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NBA Rookie Power Rankings: Breaking Down Isaiah Thomas' Game

How is Isaiah Thomas giving the Kings strong production despite being the last pick in the 2011 NBA Draft? He's brilliant in the pick and roll ... on both sides of the ball. Rohan Cruyfff breaks down Zeke and the rest of the rookie class in his weekly rankings.

Tonight's Rising Stars Rookie Challenge will be without a whopping six of our top ten rookies this week, with Enes Kanter, Klay Thompson, Chandler Parsons, Isaiah Thomas, Nikola Vucevic and Gustavo Ayon all missing out on the opportunity to put on a show for the traveling hordes of small screaming children.

Your loss, NBA.


Isaiah Thomas is Mr. Relevant

Mike Prada wrote yesterday on the underdog story of Isaiah Thomas, which has, for various reasons, been given far less publicity than the one unfolding in New York. Thomas was the 2011 draft's Mr. Irrelevant, and, as he admitted to Prada, it came down to his height more than anything else. At Washington, Thomas was a star, claiming back-to-back Pac-12 Tournament MVPs and consecutive All-Pac-12 appearances in 2010 and 2011. But those things carried significantly less weight with scouts than his 5'9 listed height.

Apprehension over the translation of his skills was understandable of course, but not to the level that made him the 60th overall pick. Fourteen players selected ahead of Thomas have yet to play in an NBA game, and by early returns, Thomas is perhaps the most remarkable data point in a draft filled with productive players in unusual positions (Kenneth Faried at 22, MarShon Brooks at 25, Chandler Parsons at 38, Jon Leuer at 40).

The easy answer behind Isaiah's early success is to point to his quickness. Isaiah Thomas is simply faster and more agile than the vast majority of NBA players, both because of his size and his willingness to move north-south towards the hoop when he gets even a sliver of space. One of my favorite parts of his game is his incorporation of the Chris Paul hesitation half-spin to forward explosion. There might not be better use of the move in the league outside of Paul, and it's a move Thomas has had on lock since his early days at Washington. Here, Earl Watson simply has no chance whatsoever.

More importantly though, Thomas couples his handle with an NBA-quality jump shot. The latter -- more than the former -- is responsible for his early season statistical prowess, especially considering that Thomas' finishing at the rim hasn't been fantastic (53 percent at the rim, relative to the league average 63 percent for guards). From the release on his jumper, it's clear Thomas has had years and likely decades of experience being the shortest player on the floor. It manifests itself in the way he rears back, fades and kicks a leg forward to ensure space all the way through the motion. Isaiah's form, with all its associated moving parts, certainly won't be taught to many young players, but it's a successful technique, especially for a player that shoots so frequently off the dribble.

Thomas' proclivity for the pull-up is a double-edged sword. Consider: per data, Thomas is the fourth most efficient player out of the pick and roll in the entire league. That's a crazy statistic on multiple levels. His success with the play comes down largely to his ability to hit the fadeaway jumper after the screen. This, against the Sixers' Jrue Holiday and Elton Brand, is typical Thomas in a number of pick and rolls this season:

In fact, Thomas' tendency to step back dwarfs his propensity to attack; where 41 percent of his pick and rolls end with pull up jumpers, only 21 percent result in shots from the paint (floaters or layup attempts). It's not a problem since his jumper looks to be a legitimate skill. But it's less clear at this point whether Thomas is a genuinely elite pick and roll player, or simply one that has been able to knock down multiple long jumpers in pick and roll situations. For what it's worth, Thomas has been an appreciably worse shooter in pure spot-up situations.

While we're on the subject of pick and rolls, Thomas is equally adept on the defensive end. He has great recovery speed when he's picked off entirely, and while he doesn't go under screens very frequently, he fights through with enough force to often muck up the ball handler's immediate path forward. In a few recent outings, Thomas held Washington's John Wall to 9 points on 10 P&R possessions, Cleveland's Kyrie Irving to nine points on nine P&R possessions, and, on the season, New York's Jeremy Lin to two points and four turnovers on sven possessions. Thomas is hardly an easy player to target defensively.

This is one of my favorite defensive plays of the season: Thomas fights through a strong (arguably moving) screen and recovers along the baseline to force the turnover against Toronto's Jose Calderon:

The lateral quickness is there too, as you might imagine. Thomas ranks third among all NBA guards in charge taken frequency, drawing an offensive foul once every 34 minutes on the floor. And one more statistic from this unlikeliest of campaigns from Thomas: Isaiah has a higher defensive rebound rate than 12 different starting lead guards.

