“IT3, IT3, IT3,” the delirious fans at Boston’s TD Garden roared again and again as their point guard scored another three-pointer. It was New Year’s Eve, and Celtics fans were celebrating the coming-out party of the NBA’s newest superstar, Isaiah Thomas.
Thomas, who was in the process of scoring 52 points in a win against the Miami Heat, has come a long way since being the last pick in the 2011 NBA draft. After being selected by the Sacramento Kings, Thomas was traded to the Phoenix Suns and then to Boston, where he’s proven that he is one of the brightest lights in the NBA today.
This season, the meteoric rise of the diminutive guard can only be described as otherworldly. At a mere 5’9”, he has demonstrated the ability to reach inside and seemingly summon hidden powers like some kind of superhero.
Thomas is averaging 29.1 points a game, second in the NBA behind Russell Westbrook. That means Thomas is scoring more than Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, LeBron James, and Carmelo Anthony. When asked how that feels, Thomas says, “It feels normal, like the work I put in is finally paying off. I’m just doing what my team needs me to do.”
Celtics coach Brad Stevens raved about his point guard’s work ethic. “Before I coached him, I knew he had a chip on his shoulder, that he was really talented,” says Stephens. “But just how hard he works blew me away. He puts a lot of time and effort into being the player he is.”
Thomas’s plan to do what his team needs him to do is definitely working. Whether it’s a three-pointer, an assist, or a layup, it feels as if he’s at the center of every play. And he just earned his second straight All-Star nod.
The outsized personalities of players such as LeBron James, James Harden, and Westbrook are well known. Watching Thomas play and seeing the swagger he exhibits on the court, you’d expect him to be equally outgoing. But you’d be wrong. “He’s pretty quiet. But he plays his heart out every night,“ says teammate Kelly Olynyk.
Small forward Jaylen Brown agrees. “Isaiah's pretty quiet, but he leads in other ways, like by his actions,” says Brown. “He’s mentally prepared for every game. Isaiah’s a super tough guy, and he’s an All-Star player, so we go as he goes.” And the Celtics have definitely “gone” with Thomas. At 27-18, they have the third-best record in the Eastern Conference.
But Thomas is no introvert. He has done a lot of charity work in his career. Recently he hosted a holiday party to support victims of a fire that happened in Cambridge, Massachusetts. According to Stephens, this commitment to helping others is a defining aspect of what makes Isaiah Thomas, Isaiah Thomas. “His personality off the court is my favorite thing about him,” says Stephens. “I love his smile, the way he interacts with his family, and all the off-court charity and good work he’s done.”
It would also be a mistake to interpret Thomas’s low-key personality to mean that he suffers from a lack of confidence. When asked how he mentally prepares to go up against seven-footers given his height disadvantage, he brashly answers, ”Seven-footers have to mentally prepare to go up against me.”
And when asked if he always feels as fearless as he seems on the court, he answered, “Yeah, I'm not scared of anything.”
If you’ve read this whole article assuming Thomas is the son of Detroit Pistons Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas, you would not be the only one. But the two are not related.
Isaiah Thomas’s father was talking to a friend and bet his future son’s name that his favorite team, the L.A. Lakers, would beat Isiah Thomas’s Detroit Pistons in the 1989 NBA Finals. Needless to say, the Pistons beat the Lakers. Thomas’s mother preferred spelling the name Isaiah, so their son was named Isaiah Thomas.
When asked if it annoys him that people assume Isiah Thomas is his father, Thomas says, “It gets old. But at the same time, I make it fun. Players and fans make jokes about it, but I just laugh.”
Every major player in the NBA has his own shoe line, and Thomas is no exception. His signature Nike Hyper Live went on the shelves last March. “As a kid, you dream of having your own shoe, or being sponsored by a major shoe company,” Thomas says. “It’s so amazing to have my own player edition of a Nike shoe, and it’s something I’ve always dreamed of.”
Thomas overcame a lot to be where he is today, including a major height disadvantage and being picked last in the draft. Now he is one of the best players in the NBA. It all came from hard work and persistence. Luckily for him, Isaiah Thomas is one of the most hard-working players in basketball.
Photographs by (from top) Ned Dishman/NBAE/Getty Images; Aidan Kohn-Murphy