Isaiah Thomas has gotten a lot of attention this season. He's demanded it. Consider Tuesday night, when he outscored the Thunder 21-19 in the fourth quarter to give his Kings a chance to beat the Western power at home. (Sacramento didn't quite make it over the hump as Isaiah missed the tying jumper in the final seconds.)
He's scoring in gobs in his third year and, because he'll be a free agent in July, fans may be wondering if he's worth chasing. We're also oddly obsessed with the smallest and largest players in the NBA, so I.T. gets some extra attention. So here's everything you need to know about Isaiah.
HOW TALL IS HE REALLY?
You know how most players' official height listing is fudged a bit in either direction? Some 7-footers want to be listed at 6'11 or vice versa. Plenty of 5'10 guys get listed at 6-foot. Isaiah's 5'9 listing appears to be totally accurate. At the 2011 draft combine, Isaiah measured 5'9 without shoes and 5'10.5 with shoes. So his 5'9 listing is honest. He could probably get away with listing himself up to 5'11 -- he does wear shoes while playing, and rounding up is a legitimate thing to do -- but 5'9 is the most accurate measurement we have.
IS HIS PERFORMANCE A FLUKE?
While he is putting up the best numbers of his career -- 17.6 points per game on .586 True Shooting with 4.5 assists and 1.1 steals -- only one stat stands out as a potential fluke based on his career to date. The thing is that Isaiah has been a scorer since entering the league, he's just being allowed more freedom in a bench role. Isaiah started roughly half of his games as a rookie in 2011-12, playing with DeMarcus Cousins and Tyreke Evans, two featured scorers. In the 2012-13 season, Isaiah started 62 games, again largely alongside Cousins and Evans. This season, he's been a reserve only. Evans is gone, and while I.T. does play large stretches with Cousins, there's more room for him to operate in his best role: with the ball in his hands, being aggressive.
So the boosted scoring numbers are largely a product of his much-increased usage rate, which is due to his substantial role as the bench producer for the Kings.
WHAT'S THE POTENTIALLY FLUKE STAT?
Isaiah is drawing fouls at an incredible rate (0.45 free throw attempts per field goal attempt), a much higher rate than in recent years. It could potentially drop back down into normal ranges as the season wears on. Isaiah's always been fair at drawing contact as he attacks the rim, but his current foul rate is typically reserved for superstars.
CAN MY TEAM TRADE FOR HIM?
I would like very much to say: "No. Hell no." But it's a real mystery. As we'll discuss below, he's a restricted free agent in July and figures to get a big pay raise. He's not one of the new regime's players: he was already in Sacramento when the current front office took over. They have vowed to be active, and to be honest, Isaiah is the team's best asset right now given his contract and production. So I would not be totally shocked if the Kings packaged him with a contract for a near-All-Star veteran. It's unlikely he'll just be given away, though: he's valuable for sign-and-trade purposes even if the Kings don't intend to retain him beyond this season.
ANYTHING I SHOULD KNOW ABOUT HIM AS AN NBA FANFIC WRITER?
He has a feud with Stephen Curry going. He seems to be really, really annoyed by Curry and vice versa. It's not quite a DeMarcus Cousins-Blake Griffin feud, but it's simmering and could boil over this season.
HOW DOES HE DO IT?
All of the factors sync up for Isaiah: his mentality fits his physical attributes. Like other great sub-6-footers before him, he uses his size as a strength. He has a CP3ian knack for splitting traps -- something big guards struggle to do -- and explosive speed with the ball. Watching Isaiah and Greivis Vasquez, the Kings' starting point guard, play in the same game offers some good perspective. Where Vasquez uses his size to see the floor and knock his way into position, Isaiah uses his size to render opponents static. He's enough of a jitterbug to get to spots a bigger guard simply wouldn't be able to.
He's also learned better body control, which allows him to use his excellent leaping ability more effectively. Earlier in his career, he'd often be out of control when attacking the rim. It's not showing up in the shooting percentages, but he seems to be taking fewer paths certain to end in disaster these days.
In addition to all of that, he's a good shooter. He's a career 37 percent three-point shooter -- 40 percent this season -- and while his shot selection could use more improvement, his combination of usage and efficiency is tough to beat for an inexpensive reserve.
WHAT SEPARATES HIM FROM NATE ROBINSON?
About 50 decibels and an acute case of Kevin Hart Personality Disorder (KHPD).
DOES HE MAKE TEAMMATES BETTER?
Believe it or not, not all Kings fans are on board with the new Isaiah. The one box score stat that hasn't seen a leap as Isaiah improves and gets a bigger role is his assists. At 5.9 assists per 36 minutes, he is pretty close to his career averages. Until Vasquez, the Kings had been without a pure point guard since roughly Jason Williams. There's a sect of fans who believe wholeheartedly that point guards should set up teammates, not drop 20 points in a quarter. Isaiah has also taken some dicey shots at the ends of games lately with open teammates available, which has drawn consternation. In fairness to Isaiah, in two of those situations the open teammate was John Salmons, so ...
WHERE DOES HE CURRENTLY RANK AMONG THE MOST FUN NBA PLAYERS TO WATCH?
1. Ricky Rubio
2. DeMarcus Cousins
3. LeBron James
4. J.R. Smith*
5. Isaiah Thomas
6. Kevin Durant
7. Andre Drummond
8. Eric Bledsoe
9. Michael Carter-Williams
10. Derrick Rose ^
* Does not apply to Knicks fans.
^ Does not apply to the 2012-13 or 2013-14 seasons.
WHAT'S HE WORTH?
Here's the (five) million dollar question: what sort of contract is he worth? He'll be a restricted free agent in July, and one assumes that the Kings intend to keep him if the price doesn't get too high. Also keep in mind that while I.T. was a second-round pick -- the last pick of the 2011 draft, in fact -- he signed a 3-year deal, meaning the Kings have full Bird rights on him. This isn't a situation as with Omer Asik, where only the Early Bird exception applied.
If he keeps this up, he might find himself signing a deal worth more than the full mid-level. Teams will have cap space in 2014, and many teams could use a firestarter bench scorer. The Kings have already let one high-potential guard (Evans) go in free agency, so there's definitely a chance that GM Pete D'Alessandro could set a threshold and refuse to exceed it to retain Thomas. Keep in mind that Vasquez is also a restricted free agent, so Sacramento's in an interesting spot. Could that allow other teams to swoop in and raise Isaiah's dollar figure early on? We'll see.
I think in the end he'll sign for about $6-7 million per season. I'm totally clueless as to whether the Kings will match.