals (1.1).
“Why not?” Kings guard Marcus Thornton asked rhetorically about No. 22’s Rookie of the Year chances. “You look at his numbers since he’s been starting, and he should win it – numbers don’t lie. He’s been great since he’s been playing more.”
Team captain Chuck Hayes shares a similar assessment while praising the speedy guard for his aggressiveness and poise.
“He’s got my vote,” says Hayes. “If not Rookie of the Year, then he’s definitely on the All-Rookie First Team.”
Flourishing as a starter, Thomas has done it all on the court – running the offense with the confidence and steadfast demeanor of a seasoned veteran, pushing the tempo in transition and recognizing how to spread the floor. In addition to setting up his teammates, Thomas has exhibited the ability to score from the perimeter, by penetrating to the basket and converting off the pick-and-roll.
“He’s just growing every game – from training camp, he’s a completely different guy,” says Coach Keith Smart, adding that the rookie has “blossomed in front of our eyes.”
On the season, the 5-foot-9 dynamo has recorded the third-highest Player Efficiency Rating (17.3) and assist-to-turnover ratio (2.03), as well as the fourth-highest assist percentage (25.3) and true shooting percentage (57.0 percent) among all rookies who’ve played over 500 minutes.
“Now that he’s had a chance to be on the floor, he’s playing just as well as some of the other young point guards in our league,” says Smart.
To Thomas, who has overcome doubt and criticism at every stage of his basketball career, being mentioned among the League’s best up-and-coming stars so early in his career hardly comes as a surprise.
“I always felt like if I got the opportunity and the minutes that Coach has given me, I could produce at a high level and do the things I’m doing right now,” he says.
“Basketball is the same at every level – it’s a 10-foot hoop, same basketball and 10 players on the court.”
Under the point guard’s direction over the last 18 contests, the Kings lead the League with 20.9 fastbreak points and 53.7 points in the paint per game. The team has also posted an Offensive Efficiency of at least 100 15 times after doing so in 11 of the first 29 games of the season, according to HoopData.com. Sacramento has correspondingly averaged 105.7 points per game (second in the League) during the stretch – up from 92.6 – and dished out at least 20 assists in 13 of Thomas’ 18 starts.
Thomas credits his upbringing with helping him develop his leadership skills and the unwavering confidence that separates him from many of his first-year peers.
“I don’t feel like a rookie out there, because I’ve been around NBA (players) for a long time with guys up in Seattle, being so close to Jason Terry, Jamal Crawford, Nate Robinson and Brandon Roy,” explains No. 22. “I’m a lot more mature than most people my age, and that comes from my parents and the guys I surround myself with.”
Thomas’ dedication and remarkable impact on Sacramento’s performance has not been overlooked by his teammates.
“He’s become our point guard on the team and become a great leader game by game, even though he’s a rookie,” says Thornton. “He’s been able to get everybody in spots when they need to, so guys like me and Tyreke (Evans) can get out and run the break now, reel out and really get out in transition and score buckets.”
Veteran Francisco Garcia says Thomas is “playing as well as anyone right now,” and John Salmons has also been impressed with way the first-year guard has elevated the team’s play since being inserted into the starting lineup.
“Isaiah has been great – he really leads the team and he plays with tremendous heart, and I think that’s his biggest value,” says Salmons. “He clearly helped the team from the time he started to play heavy minutes, and I don’t think too many rookies have done that this year.”
Kings Assistant Coach Bobby Jackson, who has frequently watched film with Thomas and worked closely with him during practices, has noticed a more composed and mature player.
“He was quiet coming in as a rookie, and now he’s a little bit outspoken, so he’s started to change as a leader and as a player, started to learn more and be more vocal,” says Jackson. “That’s my guy – he’s gotten the team to be consistent, be productive on any given night and also helped the team get wins.”