The 60th overall pick is not only starting NBA games, he's flat out balling while doing it. Welcome to the NBA in 2012.



Week 4: Klay Thompson's Off Screen Shooting
Week 3: Kawhi Leonard on Off-Ball Cuts
Week 2: Chandler Parsons as Houston's Fifth Man
Week 1: Kyrie Irving and Ricky Rubio Run the Pick and Roll


All stats, above and below, are through Wednesday's action and come via Basketball-Reference, Hoopdata and "Efficiency differentials" refer to the difference in points/100 possessions from the league average of the relevant season.

Rk Player Team Relevant Statistics Prev.
1. Kyrie Irving
Cavaliers +5.8 offensive efficiency differential, 27.4 percent usage, 33.5 percent assist rate, 16.3 percent turnover rate
Irving's efficiency has slipped a bit since his return, especially in terms of his floor percentages. Against New Orleans on Wednesday, he continued to show the rare ability to positively affect games despite shooting terribly. He remains in the top spot quite comfortably.
2. Ricky Rubio
Timberwolves -3.2 offensive efficiency differential, 38.5 percent assist rate, 41.8 percent effective field goal percentage
Rubio snapped out of his recent shooting funk with strong games against Houston and Philadelphia on the weekend, both Minnesota wins. The turnovers, though, are starting to become more and more of an issue. In five of his last six games, he's had at least as many turnovers as made field goals.
3. MarShon Brooks
Nets +1.7 offensive efficiency differential, 23.9 percent usage, 12.8 percent assist rate, 11.9 percent turnover rate
Has the Brooks magic worn off yet? Hardly. I still cringe at his shot selection, but the fact is, Brooks scores often and with very reasonable efficiency. In a class that has struggled as much with efficiency as overall volume of work, Brooks continues to stand out.
4. Kawhi Leonard
+5.8 offensive efficiency differential, 16 percent defensive rebound rate
Leonard posted his strongest statistical outing in one of the weirdest games of this season without reason; with Gregg Popovich volunteering to put an end to the Spurs' winning streak, Leonard was given 43 minutes in a 40-point loss at Portland. His line -- 24 points on 9-14 shooting, 10 rebounds, five steals -- looks impressive enough, but aside from that performance, Leonard's role has been far more blunted than we might have predicted in early February.
5. Enes Kanter

16.3 percent offensive rebound rate, 25 percent defensive rebound rate, -0.2 offensive efficiency differential, 18 percent usage


Kanter didn't receive the same minutes this week as he did last, and so not much to report. The rebound rate still stands strong, but that's about it.

6. Nikola Vucevic Sixers 10.8 percent offensive rebound rate, 21.4 percent defensive rebound rate, +5.8 offensive efficiency differential, 18.6 percent usage
Philly has slipped of late, though it's hardly down to Vooch (or, as his closest friends call him, "Kyle"). After dropping 16 points on eight shots against Dallas on Friday, Vucevic went for 18 points and eight rebounds on 12 shots at Houston on Tuesday.
7. Isaiah Thomas
+9.8 offensive efficiency, 54 percent true shooting, 26 percent assist rate, 13 percent turnover rate

See above.

8. Klay Thompson
Warriors -1.2 offensive efficiency differential, 56 percent true shooting, 45 percent threes, 20.7 percent usage
Not the greatest shooting week for Klay; in four games, he managed to drop his true shooting percentage four whole points. Needless to say, he'll be back.
9. Chandler Parsons
Rockets -3.2 offensive efficiency differential, 16 percent usage, 15.4 percent defensive rebound rate
A 38th overall pick continues to start for the fifth best team in the West! I love this story just as much as Jeremy Lin or Isaiah Thomas or Kyle Vucevic, and so should you. And here's a statistic: on 55 isolation possessions, opponents are shooting just seven for 44 against Parsons. That would be good for 15.9 percent.
10. Gustavo Ayon
+10.8 offensive efficiency differential, 22.5 percent defensive rebound rate, 59 percent true shooting
Gustavo Ayon has, quite frankly, belonged in these rankings all season long. Only his minutes and bench role have kept him away. Injuries to Emeka Okafor and Jason Smith have vaulted him into the starting lineup of late, and he's responded. He followed up back-to-back double-doubles last week with a 17-rebound effort against Cleveland. The Hornets' record with Goose in the starting lineup is 4-5; without him there, they're 4-20. That's more frivolous than anything else, but given adequate minutes, Ayon makes a significant impact on both ends.

Dropping out: Jon Leuer, Markieff Morris

On the fringes: Kenneth Faried, Kemba Walker, Brandon Knight, Iman Shumpert