WASHINGTON -- In a moment of bliss near the end of the first half, Washington Wizards point guard John Wall took a few minutes to ridicule a player that, literally, every NBA team passed over at least once at the 2011 NBA Draft. Wall likes to talk trash, and this time, his target was Isaiah Thomas, the diminutive Sacramento Kings point guard that looked as overmatched as you'd expect from the very last pick of the draft.
"Get somebody out there to stop us," Wall said, as relayed by Thomas to me after the game.
Thomas' response was short and sweet.
"OK. Just wait until I get back in the second half."
Wall really didn't have to wait that much longer, because Thomas was a completely different player once the whistle blew to begin the third quarter. Suddenly, he was using his quickness to beat Wall off the dribble. Suddenly, he was lofting soft floaters over towering big man JaVale McGee. Suddenly, Thomas was finding running mate Marcus Thornton for long jumpers that broke the Wizards' spirit.
And suddenly, it was Wall who was powerless to stop him. Oh, he tried. With the game slipping away from the Wizards in the fourth quarter, Wall waved off teammates to put himself in one-on-one situations against Thomas. But as Thomas slid his feet, Wall stumbled, throwing up wild shots and committing turnovers. It was as if he couldn't believe this 5-foot, 8-inch, second-round pick was getting the best of him.
"I just wanted to pressure him a little more and try to make him overthink," Thomas said afterwards. "A lot of times, he got to the hole and overthought it and had a couple of turnovers."
It all makes you wonder what teams ignored last June. While Linsanity has (understandably) swept the basketball world, a similar underdog story is playing out on the West Coast. A college star at the University of Washington -- you may remember him from previous films such as COLD BLOODED -- Thomas still was passed over 59 times at the 2011 NBA Draft. Finally, the Sacramento Kings saved him from total embarrassment by making him the 60th and final pick.
He's been surprising the Kings and the league ever since.
"Every game, every day, every practice, I use it as motivation," he said.
It hasn't taken long for Thomas to make all the steps up the NBA totem poll. He wasn't even guaranteed a roster spot in training camp, but he found his niche as a good practice player. He wasn't even really supposed to play, but his team desperately needed a point guard, so he got a chance under new coach Keith Smart. His minutes were initially inconsistent, but when he played, things happened, so he kept picking up more burn.
Finally, with small forward John Salmons -- the team's highest-paid player, mind you -- mired in an awful slump, Smart made a decision four games ago. Size and draft status be damned, Thomas was starting.
That's when this run began. Three games ago, Thomas dropped 23 points and 11 assists while dueling with 2011 first-round pick Kyrie Irving and the Cleveland Cavaliers. Two games ago, he wowed LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and the Miami Heat with 24 points in an eventual loss. Last night, he went 1-7 from the field in the first half against Wall's Wizards, then turned it on for 16 second-half points to snatch away a pivotal road win.
"During the whole process where we were seeing if he was going to be a candidate for this team, he was running out there playing so close to NBA-ready," Smart said. "He never looked like a rookie. He's shown that every single night when he's been on the floor."
This is all a surprise, of course, but this isn't quite like Jeremy Lin, a mid-major passed around the league before finding himself in New York. There was ample evidence that Thomas could play right away that was sitting there in front of our eyes. His college numbers compared favorably to Jameer Nelson's. His measurements were pretty similar to Ty Lawson's. He certainly showed his big-shot ability on the biggest amateur stage. So what caused teams to miss all that?
"It was my height," Thomas said, without hesitation. "I can play with anybody. I know that. My height just scared a lot of teams off. It's their fault for passing on me."
If that's the case, it's pretty hard to understand. This is the era of the small guard, with many coaches (including Smart, to Thomas' good fortune) eschewing the traditional off-guard position to get two playmakers on the floor. Could 29 teams really have been that slow to adapt? It makes you wonder. In a league where so many lead guards are struggling to find a balance between scoring and passing, Thomas' style should have been valued by more teams.
"I'm just out there playing. I'm not trying to score. I'm not trying to get my teammates involved. I'm being aggressive to make plays," Thomas said. "One thing my college coach always told me was to make winning plays. Just go out there and try to make the right play."
In a weird way, that's exactly what the Kings needed. Sacramento has plenty of shot-makers, but they don't have very many playmakers. They've tried jamming star Tyreke Evans into that role, but Evans doesn't have a very good idea of how to set up others like Thomas does. Evans, like most of his teammates, is also not a loud personality on the court, which even Smart admitted before the game. That's fine for a finisher, but it's not great for a playmaker.
The contrast is evident when you see Thomas joking around with teammates before the game. With Thomas free to be the vocal leader, Evans and the rest of the Kings are starting to figure out that they can just be themselves.
"That kid is tough as nails," Smart said. "The way he's playing, I think the team is starting to understand that he's running the show."
Not bad for the last pick in the draft.
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