Sunday Musings: The Isaiah Thomas conundrum

Isaiah Thomas chats with boxing champion Floyd Mayweather at halftime of the Sacramento Kings' preseason victory over the Los Angeles Lakers in Las Vegas. (Photo: Jonathan Santiago)

I was what they call a “late bloomer” growing up.  Through elementary school and junior high, I was always one of the smallest kids, but I never let it hamper my love of sports.  In fifth grade, I wrestled in the “58 pounds and under” weight class, and I played high school football as a freshman at a mere 5 feet and 95 pounds.

After years of praying that I wouldn’t be short, I grew 11 inches between 15 and 19 years old and now stand 5-foot-11.  I don’t play NBA basketball, but I know a little bit about being underestimated because of your size.  Honestly, being the smallest kid in school isn’t something you forget.

As a writer, being objective is paramount, but that doesn’t mean that you don’t naturally identify with certain players more than others.  When I watch Isaiah Thomas attack the rim, I identify with his fearless nature.  And when I interview him in the locker room and someone asks if he would rather be starting or coming off the bench, I already know the answer and I know how much the question itself gnaws at him.

It’s difficult to have others place imaginary limitations on you because of your size; I’ve been there.  And I can’t even imagine fighting that battle as an NBA player.

But that is the reality for an “undersized” player in a game of giants.  In Thomas’ case, it has already cost him millions of dollars when he fell to the 60th pick in the 2011 NBA Draft and come free agency next summer, it will probably cost him millions more.

Despite his performance on the court, Thomas finds himself coming off the bench as the “energizer,” for the second season in a row.  This is the exact reason that Thomas lives by the motto “stay paranoid.”

“I said during the preseason that when you choose a starting lineup, you’re not just choosing the five best players,” Malone said during pre-game on Friday night.  “Isaiah played terrific in the preseason and if you look at it just head-to-head, he was a better player in the preseason than Greivis Vasquez.”

That trend has continued through the Sacramento Kings’ first eight games.  The numbers aren’t even close and neither is the look or the feel.  Thomas has consistently outplayed Vasquez in almost every aspect of the game.  Not starting your best five players is understandable, but what if Thomas is as good as his numbers suggest?

Using per 36 minute statistics, Thomas is averaging 23.5 points, 6.5 assists and 3.4 rebounds per game, while shooting 48 percent from the field and 46 percent from 3-point range.  Per 48 minutes, Thomas leads all NBA point guards in scoring at 31.4 points per game and his PER (Player Efficiency Rating) of 25.19 ranks ninth in the entire NBA.

“In every regular season game now, he’s scored in double-figures,” Malone said of Thomas.  “He comes in and he changes the complexion of a game.  Greivis is slow and steady and then Isaiah comes in and pushes the pace, puts a lot of pressure on the defense (and) gets to the foul line.”

Vasquez is improving as well, but neither his current stats nor career-highs are even in the ballpark of what Thomas is currently doing.  Per 36 minutes, Vasquez is averaging 13.4 points, 7.0 assists and 2.7 rebounds this season.  He is shooting a robust 48.4 percent from the field, which is nearly 5 percent better than his career-best season, but he is hitting just 30.8 percent from 3-point range.  With a PER of 14.7, Vasquez is a starting-level player, but statistically speaking, he isn’t close to Thomas.

In his defense, Vasquez is still playing himself into shape after offseason ankle surgery, but in the mean time, the losses are piling up for Sacramento.

“Greivis is gaining more and more confidence,” Malone said.  “He is getting healthier and he’s playing like the Greivis Vasquez we all hoped he would.”

While Vasquez improves, Thomas has the numbers of a frontline NBA starter.

When the Kings took on the Brooklyn Nets on Wednesday, Vasquez finally played to his potential.  He finished the game with 17 points, 12 assists and four rebounds in 33 minutes.  But Thomas countered with 19 points, six assists and six rebounds in 26 minutes.

For those who celebrated the breakout game from Vasquez, it was short-lived.  Brooklyn looked slow and old.  They played a methodical game that lent itself to Vasquez’s style of play.  When Sacramento took on a long, athletic Pistons team two nights later, Vasquez’s lack of speed once again became an issue.

In 29 minutes, Vasquez scored 13 points and handed out six assists, but he turned the ball over eight times in the loss.  Thomas on the other hand, continued his solid play, scoring 18 points and dishing out seven assists in 31 minutes.

Sunday Musings aren’t usually filled with statistical breakdowns, but we are looking to prove a point this week.

In a conversation I had with an acquaintance on Tuesday, I made the point that it appears that coach Malone wants to use Thomas in the same way the Golden State Warriors used veteran guard Jarrett Jack last season.  Jack didn’t start, but he played a lot of minutes for the Warriors, including major minutes in the fourth quarter of games.

My second point in the conversation was that Thomas needs to figure out a way to show Malone that he is more Stephen Curry than Jarrett Jack if he wants to steal away the starting position.  I was met with an incredibly obvious, but poignant counter point – Vasquez isn’t Curry.

The point is well taken.  Thomas lacks size.  There is nothing he can do about that.  But he has the strength and quickness to hang with almost any guard in the league.  For the third year in a row, he has improved and shown signs that he is more than a change-of-pace bench point guard.  Like Vasquez, Thomas is also a leader and extremely well-liked in the locker room.

Vasquez lacks speed and quickness.  Like Thomas, his flaws are incurable.  He has great size for a point guard, but his game is built for a methodical half-court team and he is a liability on the defensive end.

At some point, someone needs to figure out if Isaiah Thomas is the star that his stats indicate that he is.  That means playing him 38-40 minutes a game and seeing how he holds up.

Vasquez is a quality player, don’t get me wrong.  But like I was reminded this week, he isn’t Steph Curry.  Thomas keeps showing that he might be that level of player.  It would be a shame not to figure that out in a season without lofty expectations.



James Ham

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