Very seldom does a rookie second-round pick come in and make an immediate impact like Isaiah Thomas did for the Sacramento Kings. Coach Keith Smart inserted Thomas into the starting line-up on February 17th and the rest was history. The rookie finished the season averaging 11.5 points, 4.1 assists and 2.6 rebounds in 25.5 minutes per game. Standing at 5-foot-9, the last pick of the 2011 NBA Draft out-shined all but one player in his entire draft class – top selection, Kyrie Irving.
Thomas was efficient and rarely made mistakes. He finished the season with a solid 4.1/1.6 assist to turnover ratio, which projects to 5.8/2.3 per 36 minutes. His true shooting percentage of 57.4 percent was good enough to lead the Kings, as was his 38-percent shooting from 3-point range. Thomas’ ability to push the tempo helped rank the Kings no. 1 in pace (94.7 possessions per 48 minutes) and sixth-best in scoring (98.8 points per game).
Thomas rarely took a shot outside of the flow of the offense, again a very good sign for a young player and his shot distribution was pretty incredible. While considered undersized, Thomas scored at his best around the rim, averaging an incredible 59.2 percent on shots inside the restricted area. Even more impressive, unlike many young players coming into the league, Thomas used the entire floor in his offensive game, shooting 227 shots inside of nine feet, 125 shots from 10 feet to the 3-point line and 219 shots from behind the arc.
While his field-goal percentage varied from each of these points, Thomas showed versatility rarely seen from a player of his experience or size. Like any young player, Thomas’ shot chart looks more like a bird-shot spray than a sniper’s, but as he settles in as a pro and the talent around him improves, he will develop better defined hot spots on the floor. For now, he should concentrate on finding a consistent spot inside the 3-point line – be it an elbow jumper off a screen or his floater in the lane. He should also continue to drive to the basket and search out the corner three – his most efficient spot when shooting from long range.
On the defensive side of the ball, Thomas held his own against just about everyone in the league. According to 82.games.com, his PER against was 15.6 and his eFG% allowed was 48.7 percent. While he is undersized, rarely did Thomas get abused in the post and his defensive-efficiency numbers could have been better if the Kings played better team defense as a whole.
Thomas was also a fearless rebounder on both ends of the floor, which would be more obvious on a team without interior rebounders like DeMarcus Cousins, Jason Thompson and Chuck Hayes.
There is legitimate concern as to whether Thomas is a “true point guard” and the argument could be made that he is not a long-term starter at the position. With an assist percentage of 25.6, Thomas compares closely as a distributor to Tyreke Evans’ 26.1 percent as a rookie. An argument could be made that Thomas had Evans as a teammate, as well as other “ball dominant” players, which perhaps lowered his assist percentage. Comparatively speaking, Evans really didn’t have anyone to compete with during his rookie year. The numbers suggest that this is a possibility. Despite leading the team in assist percentage, Thomas had the sixth highest usage rate (19.9 percent) behind Cousins, Evans, Marcus Thornton, Terrence Williams and fellow rookie Jimmer Fredette.
If Thomas is to solidify the point guard position for the Kings, he needs to improve by leaps and bounds not as a passer, but in his willingness to pass, which wasn’t typically seen. The Kings don’t need Thomas to average eight assists a game, but they do need him to make his teammates better, something we instantly saw from Williams. That might mean asserting himself more in the offensive set or even bringing the ball up the court on a more regular basis as the primary ball handler.
As a defender, Thomas is competent, if not exceptional for his size. He has the quickness to stay in front of any player in the league and the strength to hold his ground against larger players. While we don’t expect him to block many shots, he needs to be more active away from the ball, playing the passing lanes and assisting on help defense. Thomas averaged just .8 steals per game, a total you would expect to be higher because of his energy level and quickness.
Geoff Petrie and his team killed it with this pick. It was apparent on day one of the lockout-shortened training camp that the Kings knew they had a legitimate NBA talent on their hands.
Thomas became an instant leader on and off the floor. His maturity and ability to handle pressure both on the court as a rookie and off it as a new father and college student astounded everyone around him. While his long-term role on this team has yet to be determined, Thomas is a major rotational player going forward with the Kings as either a starter or first guard off the bench.
While adding Thomas to the starting line-up didn’t equate to a major change in wins and loses, he made the Kings more palatable to watch. He has an ability to push the tempo, score in a variety of ways and ignite a crowd. There is no question that Thomas knows exactly who he is as a player. For last year’s Mr. Irrelevant, it’s time to refine existing skills, tighten up that shot pattern and improve his ability to create open attempts for others.