Today’s NBA draft prospects are facing many uncertainties due to the coronavirus pandemic. The league is uncertain whether its draft will take place on June 25 in Brooklyn, New York, if summer league will happen and when the 2020-21 season will start.
Isaiah Thomas, 31, can empathize.
Nine years ago today, Thomas declared for the NBA draft out of the University of Washington. The move was deemed risky considering the 5-foot-9 guard was a projected second-round pick who had one year of college eligibility remaining with the NBA heading toward a lockout and no summer league to prove himself.
Despite the heavy odds against him, Thomas bet on himself, and it paid off. But the two-time All-Star acknowledges that he often wondered during that time whether he made the right decision to enter the draft with so many unknowns in front of him. Thomas, who is currently a free agent, reflects on his draft story from 2011.
I see some guys putting their names in the draft.
I would just tell them, ‘You got to make the best life decision for yourself. Don’t just go off what you want to do right now. Figure out the positives and the negatives of the situation. Make sure you know the ins and outs of what’s going on, and what can possibly happen, and what can’t happen. And then you go from there and make a decision.’
I was a junior when I entered the draft. I had a year of eligibility left. I wrote down my pros and cons — all the good things by putting my name in the draft and all the negative things that could possibly happen, which can go from not getting drafted to going in the second round to getting drafted and then there being a lockout and no money coming in, and not knowing what to do next.
My final decision was that I’m going to just bet on myself. I’ll figure things out. I just felt like college wasn’t going to do anything for me going forward. But on the back end of things, yes, the lockout was on my mind.
Everybody probably thought I was crazy, like, ‘What is he doing? He has one more year. He can be in college. So much uncertainty with the NBA going on for that next season.’ But that was my decision, and I went with it.
I went with my gut.
I was back in Seattle watching the draft at the gym at the University of Washington with my college teammates. All my family and friends were at my apartment complex having a little draft party.
I was trying to get my mind off the draft, knowing that I had a couple options at the end of the first round. But it wasn’t for sure. I knew more than likely I would be drafted in the second round.
And then when the second round came, names just kept getting called.
I didn’t really get anxious and start to think negative thoughts until after the Lakers’ last pick was done. I know they were looking for a guard. And they said if I was available, more than likely they would choose me.
That’s when I remember calling my mom. She’s like, ‘Are you OK?’ And I was still at the gym. I was just about to head home because I’m like, ‘Man, the draft is almost over.’ My mom was like, ‘Just continue to believe in God, and continue to have that faith. The draft isn’t over.’
Once I finally got home, I remember I was upset because I didn’t know what was happening. I was just really not trying to be in a negative space but, man, thinking like, ‘Dang, did I make the wrong decision?’
And then my [then] agent [Byron Irvin] called me. He told me the Kings were going to select me with the last pick, the 60th pick. And when that happened, I was just so happy.
Obviously, I didn’t want to be the last pick. I wanted to be picked higher. But that’s a dream of mine … to hear my name called in the NBA draft, whether it be first or second.
I was like, ‘Man, I got drafted. We’ll figure out everything after.’
I know if I’m just given a chance, I’ll take full advantage of it.
I’m not sure how long after, but a lockout was going to happen. No summer league. And that’s when it was like, ‘What am I going to do now?’ That’s when it probably really hit me, like, ‘OK, we don’t know when this is going to be over. We don’t know if the season is going to be even played.’ So, I got to figure out things that I can do.
I was back in Tacoma, Washington, and luckily everybody had them lockout games. The pros around the Seattle area, we all stuck together. And then we just played the waiting game. And that was probably the hardest part just because the college season was starting, too, and it was like, ‘Dang, you could be in college. You could be playing.’ And that was in the back of my head. But I knew I made the right decision because that was always a goal of mine. College was just a stepping stone for me. I felt like there was nothing I could do other than win a national championship that could raise my stock. And how realistic is that, honestly?
To make ends meet, Jamal Crawford and Jason Terry helped me out. Some of my big homies in the NBA, making sure I was good. And I was still living in my college studio apartment. Me and my girlfriend at the time, which is my wife now, we were staying in there. And she was pregnant. There was a lot going on. It was like, ‘Some money needs to be coming in because some doctors have to get paid.’ It was a lot for me, but I had a great support system around me.
I had food on the table. I had a place to stay, and I was fine. I was able to work out and just play the waiting game. But if at the end of the day, if the NBA season wasn’t going to start, and that’s what it was looking like, I was probably going to have to go overseas not just for myself but for my family.
So when the news came that the season would be starting on Dec. 25, 2011, it was a relief. I remember that day. That was everything because it was one step closer to my dream.
