We freakin’ love Isaiah Thomas, and we’re not bashful about it either. The 5-9 point guard was selected with the last pick, No. 60, by the Kings in the 2011 NBA Draft, and he has met every challenge since head-on. His ability to score and lead the offense is the result of all his hard work, and it played a role in forcing Sacramento to switch Tyreke Evans to a small forward role. He also beat out a succession of point guards to retain the starting point guard spot in each of his three seasons in the NBA. We got lucky and spent a long time chatting with him by phone as he mentally prepared to face Detroit earlier this week.
Zeke will be a restricted free agent this summer when his three-year rookie deal ends, and Dime caught up with him to discuss his plans for the future and what the Kings might have in store for him, plus what it’s like playing alongside DeMarcus Cousins. We also ask him how he remains so overwhelmingly positive and hungry during another losing season, who he studies and looks up to at the point guard spot and a whole lot more during an engrossing 35 minutes.
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Dime: You mentioned on Twitter missing your two sons, how old are they, and how do you deal with the separation on long road trips like the one you’re on now?
Isaiah Thomas: They’re 3 and 2. They’re a year and a half apart.
Dime: No school for them, I’m assuming.
IT: No school. But it’s tough for them. Their dad has to leave. They understand basketball and that I play, but they don’t know â€” it’s just hard man, it’s hard when I have to go. Every time I have to go or I’m getting ready to leave the house, they go crazy and start crying and stuff. But with FaceTime and stuff like that these days, I see them every day when I FaceTime them when I’m away playing basketball. I always try and spend time with them, every time I’m on the road. We’ve actually been on the road 14 days, so I actually Facetimed yesterday just to keep them having fun and playing and smiling and they like it that much better.
Dime: You guys got new ownership, a new coach, a new general manager. Is it tough that you’re still struggling this year and how do you stay positive? You quote the bible a lot on your Twitter account, is that what you do to stay so optimistic with all the losing? Most guys would just go through the motionsâ€”
IT: That’s just me. I know that every day is another opportunity. Especially in the game of basketball to get better and showcase your skills. So every day I’m trying to be me and trying to have fun. This game, I don’t take this game for granted. Especially to be in the position I’m in. And the situation is tough, when you’re not winning and you want to win, but at the same time you’re still blessed to be able to play this game. Make a lot of money playing this game. I try to take every day as a new challenge and have a smile on my face. Because if I have a smile on my face, and I have a lot of energy, that wears on the next guy. I just worry about the things I can control, and that’s going out there, working hard, playing to win and having fun. And that’s all I know.
Dime: That’s great. The business of basketball, sometimes guys lose that. Speaking of the business, you’re coming up on the end of your rookie deal and you’ve been consistently beating out other guys at the point guard spot. Do you ever want to come into camp as the starter, with the team in your hands and not have to beat out someone to get your spot? Or do you like that challenge. It seems like you feed off it a little.
IT: Yeah, one day I hope that I get into camp in a comfortable position to where I know it is my team and I’m gonna be running the team from the jump, but I understand the game of basketball; I understand that it’s a business; I understand that â€” for other people, I’m 5-9, and they’re always going to have doubts in the back of their heads because I’m a small guard. A lot of small guards don’t make it, and if they do, they’re not in the position I’m in, where I’m starting and trying to lead an NBA team. I like all challenges. I’m not gonna put my head down. I’m just gonna keep working and no matter who you bring in…three years in a row: first year it was Jimmer; second year it was Aaron Brooks; third year it was Greivis Vasquez, and no matter what I’m gonna keep fighting, and keep playing my heart out and keep doing the things I know how to do. I’m gonna play as hard as possible and control the things I can control. At the end of the day, if it is what is â€” hopefully I’m that starting point guard and I’m leading the team.
Dime: We spoke over the summer about you working on your game going right. But after looking at a lot of film, defenders still slip into channeling you to the left side. Does that still happen, even though people know you’re left-handed?
IT: Yeah, I definitely notice it. That’s why a lot of times I’m coming off my left hand. I think it’s just kind of hard to guard a lefty because there aren’t that many around; you’re so used to guarding right-handed guys. But sometimes guys are in coverages and stuff that send guys left, which I definitely want to go to. But even when I’m playing against a lefty â€” like Brandon Jennings, who I’m going against tonight â€” you’re confused a little bit about sending him left or right since you’re used to playing a guy that’s right-handed.
Dime: That was our follow-up question. Do you get confused too, when you’re going up against a lefty?
IT: Yeah, you gotta be locked in. Sometimes, just going back to your basketball instincts, you’re [usually] going against a guy that’s right-handed.