Unafraid to take the big shot with the game on the line, Thomas is tied for seventh in the League in three-pointers in the final five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime (12), and has averaged 34.1 points per 48 minutes on 60 percent shooting in clutch situations, according to 82games.com.
“I feel like I play better in pressure situations, and because the coaches trust me a lot and play me in the fourth quarter in different types of situations down the stretch, and my teammates respect me and have faith in me, that goes a long way, too,” says Thomas. “I’ve always been a guy who wants to make the big play and is not afraid. If things don’t go my way, if I miss a shot at the end of the game, I’m not afraid to get the criticism, because that’s what comes with being a good player.”
In just his second game as a starter on February 19, Thomas came within a pair of rebounds of finishing with a spectacular triple-double against the Cavs, recording 23 points, 11 assists and eight boards, while being matched up against Irving, the Draft’s top selection.
“(Irving is) a great talent – I was going at him and he was coming right back at me, so it was kind of back and forth,” recalls Thomas. “People kind of hyped it more than it was, (although) it was the No. 1 pick and No. 60.”
Two nights later against the Miami Heat, Thomas scored 20 points in the third quarter – the most by a Kings rookie in a dozen years – and tied the franchise record for three-pointers in a quarter (five).
“I just started feeling it – I felt like I was back in high school, because that’s when I was a big-time scorer,” he says. “I started hitting some shots and my teammates started finding me, and I just felt like I couldn’t be stopped in that third quarter.”
On the defensive end, Thomas has used his speed, toughness and basketball IQ to frustrate opposing players and force them into difficult shots, while continuing to make game-changing plays.
“(The key is) just not backing down,” he describes. “I have to use my height to my advantage – and a lot of people look at me kind of weird when I say that – but the further and further out I have a player, the more they are to my advantage.
“I know teams are going to try to post me up, but that’s what I work hard for, that’s what I get in the weight room for, to try to hold my ground and hold my mark on the defensive end and show them that I’m not a liability.”
On March 7, Thomas battled and stole the inbounds pass against the New Orleans Hornets, and then found Salmons cutting to the basket for a lay-up to lead Sacramento’s comeback victory.
“It was just a play that winning players make,” says Thomas. “I saw the ball was in the air and I had to make a play on it, and luckily, I got the ball. I felt like when (Trevor Ariza) let the ball go in the air, it was an opportunity for me to try to go for it.”
No. 22 has undeniably made the most of all of his opportunities this season, and while he doesn’t view the Rookie of the Year race as a one-on-one contest, his hard work has put him in a tight battle with Irving for the award.
No matter the outcome of the voting, Thomas, who says he has become a student of the point guard position by learning from All-Stars such as Rajon Rondo, Chris Paul and Steve Nash, vows never to lose sight of the mindset which has put him in the position to thrive.
“I play every game like it’s my last,” he says. “Some guys get to this level on just talent and they don’t play as hard as they should, but me, that’s what got me here, and I feel like I’ve got to go 110 percent until the last game of my career.”
– In franchise history, the team has had five players garner Rookie of the Year honors: Tyreke Evans (2010), Phil Ford (1979), Jerry Lucas (1964), Oscar Robertson (1961) and Maurice Stokes (1956).
– The shortest player to win the NBA Rookie of the Year Award is Damon Stoudamire (1996), who, like Thomas, hails from the Pacific Northwest. The University of Arizona product was listed at 5-foot-10.
– The lowest-picked player to win Rookie of the Year is Woody Sauldsberry (1958), who was selected in the 8th Round of the 1957 NBA Draft by the Philadelphia Warriors. Similar to Thomas, Sauldsberry was the 60th-overall pick.
- Although Thomas admits to occasionally getting star-struck when facing many of his childhood heroes on the floor, the rookie remains focused on his nightly responsibilities.
“Before the game, you’re a little nervous because you watched them on TV and watched them growing up, but once I get in the game, once the ball goes up, it’s like I’m playing back at home at the park,” he says.