Something is happening in Sacramento. It is happening for the third consecutive year, under a third set of independent circumstances, and it may be just about time we stop acting surprised when it happens.
Isaiah Thomas has been the team’s best point guard, and it’s not particularly close.
Thomas’ initial ascent into lead man for the Kings’ offense was very much a surprise. Famously drafted with the 60th and final pick of the 2011 NBA draft, the diminutive Thomas was considered but a fringe NBA prospect. He was a fearless scorer in the college game, but players such as Thomas are often left to compete for employment overseas as the NBA sifts only the tallest and fastest from the NCAA pool. Prognostications that saw Thomas ending up as another Scoonie Penn, a prolific scorer with dimensions that destined him to a very respectable European career, could hardly be considered as pessimistic for the sake of pessimism.
Nearly 30 months removed from the night Isaiah’s name was called last, those voices were clearly mistaken. Thomas unequivocally belongs in the NBA, and in a prominent role while we’re at it. And yet it seems that within the Kings’ organization, Thomas still carries with him the undersized stigma. Between Aaron Brooks last summer, Greivis Vasquez this summer, and the cautious optimism around the eventual development of 2013 second round pick Ray McCallum, the Kings have consistently seeked alternate options to their starting point guard spot. Admittedly, the pre-2013 Kings were somewhat lacking in the realm of wise prioritizing, but upon first glance it seems as if Sacramento’s leadership believes two seasons and change of Isaiah excellence is lightning in a bottle, or at the very least, unlikely to sustain in its current form.
If that indeed is Pete D’Alessandro and Co.’s thinking, I’m not sure where it stems from. Thomas has been among the league’s premium pick and roll ball handlers from his first NBA days, and has yet to rank lower than 23rd in points per possession as a pick and roll ball handler throughout his career, according to mysynergysports.com. This year, he’s taken every part of his game and juiced it up even further. He’s always been proficient from beyond the arc, but his 46.9% from three so far this season is downright frightening. He’s been vigorously seeking the free throw line, drawing a whopping 7.1 free throw attempts per game, which he knocks down at an 86% rate.
NBA.com’s newly public player tracking data features Thomas right below the league’s top tier in both points per game on pull ups (6.0 points per game, 21st in the league) and points per game on drives (4.9, 14th in the league). While context is required with such figures (for example, Thomas has shot a very poor 34.5% on said drives, which makes sense for a player his size but also requires improvement), and we have very few games of data to draw from (#smallsamplesizetheater), they aptly represent the bevy of options a point guard is presented with on a pick and roll play, and how comfortable Thomas is with each of them. The sum of these impressive parts leaves Thomas standing atop an efficient 17.8 points per game and 59.3% true shooting percentage. That he has just 28 nightly minutes to show for it seems, at best, an overlook, and at worst, Mike Malone sabotage.
Of course, all the aforementioned numbers pertain to scoring. While Thomas isn’t a poor passer by any means – his assist numbers are respectable, and as pointed out by our own Andrew Lynch, may be deflated by the flotsam that surrounds him – as far as the ever tricky scoring-to-distributing point guard spectrum goes, Thomas clear tilts towards the former. It may be this propensity that drew the Kings, notoriously bereft of either capable or willing passers throughout the entire DeMarcus Cousins era, towards the more traditional point guard in Vasquez.
But tradition in and of itself can be dangerous, and so far, so has been the prospect of playing Vasquez over Thomas. The Kings’ offense has fallen apart whenever Vasquez has been on the court, an abhorrent 96.0 compared to a respectable 102.5 points per 100 possessions with him on the bench. Sacramento may lack passers on its roster, but it’s not exactly flush with finishers, either. As such, Vasquez’s considerable contributions in finding his teammates just aren’t enough to voluntarily pass on Thomas’ ability to space the floor and create actual scoring opportunities, even if quite a few of them are for himself.
It’s unlikely Thomas continues to play as well as he has so far this season, which has essentially been all-star level play masked by insufficient playing time and a horrendous supporting cast. But even with some due regression, it’s hard to make the case that he isn’t among the best two or three players on his team. The Kings have so far played a tad worse than even ball with Thomas and a tad better than 2011-12 Bobcats ball without him. Not even being a 5’9” player in a 10 foot rim league should overshadow that. Hopefully, his team recognizes this as well.