Isaiah Thomas entered the league as “Mr. Irrelevant” after being selected 60th overall in the 2011 NBA Draft by the Sacramento Kings. In his third season, he’s now become a candidate for the league’s Most Improved Player award (although colleague Kels Dayton seems to disagree).
Thomas’ breakout season couldn’t have come at a better time with restricted free agency looming this summer.
With that in mind, Thomas and I discussed his development, Sacramento’s new culture and his free agency plans in an exclusive SheridanHoops interview.
According to Thomas, the biggest reason for his development has been coach Michael Malone’s trust in him, especially after starter Greivis Vasquez was dealt to Toronto in the Rudy Gay trade.
“He’s given me an opportunity to lead this team and kind of just play my game,” Thomas told SheridanHoops. “I always tell people the NBA, I think, is a game of opportunity. Once your opportunity comes, you’ve got to take it and run with it. My opportunity is here and I’m trying to do the best I can to not look back.”
Since Sacramento traded Vasquez, Thomas has flourished in his opportunity as the primary floor general for the Kings while averaging a career-high 34.7 minutes per game.
“I give him a ton of credit,” said coach Malone. “He’s gone from being an off the bench scorer, which is what he’s been his whole career. Then once we made that trade with Toronto, he became our starting point guard and with that he really had to try to become more of a facilitator.
“You look at his numbers, 20-plus points a night, six-plus assists, shoots a high percentage from the free throw line and 3-point line and his defense has gotten better as the year has gone on. He’s been a tremendous player for us this year.”
Amongst all NBA point guards, Thomas ranks fourth in free throws made per game (4.78), fifth in scoring average (20.34) and fifth in PER (20.87).
Thomas, along with DeMarcus Cousins and Rudy Gay, are the league’s only three teammates averaging over 20 points per game.
“We’ve got enough talent to compete with anybody in the NBA and other teams know that,” Thomas told SheridanHoops. “But we’ve just got to be a consistent basketball team end to end and bring our hard hat every day, work hard, play together and, at the end of the day, have fun. We’re so up and down, that’s the thing that kills us. One game we might play very good and then the next day we don’t, we’re a totally different team. I think once we get more consistent, that’s going to help us out a lot.”
The influx of talent via the Gay trade has made Thomas’ time in Sacramento more enjoyable than ever before. The question this summer is whether that time is up.
“The culture has changed since the new ownership and new coaching staff has come in this past year,” Thomas told SheridanHoops. “It’s only going to change for the better. Like I said, the ownership and coaching staff is doing everything they possibly can to change the culture in the locker room, to change dudes’ mindsets of bringing back the winning ways that Sacramento used to have. I think we’re headed in the right direction.”
Thomas made it clear that he enjoys playing in Sacramento. “No doubt,” were his exact words, but Thomas knows the NBA is a business and is ready for anything this summer.
“You’ve just got to look at all the pros and cons in each situation,” Thomas told SheridanHoops. “Being around Sacramento, that’s a pro for me just because I know what it’s been like and I know the direction it’s going. I’ve just got to make the best decision for myself and my family and go from there.”
Since Thomas is a restricted free agent, the Kings can keep him by matching any offer sheet he signs with another team.
However, as we’ve seen in the past with players such as Jeremy Lin leaving the Knicks for the Rockets, teams will overpay to land a player they want, or manipulate contracts to cause luxury tax penalties for the competing team.
If Rudy Gay opts into his $19 million option year, Sacramento’s team salary would be nearly $67 million next season. Keep in mind, that’s without Thomas on the books.
With that in mind, what type of deal can Thomas land on the market as a restricted free agent?
“Depending on fit with the rest of the team, the most I would give him is the full mid-level exception,” one scout told SheridanHoops.
“Point guard is the toughest position in the NBA right now,” one league source told SheridanHoops. “The NBA discriminates against undersized point guards as well. Nate Robinson never made more than $4.5 million per year in his whole career. I’m not saying they’re identical, but just getting my point across.”
Despite the comparison to Robinson and similar knocks on Thomas’ size, there’s no questioning his heart and scoring talent.
“If he’s your spark plug, or sometimes close out with him, you’re fine with that,” one Eastern Conference executive told Sheridan Hoops. “He’s a change of pace guy.”
Thomas, who is represented by agent Andy Miller of ASM Sports, is hoping to break the full mid-level exception mark.
With the Kings close to the salary cap, they may find it more advantageous to work out a sign-and-trade agreement with Thomas if a team offers him a contract out of Sacramento’s price range.
With 17 games left and Sacramento out of the playoff picture, every remaining box score will weigh heavily towards shaping Thomas’ financial future this summer.