SACRAMENTO, Calif. – Isaiah Thomas leaned against the scorer’s table waiting for the second half to begin when a loud-mouthed Sacramento Kings fan approached with a question.
“How tall are you?” the man asked, holding a beer in a clear plastic cup.
“5-9,” Thomas responded, reluctantly.
The fan asked twice more. Thomas repeated the answer, raising his voice each time. Finally, the buzzer sounded for the third quarter to begin in Sacramento’s game against the Los Angeles Clippers last week, and Thomas just shook his head and walked away.
“No way he’s 5-9,” the fan said, sipping his beverage. “I think he’s 5-7, if that.”
When it comes to Thomas’ height, even those who root for him might never be satisfied.
Ever since he was a kid, Thomas has heard the questions about his size. And, of course, whether he’s related to that Hall of Famer with a similar name (he’s not).
Thomas slipped to Sacramento with the 60th and final pick of the NBA draft out of Washington in large part because of his height. With all the attention focused on the team’s first-round pick, former BYU sensation Jimmer Fredette, Thomas has been the one who has been nothing, well, short of spectacular.
So why then did every team, including the Kings, pass on Thomas at least once?
“It was one thing: It was my height,” Thomas said. “I promise you that’s the only thing. There were guards in this draft that I felt like I was better than, that I outplayed, that I outworked, but the height scared them away. Hopefully, in the years to come, I can show them that my height isn’t the problem.”
So far, so good.
Thomas has taken the starting point guard spot from Fredette, earned Western Conference rookie of the month honors for February and is becoming one of the franchise’s faces: He was the lone player at a critical City Council meeting Tuesday night, invited by Mayor Kevin Johnson and even teased by the former NBA All-Star that Thomas represented “everybody under 6-feet tall,” when the city of Sacramento approved a financing plan for a new $391 million arena to keep the team in town.
The unexpected honor is well-earned.
Thomas plays tough and scrappy, diving for loose balls and squeezing through tight spaces, never afraid to take the big shot or annoy an opposing defender. The diminutive guard emerged as a fan favorite, and his aggressive style and constant motor forced Kings coach Keith Smart to inject Thomas into the starting lineup with the team struggling again.
“People start looking at his heart, his desire, his toughness. Those were never in question,” Smart said. “I think more than anything else, he was evaluated based on how big he is and what can he do in the NBA before the draft.
“You’re constantly picked on,” Smart said of Thomas. “On basketball courts, people are going to overlook you because they think you’re small and can’t play. You develop a tougher skin.”
Thomas has displayed an edge in California’s capital.
He tied Otis Birdsong’s franchise record for the most points by a Kings rookie in his first five starts (96). Thomas has pushed aside Fredette’s fanfare somewhat and opened eyes across the NBA landscape for his on-court demeanor.
“He seems to be fearless,” Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro said.
Thomas cemented a stellar career at Washington with three masterful performances at the Pac-10 tournament in Los Angeles last year: He played 123 of 125 minutes, averaged 19.7 points and 10 assists per game and had one monumental step-back 18-footer at the overtime buzzer against Arizona that touched off a chaotic championship celebration in a moment that has been viewed more than 560,000 times on YouTube.
Sacramento is again buried near the bottom of the Western Conference. While the franchise is headed for a sixth straight losing season, Thomas has been one of the few reasons to feel optimistic about the future.
He forms a formidable backcourt with combo guard Tyreke Evans, the 2009-10 NBA Rookie of the Year and the previous Kings player to win rookie of the month honors. Along with promising big man DeMarcus Cousins, they make up a young trio that gives Sacramento a solid base if the Maloof family that owns the team ever decides to start spending big again, although that’s not likely until the team moves into its more lucrative arena for the 2015-16 season.
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