SACRAMENTO – When Los Angeles Lakers point guard Steve Nash turned the corner off a screen and carried a defender on his hip last week, Isaiah Thomas’ phone buzzed.
Sacramento Kings coach Keith Smart had sent Thomas a text message with the time of the play by Nash and told him to catch it on film when he could. Thomas texted right back that he was already watching.
There have been a lot of conversations between Smart and Thomas during Thomas’ second season in the NBA after the Tacoma native left the University of Washington following his junior season. After starting 37 out of 65 games as a rookie and sitting on the bench just once for an entire game last season, Thomas’ minutes have fluctuated this season.
One four-game run in late November encapsulated how Thomas has been used this season. He didn’t play in a loss against Utah, played seven minutes in a home win against the Jazz the next night, played 21 minutes against Minnesota the next game, then played two seconds against Indiana three nights later.
“It’s hard,” Thomas said. “It’s frustrating for the most part, but you have to be even-keeled. I feel like I’ve just got to keep working no matter what. It’s a long season. I’ve talked to a lot of people through this whole situation, through starting then not playing. And then getting DNPs (did not play), it’s hard.”
That has changed of late. Thomas has been starting throughout January and is averaging 28 minutes per game. He scored a career-high 34 points Saturday against the NBA champion Miami Heat. The game before, he banked in a 3-pointer with 9.1 seconds remaining to tie the score and send the Dallas game into overtime. Thomas is averaging 11.3 points per game and shoots 44.6 percent from the field this season, numbers very similar to his rookie season (11.5, 44.8).
Fans embrace him in Sacramento and he has reciprocated the love. Thomas, who attended Curtis High School, has worked with Mayor Kevin Johnson in community outreach. His jersey is worn by fans and even by teammate DeMarcus Cousins during a media session when Cousins said he thinks Thomas should be playing more. He has an intriguing relationship with Cousins, arguably the Kings’ most talented and enigmatic player. When Detroit’s 6-foot-11 Charlie Villanueva clobbered the 5-9 Thomas on Jan. 1, a flagrant foul that had Thomas immediately going after Villanueva, the 6-11 Cousins came sprinting to Thomas’ defense.
“I love his attitude on the court,” Cousins said.
Thomas is developing an off-court presence. He endorses a local Pizza Guys restaurant chain.
Meanwhile, he received his degree from UW in the mail last week. Thomas was able to finish school by completing work remotely. He even missed a couple of practices last season to take finals.
“I was so close that I felt like if I didn’t do it now, I would never go back and do it,” Thomas said. “You can ask guys who leave early and say they’re going to go back, it’s hard to go back. I felt like while I was close enough to finish I needed to get it done.”
Those things haven’t calmed the tumult of this season in Sacramento for the Kings (14-24). Thomas has mentally grappled with his inconsistent minutes on a roster filled with in-between guards who all like to shoot. Along with drafting Thomas in 2011 with the 60th overall pick, the Kings traded for former BYU star Jimmer Fredette on draft night when Fredette was selected 10th overall.
In addition, veterans Marcus Thornton, Franklin High grad Aaron Brooks, John Salmons and Tyreke Evans are all guards on the roster. That abundance leaves Smart with numerous in-game decisions. Thomas may be the best in that group at running the team, but his short stature can be a problem defensively.
Thomas sat on the bench while Dallas rallied in the fourth quarter Thursday. At one point, Smart sent Thomas to check in before pulling him back to the bench. He said afterward Dallas’ big guards concerned him, so Thomas sat.
Smart understands the toll of varying minutes.
“He wanted to play and he was upset at that, but he wasn’t upset in his approach to practice, his approach to pregame workouts with the coaches or film sessions or any time I brought him aside to talk to him about the game,” Smart said. “There was never one of those sulking moments ”
In the NBA, getting to a second contract is crucial, especially for someone in Thomas’ position of being the last draft pick. That’s when players start to earn significant money.
Those around the players are cognizant of the situation. So, when playing time varies, numerous people outside of the team – agents, family and friends – have their opinions about the coach and a player’s usage. As it stands, Thomas is in line for a qualifying offer next season that would guarantee him an option to play for Sacramento (or Seattle) for one more season.
“You want a contract for the next time? You can’t get it today,” Smart said. “All you can do is be productive and play. I think he’s handled it very, very well.”
Thomas is preparing for the possible relocation of the team from Sacramento to Seattle. With his strong ties to each place, people are treating Thomas as a Deep Throat-like source, hoping he has some inside knowledge to share.
“Everywhere you go, people are asking you for insight on what’s going on,” Thomas said. “We really don’t know too much else of what’s going on other than what we read.”
So, he has to turn back to the court, a place where he has control.
“I’m blessed to be just living out my dreams,” Thomas firstname.lastname@example.org @Todd_Dybas