Isaiah Thomas capable of mirroring success of San Antonio Spurs’ Tony Parker

Isaiah Thomas tries to blitz past Tony Parker of the San Antonio Spurs. (Photo: Jonathan Santiago)

It wasn’t just lip service. Tony Parker wanted this. He wanted to become a better playmaker and was determined to do it for one reason and one reason alone.

To win.

“I wanna win so it was easy for me,” Parker said  following his last visit to Sacramento this season of improving his point guard instincts throughout his years with the San Antonio Spurs. “That’s all I care (about). I wanna win and everybody here thinks about that. Nobody here is like selfish. We want to win a championship so I had to do stuff to improve, to make sure I help the team and we keep winning.”

By nature, Parker is a scorer first and passer second, and by no means is he a pure point guard at this stage in his career. But, the 32-year-old veteran knew that improving as a playmaker was a necessity not just for him, but for the Spurs to continue their dominance as perennial championship contenders in the NBA.

“I wanted to improve,” Parker said of strengthening his lead guard skills. “I wanted to be a better point guard. I wanted to be a point guard who can do everything and not just scoring. And over the years, I improve my decision making – when to shoot, when to pass, (take) good shots.”

Isaiah Thomas is at a similar crossroads in his career. The 25-year-old point guard has worked tirelessly to emerge out of obscurity as the last pick in the 2011 draft to become arguably one of the top 15 players at his position. But, he still has some work to do, especially when it comes to being a better playmaker.

This season, Thomas averaged career-highs in several categories, including points per game (20.3), assists (6.3), field-goal percentage (45.3 percent) and minutes (34.7). He also posted a Player Efficiency Rating of 20.54, ranking him ahead of guards like Kyle Lowry (20.20), Kyrie Irving (20.14) and John Wall (19.61).

Gregg Popovich has great respect for what the 5-foot-9 point guard out of the Pacific Northwest has been able to accomplish this early in his career. The future Hall-of-Fame head coach sees the confidence that oozes out of Thomas as an indicator of his future success.

“He knows he’s a tough cover and he’s playing like it,” Poppovich said of the soon-to-be free agent guard. “So he plays aggressively and now he’s learning how to involve everybody else at the same time. That’s a progression. We did the same thing with Tony.”

Like Parker, Thomas is also a score-first guard. Parker though has managed to find a happy medium between his scoring and passing abilities over the course of his career. It’s something that may have been “easy” for the 32-year-old point guard to want, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it didn’t take time to develop.

“He was a scorer in the beginning,” Popovich said of Parker. “We wanted to continue to score, but we wanted to make opportunities for other people too and make other players better. And I think Isaiah’s going to get better and better with that as time goes on.”

Critics of Thomas point to his trigger-happy instincts and roughly six assists a night as reason to slight his game. But Parker has shown that you don’t need to be Steve Nash or Chris Paul to enjoy success in the league. Over the course of his time in the NBA, the six-time All-Star has averaged just six assists per game.

More than his assists, the stat Thomas may need to change next season is his field-goal attempts. Playing alongside DeMarcus Cousins and Rudy Gay, Thomas averaged 15.2 shots per contest. Other players have to feel involved in the offense and as the team’s point guard, Thomas can make sure his teammates are satisfied by cutting back on his shot attempts next year.

“I think he’s coming along fine,” Kings starting center DeMarcus Cousins said of Thomas’ development as a decision-maker. “It’s hard to change your game when you’re so used to playing this way your whole life. But the best thing about it is he’s willing to change and he wants to change and he wants to get better in that aspect of his game. With that, he’s gonna be great.”

Kings head coach Michael Malone sees the similarities between Parker and his third-year guard. Malone doesn’t expect the 25-year-old to stop being the aggressive scorer that he is. However, he thinks there are aspects of Parker’s game, including his playmaking ability, that Thomas can incorporate as he moves forward in his career.

“If Isaiah can pattern his game after a guy like Tony Parker, that would be a great guy to model his game because Tony’s a winner,” Malone said near the end of the season when asked to compare the two. “He’s won at the highest level obviously a few times and he’s a guy that makes that team go. He attacks from the get-go. He gets in the paint. Every year he leads the NBA, is one of the leaders for smalls for points in the paint and so he’s not just a settle-for-a-jump-shot guy. He puts a tremendous amount of pressure on your defense.”

To his credit, Thomas is well aware of what he needs to improve. And as an undersized point guard who acknowledges he wasn’t even supposed to make it this far, Thomas will always play with a chip on his shoulder. For a guy who’s beaten the odds before, don’t be surprised if he proves doubters wrong again, especially when it comes to his upside as a playmaker.

“I can always get better,” Thomas said. “At the same time, it’s about learning and wanting to get better. And I want to get better at every aspect of the game and I’m gonna just keep taking what the defense gives me.  Keep trying to make plays and focus on trying to make the right play every time down.”

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About: Jonathan Santiago

Jonathan Santiago serves Cowbell Kingdom as senior editor specializing in writing, podcasting and video production. He also handles the majority of CK’s day-to-day beat coverage of the Kings.