The Other Rookie

Photo from @Doug88888 via Flickr

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60th picks in the draft aren’t supposed to be good. In fact, they’re hardly supposed to be at all. A swift look at the players taken with the draft’s last pick since the league moved to 30 teams shows such basketball luminaries as Rashard Wright, Will Blalock, Robert Dozier and Dwayne Collins. In fact, the best of the lot is probably Semih Erden. Think about that. Semih Erden has been the best at something.

Guys taken 10th in the draft, on the other hand, should be good. They mostly are. Paul George, Brandon Jennings, Brook Lopez, Mouhamed Saer Sene – all men of spectacular abilities in the realms of basketball and/or being Mouhamed Saer Sene.

So it should come as a major shock to everyone involved that Isaiah Thomas has been promoted to the Sacramento Kings’ starting lineup, looking like a very good NBA player in the process, as Jimmer Freddete sits idly on the bench. It’s important not to get carried away – we’ve seen our fair share of both lottery picks struggling out of the gate only to take the league by storm in due time, as well as and second rounders contributing immediately before fizzling into the dust. Freddete still has quite a long period of time to realize his NBA potential, be it what it may, and Thomas is still a 5’8” converted shooting guard working in a league that has long been unkind to those of normal human stature.

And yet, watching what these kids can and can’t do at this point, this makes so much sense.

Thomas may have the sort of build that makes absolutely no sense for an NBA player, but his game perfectly fits the bill for a new-age NBA guard. Built completely around speed and penetration, he’s a post-handcheck nightmare, too small for helpless defenders to get a hold of, too smart to falter from his own doing.  The result is a constant stream of pressure brought to the defense. Thomas gets into the paint, at which point he either gets open enough to create a decent shot even for a man his size, or causes the defense to collapse, thus freeing up a teammate.

Against Cleveland, facing a ROY shoo-in in Kyrie Irving in his second career start, Thomas broke out with a 23 point, 8 rebound, 11 assist performance. Aside from the random statistical flukes that tend to come during a lockout season in mid-February, everything that Thomas is good at was on display. He found DeMarcus Cousins (those two have looked fantastic together, by the way) on a gorgeous weakside cut. He controlled the transition game perfectly, sending Donté Greene on a single man expedition towards dunkhood. He prodded and probed his way into open pull-ups and drives. Every single time the ball was in his hands, something good happened, even though he plays on a horizontal plane in a vertical league.

I won’t even mention the 20 point quarter against Miami, because even though people named Isiah Thomas have risen to fame on the back of 20 point quarters, it’s very unlikely that he hits 5 threes in 12 minutes ever again. But his control of the offense? That might not be a fluke. MySynergySports ranking Thomas a ridiculous third in the NBA as far as pick and roll ball handlers go, with 1.07 points per possession on 61 plays, won’t sustain, but calm and collection every single time he dribbles around that screener could. 43.2% from behind the arc will drop closer to his collegiate averages of 32.4%, but the constant activity and volatility when fighting behemoths for rebounds and lose balls will remain.

Meanwhile, the concerns about Jimmer’s NBA skill-set have so far taken the upper hand in the battle against his explosive college past. He’s just not fast enough to get his own shot with regularity, and unlike BYU, the Kings have better options than letting him pound the ball the entire shot clock in order to get the attempt that he likes. He’s actually been a fantastic spot-up shooter – he’s 26 for 56 from the field in those situations, and of those 26 makes, 17 have been threes, giving him a robust 1.2 PPP (again, mySynergySports with the assist) – and that’s where his NBA future probably lies. But sadly, on a Kings team where less than 50% of makes are assisted (only the Wizards and, surprisingly, the Thunder are worst), it’s hard to be an off-ball player.

Thomas may not be a better player than Jimmer in 2-3 years. He might not even be better now. By all accounts, Jimmer has been working hard to fit in to a league where he is no longer regarded as a demi-god, and Isaiah’s recent stretch could eventually end at the hands of sample size and reality.

But the thing we should learn from this is that sometimes, we just don’t know how things work out. Sometimes a 60th pick can put up a PER of 17.05 in his first 31 games, become a starter, and play even better.

The lesson, as always – the draft is a crapshoot, and basketball is beautiful. Also, never underestimate a tweener guard from Seattle. Something in the water.

Noam Schiller

Noam Schiller lives in Jerusalem, where he sifts through League Pass Broadband delay and insomnia in a misguided effort to watch as much basketball as possible. He usually fails miserably, but is entertained nonetheless. He prefers passing big men to rebounding guards but sees no reason why he should have to compromise on any of them.