Dime: Are there any other lefties that give you problems because they’re left-handed?
IT: Lefties are hard to guard anyway, so Brandon Jennings is a tough cover, [Goran] Dragic for the Suns, he’s tough ’cause he’s left-handed. It’s just â€” you can ask anybody: left-handers are always tough to guard because it’s more uncommon.
Dime: We’ve been going over some film of you in isolations down in the post. Do you get more hyped up when guys try to take advantage of their size advantage in the post? We saw Lowry and D-Will trying to do it over the last week. Do you sort of invite that challenge?
IT: Yeah, no doubt. I just show every guard in this league that I have no back down in me. You’re gonna have to keep coming at me because I’m not gonna back down. I know that the guys that try and take advantage of my height, but at the same time I’m strong enough and my lower body is strong enough to hold my own. I know that, at the end of the day, I’m better off pressuring guys further from the hoop then they are getting closer. So I use my advantage when I’m pressuring them outside the paint. I know they’re gonna get in the paint, and I’m gonna keep fighting, and that’s my mindset for all of life. Like you said, the Toronto game they did that, Deron Williams he tried me a few times. I just keep fighting. They might score and they might not, but I’m gonna keep fighting and keep defending to the best of my ability.
Dime: This might be a system thing, with the rookie coach this year, but when you’re defending the high pick-and-roll, we noticed you almost always go over the screen and count on your teammate to help stop penetration. Is that pre-arranged, or are you just more comfortable fighting through so they’re not pulling up for a wide-open jumper?
IT: That’s â€” for the most part, that’s our coverage. It depends on a particular guard we’re playing. If I’m playing Steph Curry, I’m always going over. You can’t go under because he’s going to step behind the screen and shoot it. But other guards, who don’t shoot it as well, you can kind of pick and choose your spots where you go over or under. But for me, a lot of times it’s hard for me to go under because I’m pressuring the ball for the most part, and it’s hard to get under and get back to contest. Because I’m 5-foot-9. So for the most with me, it’s easier to fight over the screen, and hopefully I get that help from my big guy, so they’re not scoring back inside.
Dime: So it sounds like just a ton of communication â€”
IT: â€”Yeah, that’s the biggest thing with defense, it’s all about communication, especially this team has to be on the same page. We work on defense every day; we’re not a great defensive team yet, but at the same time, the biggest thing we gotta get better at is communicating. If we’re out there communicating, that means we’re on a string and everybody’s helping each other out. But if you’re not communicating, if feels like each and every guy is on an island, and that’s not good at this level of basketball.
Dime: It seems like when you’re fighting over the screen and the offensive player pulls up with that microsecond of space for a jumper, you have a good ability to contest and try and block them from behind. Do you practice that sort of stuff, or just react in the moment?
IT: Yeah, [I do it] because I’m gonna keep coming. I’m gonna contest any way possible. I know a few players do that to me just because, even if you don’t get a contest, if you’re an offensive player it makes you second-guess a little bit. So I just try to fight over the whole screen and continue fighting through the whole play and try to get a contest or make them second-guess.
Dime: Just kind of riding the guy’s hip as he’s coming around will slow him down tooâ€”
IT: Exactly. Anything you can possibly do to slow a guy up because they already have that momentum downhill on the screen. And you gotta do whatever you can to slow them up and force them to make a decision.
Dime: You mentioned looking at other players to get better, again on Twitter and how you’re stealing from them to improve your own game. Who are some of those guys?
IT: I watch Damon Stoudemire. I watch a lot of film on guys I play against now like Chris Paul, Stephen Curry â€” how he gets his shot off. A lot of different guys, man. It’s all about trying to be the best. And to be the best you gotta beat the best and learn from the best. I call them guys like Paul and Curry are both the top point guards in the NBA right now. Tony Parker. You can always learn from those types of guys. Take the moves they may do in their game and put them in your game.
Dime: What’s something you’ve picked up from another player that you’ve incorporated into your game?
IT: Chris Paul. He gets a lot of separation on every shot that he gets. I’ve been watching film on him off the pick-and-roll, and how he gets his separation. Him being a small guy, he gets any shot he wants. And that’s just being patient, changing speeds on the pick-and-roll and just being unpredictable. And that’s how Kyrie Irving and guys like that are. They’re unpredictable with their ball-handling skills and you never know what they’re gonna do.
Dime: You’re no slouch in the ball-handling department. We saw some of the moves you pulled off in the Seattle Pro Am this summer…
IT: Yeah, I got some stuff up my sleeve every now and then.
Dime: Who are a few guys that you watched or you grew up watching that you wished you had gotten a chance to play with or play against.
