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Hoonhout: Isaiah Thomas has not gotten a fair shot

| Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Poor Isaiah Thomas.

For a season, it looked like he might have finally overcome the host of doubters who have plagued the 5-foot-9 point guard since the beginning.

The story seems like it was meant to be. First, it was being named after Hall-of-Fame point guard Isiah Thomas when the Pistons won the 1989 NBA Finals. Then, it was falling in love with basketball, despite oftentimes being the smallest player on the court. Thomas dominated high school, averaging over 30 points per game in his career en-route to becoming a local legend in Tacoma, Washington, but was only a three-star recruit. He then received Nate Robinson’s blessing to wear No. 2 at the University of Washington. Of course, Thomas lit up the Pac-12 over his three-year career, earning Freshman of the Year and first team all-conference twice.

But his height was always looming in the background. As a kid, Thomas was obsessed with trying to grow taller — he would cry after doctor’s visits as a kid when told he wouldn’t be 6-feet tall. And even after resigning himself to his diminutive stature and instead focusing on being the best player he could be, people still weren’t convinced. The Sacramento Kings picked him 60th overall — dead last — in the 2011 NBA Draft.

And it didn’t stop there. As a rookie, he took over the starting role after just 27 games, was the first-ever last pick in the draft to win a Rookie of the Month award, and in his third season averaged over 20 points a game, one of five players under 6-feet to ever accomplish such a feat.

But the Kings let him walk.

And then the Suns didn’t want him either.

Finally, it seemed like Thomas found a home with the Boston Celtics. Over three seasons, he steadily improved, was named an All-Star twice and averaged 28.9 points per game in his final season, including a franchise-record 43 straight games of 20-plus points. He led the Boston Celtics to the top seed in the Eastern Conference but was ruled out with a hip injury, as LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers coasted to the Finals.

It finally seemed like Thomas had made it. The focal point and bonafide star on an up-and-coming team, an incredible feel-good story — everything the sports world loves.

But sports can be cruel, too.

In one of the biggest offseason moves in recent history, the Celtics pounced on a disgruntled Kyrie Irving in Cleveland, sending a package that included Thomas the other way.

Back to square one.

Still recovering from hip surgery, Thomas sat on the sidelines and watched Cleveland struggle to maintain the dominance it has had in the East in recent history. And upon finally returning Jan. 2, the difficulties didn’t go away. Thomas struggled to fit in with the Cavaliers, and 15 games in, Cleveland decided the experiment was over. This past Thursday, Thomas was shipped off to the Los Angeles Lakers.

Los Angeles doesn’t care about Thomas. Sure, he’ll be a nice mentor to Lonzo Ball for half a season. And he might fill seats with his scoring ability. But in all likelihood, the Lakers will move on from Thomas and his expiring contract this summer in pursuit of bigger fish. Quite literally bigger.

Thomas’ story is a tough one. There’s no doubt the man has worked his absolute tail off to get to where he is today. And his success in the NBA is a testimony to what work ethic and personal belief can do to tackle limitations. But the reality still remains that Thomas is a 5-foot-9 point guard. Offensively, he’s among the best. But basketball is a two-way game. And Thomas simply can’t defend.

Can small guys make it in the NBA? Of course they can. In many ways, Thomas has made it. But there’s no denying that he’s never really been the wanted man. It takes a system built around him to make Isaiah Thomas a true star. And as feel-good as his career has been, no team has really committed to that so far. Will one this offseason? I sure hope so.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Tobias Hoonhout

Toby served as Managing Editor in the 2018-2019 term.

Contact Tobias