Editor’s note: It’s Underdog Week here at SB Nation, and we’re kicking things off with one of most famous underdogs in NBA history, Isaiah Thomas: The Pizza Guy.
Three years ago, on May 2, 2017, Isaiah Thomas scored 53 points for the Boston Celtics in their second-round matchup with the Washington Wizards. To this day, it’s the second-most point any Celtics player has scored in a playoff game, and the 14th-most points any player has scored in a playoff game. For the season, Thomas averaged 28.9 points per game. Only Larry Bird has averaged more points per game in a Celtics uniform.
But before Isaiah Thomas was a Celtics folk hero, he was just a Pizza Guy who loved the fresh, from scratch pizza at Pizza Guys.
The Sacramento Kings had three picks in the 2011 NBA Draft: Nos. 7, 35 and 60. On draft night, they traded the No. 7 pick and Beno Udrih in a three-team trade with the Milwaukee Bucks and Charlotte Bobcats. In exchange, they received John Salmons and the No. 10 pick, which they used to draft Jimmer Fredette, a skilled shooter who broke out during his senior year at Brigham Young University. Klay Thompson was the following pick, and Kawhi Leonard went four picks later.
With the No. 35 pick, the Kings elected Tyler Honeycutt, a 6’8” small forward out of UCLA who led the Pac-12 in blocks in his sophomore year. Honeycutt was traded at the 2013 NBA trade deadline along with Thomas Robinson and Francisco Garcia, and the Kings bought Fredette out of his contract in 2014. All the while, the 60th pick in the 2011 NBA Draft, was slowly blossoming into something few people thought he could be at 5’8”: a starting point guard in the NBA.
There were small guys in the NBA at the time — Nate Robinson chief among them — but Thomas didn’t have the ability to jump out of the gym like Robinson, nor was he as stocky. What Thomas did have, though, was the ability to make plays in the pick and roll, and take his man off the dribble. The question was whether or not Thomas’ shot-making ability would translate to the NBA, where most players were going to be bigger and stronger than him.
The answer to that question wasn’t clear immediately, but he showed enough to earn regular playing time sooner rather than later. By his junior season, there was no question that Thomas was an NBA player.
In 72 appearances for the Kings during the 2013-14 season, Thomas averaged 20.3 points per game on 45.3% shooting from the field, in addition to 6.3 assists per game, while averaging 34.7 minutes per game. That season, Thomas was one of seven guards to average at least 20 points and 5 assists per game; the others were James Harden, Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, Kyrie Irving, Damian Lillard and Goran Dragic.
The Kings weren’t particularly good, but Thomas was. In fact, Thomas was so good that when his contract expired at the end of the season, his price tag was more than the Kings were willing to pay. As a result, the Kings shipped Thomas to the Phoenix Suns in a sign-and-trade that netted them the rights to Alex Oriakhi and a traded player exception worth $7 million. That TPE went unused, and Oriakhi — now 29 — has never played an NBA game.
Thomas’ Sacramento story might not have a happy ending, but for a season, he was arguably the team’s most fun player, and he embodied what it meant to be an underdog on a team that could have been described the same way. For that reason, Thomas will always be a King and, most of all, The Pizza Guy.