They picked me for a reason. A lot of second-round picks, especially last picks, they don’t even get to training camp. And for them to bring me to training camp without the summer league said a lot.
I had guys like Tyreke Evans, Francisco García, John Salmons and all the older guys helping me out. I just went in there in survival mode trying to get a job. I was picking guys up full court. I was giving 100% effort in everything and just making sure I stood out. My mindset always was, ‘OK, I got to stand out however I can. I can’t just fit in.’ The odds of me making it wasn’t high.
My agent called me before one practice in the middle of training camp and was like, ‘They want to sign you to a three-year deal.’ And then he was giving me all the details that it was non-guaranteed. And I didn’t care that it was not guaranteed. I was like, ‘OK, I’m in here. I’ll do the rest.’ I always told myself, ‘I just want a chance, and I’ll take advantage of it.’ That was just a sigh of relief. It was like, ‘I got my foot in. Now let’s do more.’
I had nothing to lose. It was like, ‘I’m the 60th pick, so whatever I do, to these people, is a cherry on top.’
At the beginning, I wasn’t really playing. They had Jimmer Fredette, Marcus Thornton, Tyreke Evans.
I was just going all out every chance I got. Whether it was the last 30 seconds of the second quarter or five minutes left in the fourth quarter and we’re down 20 or up 30, it was like, ‘OK, let me show these people I belong.’
I couldn’t name one person other than my parents and my support system that really believed in me. I had Paul Westphal for a little bit of the season. Then he ended up getting fired. And then Keith Smart was my coach. And I remember it was in February and we were in Detroit. It was before shootaround, he came to me and was like, ‘I’m thinking about starting you. I just want to put that on your mind.’
So, when I went back to the hotel room, I’m like, ‘This is crazy. This doesn’t even make any sense.’ But I was ready for that opportunity. And then before the game, he brought me into his office and said, ‘I’m going to start you. But you got to play well or this is my a– too.’ I remembered that. And I was like, ‘Don’t worry. I got you.’ He was probably scared out of his pants because Jimmer Fredette was his 10th pick. So usually those guys got to play no matter what.
My confidence came just within myself because I knew everything that I could possibly do, because of the work I put in each and every day. And so, when my opportunity just came, I took advantage of it and everything started to get bigger and bigger.
I went from DNPs to playing a little bit to getting in the starting lineup in the NBA and really making an impact. And I was named second-team All-Rookie. Nobody thought I would even be in the rotation, especially without a summer league. And I just pushed through and knocked the door down. That’s always been my story.
I always believed I could take it to the top and be a franchise guy. I always believed that. I always dreamed that. I just didn’t know if it was going to happen. But I knew if the opportunity came, what I could do with it.
The lows I’ve been through — the lowest was obviously my sister passing away, then me having the major injury — I think most people would’ve folded. And that says a lot about who I am as a person just to keep going no matter what. That’s just been my life story, not just a basketball story. Being counted out, not being given anything, being against every odd, and just having to take what I feel like is mine.
I always felt like quitting was the easiest thing to do. Anybody can quit. Everybody can’t keep going when the cards are stacked against me. Everybody can’t keep going when nobody else believes in you. So that’s why I didn’t quit. And I’ve always said my goals outweigh my obstacles that I face in life and in the game of basketball. The only thing I do know when s— gets real is to keep going. That’s how I was raised. There will never be no quitting until I can’t play this game anymore. And I know this is not the end, and I know I got a lot left in the tank.
(Thomas was averaging 12.2 points per game this season with the Washington Wizards before being dealt to the LA Clippers, who waived him Feb. 9.)
There is going to be a comeback because I know what my ability is and why I got waived. That’s half the battle right there. Most guys that get waived, more than likely it’s their ability. They can’t play. They can’t keep up. And that wasn’t mine. I started 40 games this year for the Washington Wizards. I got thrown in a trade that wasn’t for me, it was obviously to get Marcus Morris. And once I was in that trade, we talked to the Clippers, and it just didn’t make sense. So, they agreed to waive me. It was a business decision.
I showed that I could still play. I showed that I’m healthy, and I showed, given the opportunity, I could still produce on a young team, on a winning team, in any situation. … So, I’m just waiting for the next opportunity. And I know at some point it will come, and I’ll be more than ready for it.
I got a Peloton bike. I’m on that every morning and every evening. I got little weights around the house to keep my core right, keep my body right. And I got a trainer that’s with me at all times that works on my body. He’s actually here in Seattle with me.
Me and my wife are teachers right now because we got to teach the kids with all the schoolwork that’s being online. So that’s what I’m doing most of the morning until we get done with that. And then I’m just in the house trying to stay as ready as I can.