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Pondering Isaiah Thomas

Here it is, March 29, 2012. The season is ¾ over. And what is the best story of this Kings season? Isaiah Thomas. #60 pick, 5’9” Isaiah Thomas. Didn’t see that one coming.

The Thomas story is one where you really have to suspend reasonable thought. I mean, really! A #60 pick making this sort of impact in his rookie season? Manu Ginobli was a gold mine at #57, but he averaged less than 8 points a game in his rookie campaign…at the age of 25…with years of professional ball already under his belt. Michael Redd was another late 2nd round steal, and he averaged 2.2 ppg in his rookie year. Thomas lines up statistically similar to Gilbert Arenas’ rookie season, but Arenas was the 2nd player selected in the 2nd round in 2001, 30th overall. To put it into perspective, Arenas went at the halfway point of where Thomas was ultimately selected. I say this without Kings bias: What Isaiah Thomas is doing right now is beyond any precedent previously set in the NBA, at least during the two-round draft era.

In fact, Thomas has been so good that we have recently stopped thinking of him as a rookie. Suddenly, we are thinking of him as a point guard.

Ponder that one for a moment. At the beginning of this season, Tyreke Evans was the only player on the Kings roster resembling an NBA point guard. Sure, you could try to get by for a few minutes with John Salmons (guh!) or Francisco Garcia (gah!), but Evans was the point guard, with the hope that Jimmer Fredette could provide a little relief off the bench. Thomas? Hey, the kid was likeable. Maybe if he had a good camp he could be the new Pooh Jeter, with a ceiling of Ronnie Price.

And early in the season, it looked like Thomas was a guy that could make a “small” contribution, averaging almost 10 minutes over the first 9 games, the high point being his brief but unforgettable defensive stint against Kobe Bryant in the season opener. We knew that it was a nice moment. Most of us did not realize how foretelling this moment was.

Beginning January 10 (the 2nd game after Paul Westphal’s dismissal), Thomas began to pick up consistent minutes. One night later Thomas scored 20 points for the first time in his career, at Toronto. But still, to this point he looked like a plus find at #60, not the steal of the draft. Thomas was omitted from the rookies invited to participate in all star weekend, and it was hard to argue, though he did put together three very nice performances just prior to the break.

During this time, we began to see where Thomas was making an impact to the offensive fortunes of the Kings. While Evans was still doing the best job running the halfcourt sets, Thomas was by far the best option when it came to the transition game. And given this team’s shooting challenges, fast break buckets were a welcome addition. Thomas earned Western Conference Rookie of the Month for February.

March arrived and Thomas began to establish himself as at least as capable of running the halfcourt offense as Evans. He began to handle the ball more and more.

And suddenly, we stopped measuring Thomas with the rookie yardstick. The conversation moved from Thomas the rookie to Thomas the point guard (or not a point guard, depending on your point of view). It was no longer a matter of Thomas being a great pick, but whether he could actually become the point guard for this team moving forward. Again, for perspective, the #60 pick in the most recent draft, all 5’9” of him, had gone from roster hopeful to NBA starting point guard in less than four months, in less than 50 games.

Thrown into all of this is the fact that Thomas was not the only rookie guard drafted by the Kings. And for a good portion of the season, the comparisons always seemed to be Isaiah Thomas vs. Jimmer Fredette. But as time has gone by, this has become as fair of a measuring stick as comparing DeMarcus Cousins to Hassan Whiteside. And I do not mean that as any sort of slam against Jimmer. And before anyone starts picking the fly sh*t out of the pepper, yes, Fredette’s game is a bit more advanced than Hassan Whiteside’s. But the simple fact of the matter is that Thomas and Fredette are not on the same level right now, so any comparison of the two is going to lead to a skewed and incomplete result.

Let’s bounce Thomas against some of his fellow rookies first. Thomas is currently tied for 6th in rookie scoring with Golden State’s Klay Thompson at 10.5 ppg, and they are both likely to catch Ricky Rubio, who sits in 5th at 10.6. Among rookie point guards, Thomas sits behind Kyrie Irving (18.7), Brandon Knight (12.6), and Kemba Walker (12.2). It should also be noted that both Walker and Thomas average about 16 pts. per 36 minutes, while Knight sits at about 14 pts. Also, while Thompson and Thomas are on a par for shooting percentage, Rubio, Walker and Knight shoot significantly worse (and Irving significantly better).

Looking at assists, Thomas ranks tied with Knight for 4th among rookies at 3.7 per game, behind Rubio (8.2), Irving (5.7), and Walker (4.1). But again, when you adjust it to a per 36, Thomas jumps to 5.7, behind only Rubio (8.6) and Irving (6.5). And his 2.13 assist/turnover ratio is bettered only by Rubio (2.56) and Walker (2.40). Once again, Thomas represents himself quite well against these other rookies…all of whom were lottery picks.

Let’s kick it up a notch. Thomas is currently tied for 24th in the league in point guard scoring with Jose Calderon, with Jameer Nelson just above them and Devin Harris just below them. Thomas outscores all point guards that are currently averaging less than 24 minutes a night, including Goran Dragic.

Thomas’ assist numbers place him at tied for 32nd (with Knight). But his per 36 numbers would land him at #25 with the likes of Brandon Jennings, Walker, and better than guys like Russell Westbrook and Darren Collison. His assist/turnover ratio places him squarely with Steph Curry and Dragic, and better than guys like Deron Williams, Jrue Holiday, John Wall, Rodney Stuckey, Irving, Jeremy Lin, Evans, and Westbrook.

When compared to veteran point guards, Thomas is quite…average. And that is absolutely, positively, freaking amazing for a rookie point guard, and off the charts for a #60 pick.

And the best part? We have no idea where this kid’s ceiling is. It takes time to learn how to play point guard in the NBA. Ask John Wall. Ask Derrick Rose. Hell, ask Tyreke Evans. Isaiah Thomas is 23 and has played 49 NBA games. And he already shows a maturity that we would like bestowed upon DeMarcus Cousins. Yes, Thomas is still prone to making rookie mistakes. But he seems to rarely make the same mistake twice, and never in succession. That’s a welcome sight around these parts.

So let’s take a moment to breathe, and breathe in Isaiah Thomas, an oasis in the Kings vast desert of return on investment. Let’s celebrate all $472k of Thomas, as well as the $762k that he will earn the following year, and the $885k that he will earn the year after that, once the team picks up his option. Let’s revel in the value, and let’s get drunk in what Thomas is already delivering and what he promises to deliver in the future.

Let’s appreciate Isaiah Thomas for what he is – freaking amazing, an incredible story of defying odds…and, oh yeah, a basketball player that (thankfully) wears a Sacramento Kings uniform.