On Davids And Challenging Preconceived Notions

Photo from blasaure via Flickr

There are people around the world who are incredibly gifted at playing the game of basketball. A majority of them never reach public consciousness because of their height deficiency. Basketball is a game open to anyone willing to take the time to learn it. But playing the game at the highest level often takes more than dedication. Mastery of the game’s tenets becomes secondary to the physical advantages that a select few have over the majority. Most basketball super-soldiers are built from tall, strong, long-limbed human missiles. That’s how elite-level professional basketball works and will continue to work.

There aren’t many players in the NBA with a listed height under 6’0”. While there surely have been a multitude of short players with enough talent to be successful in the league, the rigors of the NBA requires of its vertically challenged denizens a maniacal sense of pride and conviction. Short players won’t make it out alive if they aren’t absolutely convinced that they are capable of toppling giants.

We have evidence of such feats happening. Muggsy Bogues’ blindside block on Patrick Ewing and Nate Robinson’s freakish denial of Yao Ming are indelible images of David’s victory over Goliath. This season, 5’9” Sacramento Kings point guard Isaiah Thomas had an opportunity of his own.

From Steve Kelley of the Seattle Times:

In a game earlier this month, Kings rookie Isaiah Thomas got caught in a switch and was forced to guard Orlando’s all-star big man Dwight Howard in the low post.

Howard is 6 feet 11. Thomas is 14 inches shorter. This wasn’t just David and Goliath. This wasn’t a mismatch. It was a can’t-miss match for Howard.

“Here Howard was with the ball, one of the best post-up players in the league, and Isaiah stayed right with him, defending Howard the same way he’d defend somebody his own size,” Smart said Monday night in the tunnel underneath Portland’s Rose Garden. “Isaiah held his ground until help came and we were able to get the ball out of Howard’s hands.”

via Former Husky Isaiah Thomas proving he belongs in the NBA | Steve Kelley, Seattle Times (1/24/12)

The compulsion to exceed expectations and prove people wrong is a built-in mechanism for the shorter man, and it’s undoubtedly a key to Thomas’ surprising start.

Despite a proficient three-year career at Washington (and a particularly eye-opening junior season that saw his assist numbers double compared to previous years), the concerns surrounding Thomas on and around draft night were similar to past players of his ilk: too much of a shoot-first combo guard to succeed with such a glaring height disadvantage.

And yet, 17 games into the season, Thomas’ most promising skill seems to be his ability to find the open man, not his offensive firepower. Thomas had a career-high 8 assists in 28 minutes against the Portland Trail Blazers last night. Thomas probed the paint and found players camping on the wings. He was murderous in transition, bulleting passes to open teammates with ease. In an offense that doesn’t often share the ball well, Thomas has, for stretches, looked like the Kings’ most able and competent point guard.

Now, if he could only start making some shots.

Thomas is shooting an awful 30.1 percent from the field. An unjustifiable number, no matter how it’s dissected. As expected, Thomas’ lack of height affects him around the rim, where he converts at a meager 44-percent clip. Unfortunately, his percentages at the rim are by far his best anywhere on the court. More than half of Thomas’ attempts are 3-pointers, which thus far has been a tragic idea to pursue. He’s shooting 23.2 percent from behind the arc, and as seen in his 1-of-5 performance against the Blazers, he’s missing almost all of his threes on lazy closeouts and/or defenders not within five feet of him. It’s clearly not a consistent part of his game, and he’d surely be doing the Kings a favor by limiting the amount of 3-pointers he’s taking because it isn’t working at all.

Still, as the last pick of last summer’s draft, Thomas has been a pleasant surprise. Sacramento’s lack of a real point guard has given Thomas ample opportunity to show off his underrated court vision and passing skills. Last year, J.J. Barea made the severely-undersized combo guard in vogue, somehow. If Thomas’ scoring ability ever decides to come out from hiding, there could be longevity in his giant-slaying business.

Seth Carstens