Isaiah Thomas made history last week when he was selected as an Eastern Conference All-Star reserve. But for the 5-foot-9 Boston Celtic, the fact that he’s the shortest player to be honored as such since 5-foot-11 Terrell Brandon in 1997 – and the smallest ever, tied with Calvin Murphy – is a sidebar compared to the trials and tribulations he endured before finally garnering his due respect.
Thomas’s road to national recognition goes back as far as his prep playing days at Curtis High School in Tacoma, Washington, and then for his senior year at South Kent Prep in Connecticut, to his draft night when he was selected with the 60th – and final – pick of the evening.
Thus, when people remind him that he’s the first player to be named an all-star after being the final pick in a draft, since the NBA draft contracted to just two rounds in 1989, his voice has traces of pride and vindication.
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“Now I’m starting to get the respect that I feel like I deserve,” Thomas said. “And it’s about time.”
He’s certainly earned the respect from his peers, as upon the announcement, Twitter was filled with Isaiah Thomas mentions and congratulatory tweets from players around the league.
Even players on the Knicks were admiring the path Thomas took to get to all-star status. And considering the two franchises are bitter rivals, it shows just how much of an impression Thomas’s grit and fortitude has made on players around the league.
“It’s amazing what he’s able to do. He finds gaps that other players can’t. He’s great at absorbing contact around the rim, and managing to finish,” said Knicks center Robin Lopez, marveling at the way Thomas is able to average 21.5 points per game, 12th best in the league. “It’s hard enough for me to try night-in and night-out to score, and I’m 7-foot-1.”
Lopez had a first-hand look at Thomas’s skills when the Celtics knocked off the Knicks, 97-89, at the Garden, Tuesday night. Thomas notched a game-high 20 points to go along with five rebounds and eight assists.
It was just another evening at the office for Thomas, whose confidence doesn’t allow him to be surprised at what he does. The Tacoma native isn’t among the masses that are shocked he was even drafted – let alone leading such a young squad into real playoff contention.
“Numbers don’t lie. [I’m] there [an all-star] for a reason,” said Thomas, 26, who added he’s never doubted himself. “I’ve worked hard. I think I deserve it.”
The Celtics (28-22) are currently the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference. And for a team with very few sage veterans (only three guys over the age of 27), they have no problem mimicking the fight and tenacity of their leader. The 2011 draft night scenario hardened the mettle of that leader, which is why despite his stature, his status on the team is second to none.
Thomas’s leadership qualities come from the old school, as he’s quick to pay homage to diminutive stars of yesterday. He often seeks advice and mentorship from the likes of Muggsy Bogues (5-foot-3 and the shortest player to ever play in the league) and Hall of Famer Calvin Murphy (5-foot-9). Those connections are a big reason why he’s never taken the slights to heart, but rather used them as motivation. He instead turned those naysayers into believers by showing just how big of an impact a player his size can have, despite being roughly 10 inches shorter than the average NBA player.
That lifelong boulder on his shoulder is a good reason why Thomas is among the league leaders in scoring, with only three point guards ahead of him on the list (Stephen Curry,Damian Lillard,and Russell Westbrook).
“I’ve always wanted to be an All-Star. Always wanted to lead a team and be a starter. Coach [Brad Stevens] said with this [All-Star nod] I’ll need something else now to motivate me,” Thomas said, adding the same draft night doubters will still be out there. “I was planning on taking my game to a higher level anyway ... But, I’m never satisfied. I’m always trying to get more.”
-Although he’ll never crow and say, “I told you so,” the guy that Thomas’s original team, the Sacramento Kings, nabbed in the first round of that 2011 draft (Jimmer Fredette, 10th overall), is no longer even in the league, as he’s currently on the Knicks’ D-League affiliate in Westchester.