IT: Allen Iverson. I wish that I could have at least played against him. He was one of my favorite players growing up. Small guards. One of the best small guards to ever play the game of basketball. That was â€” I didn’t ever even get to see him play in person. That’s the biggest name, for me that I would have loved to play against him.
Dime: Did you see his retirement ceremony at all?
IT: I definitely watched that. All those guys in Philadelphia, and how they did it, showing him so much love. He deserves it.
Dime: You think that one day maybe Sacramento will raise your jersey to the rafters?
IT: One day, I mean that’s the plan. I want to be one of the best little guys to ever play, and I’m gonna put in work and dedicate myself to do that. And if given the opportunity, hopefully I can.
Dime: You tweeted out how much you liked to watch Blake Griffin. Who are some other guys you enjoy watching play?
IT: Jamal Crawford with the Clippers. Chris Paul. Damian Lillard. Steph Curry is fun to watch. Derrick Rose when he’s healthy. There’s a lot of guys man, but the NBA’s â€” Russell Westbrook â€” full of guys that are very talented. I like to watch Kyrie Irving. I like to watch a lot of point guards.
Dime: We don’t know if you saw the back-and-forth between Patrick Beverley and Damian Lillard. What do you think of Beverley’s brand of physical, unrelenting defense?
IT: Well yeah, his defense is good, he makes you better. He’s a guy that doesn’t back done from anybody. It’s just that’s the way that he plays; he plays with his heart. Another small guard that took a different route to get to the NBA, but he’s here and he’s doing a great job. It’s always fun to go against guys like that because they bring the best out of you.
Dime: Are things different after the team was sold to an ownership group that kept the team in Sacramento, and the new coach and GM? Are things different without the black-cloud of a possible move to Seattle or Virginia Beach or wherever?
IT: It definitely has changed. The culture, they’re definitely trying to change it. The ownership and training staff is definitely trying to change it and the ownership and coaching staff is doing a great job. Even though it hasn’t translated this year, but you can tell, the coaching staff, the staff is working tremendously hard and the staff is always trying to help. The ownership is hand’s on with everything. They’re at practices, they’re at games. They’re always talking about what they can do to help us and what we can do to help them and definitely different from my first two years. They’re definitely going in the right direction, and sooner or later, we’re gonna turn this around.
Dime: The Kings have a huge following online, but a lot of the negative reaction surrounds Boogie. Tell me a little about playing with DeMarcus Cousins. It seems after he signed his big contract extension this summer he’s trying to develop into a leader.
IT: He’s doing a good job. He could always do better, but he’s doing a good job on the court. The coaching staff is putting him in a good spot to be successful. That’s why he’s having a career-year, the work he’s put in, but also the coaching staff putting him in the spot on the court to be successful; the spots he loves to be in, where he can be most effective at. And on the other side of things, yeah, he’s one of our leaders and he’s a guy that wears his emotion on his sleeve and some people may take it the wrong way, but he’s a good guy. I mean a guy that wants to win, wants to be one of the best. He’s a very talented basketball player. One of the most talented players I’ve ever played with.
Dime: Do you prefer a guy to have a little bit of a chip on his shoulder, maybe a little emotional â€” and the media gives him a hard time. But do you prefer that guy over maybe someone that just goes through the paces?
IT: Yes, but you gotta be smart with it. You gotta be smart with the times you do go off. He’s a big part of what we’re doing. Every year he’s learning and maturing more and more and he knows that we want him on the court more than being off the court. He’s gotten better at that a lot this year, and he’s gonna continue to grow. I always call him the best center in the NBA and he might not even understand that yet. And that’s just saying, I don’t think he understands how talented he is, and that’s how good he is and how good he can be.
Dime: So you’re saying he doesn’t even know how good he can be?
IT: I don’t think so. Not yet.
Dime: Now it might be a bit premature since you still have a little more than a month left in the season, but what are your thoughts about your upcoming free agency?
IT: I try not to look towards that, but at the same time I know it’s coming up. I’ll be a restricted free agent, and I just put everything in God’s hands and just leave it at that. Do everything I can to put myself in the best position possible. I have 19 games left and just end this season off on a high note. And then, go from there. See who’s interested in me, and if the Kings want to bring me back. We’ll see. I can’t control that, I can just control going out there and doing my job.
Dime: Have you talked to anyone in the Kings organization, the new GM Pete D’Alessandro, or even Mike [Malone] about the future?
IT: Every now and then. Coach Mike Malone is a friend of mine. He trusts me, he loves my game. And also our general manager, Mr. Pete D, he said the same thing, so like I said, it’s in their hands. It’s gonna be out of my hands once this season is over and I’ll just wait and see what happens.
What do you think?
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