EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Isaiah Thomas returns to NBA, Suns after injuries derailed his career in its prime

Mar 20, 2024, 1:12 PM | Updated: Mar 21, 2024, 11:59 am

PHOENIX — What the Phoenix Suns have been missing this year is exactly what Isaiah Thomas provides, making the two a perfect match for his return to the NBA.

Thomas brings unmatched spirit. His energy and affection for basketball is infectious. It is fully ingrained into who he is and it feels like you’re watching someone speaking from their soul when he talks about it. It’s impossible to not be appreciative of the game and the opportunity of being around the NBA or in it when Thomas is there.

At the age of 35, Thomas has returned to where he wants to be, officially signing a 10-day deal with Phoenix on Wednesday. It took him nearly two years to get back after injuries derailed the prime years of one of basketball’s upcoming stars and faces for the league.

His self-belief is special, and that combined with the above factors is what got him back.

“The love. The love for the game,” Thomas said Wednesday on why he stuck with it. “I love it so much. Every time I step on the floor I got that same feeling. It puts a smile on my face. I love competing, I love playing basketball, I love trying to figure out how to get better.”

Isaiah Thomas’ one-of-a-kind NBA journey

Thomas’ basketball path makes him a borderline trailblazer.

A three-year player at Washington, he was Pac-10 Freshman of the Year and on the all-conference team every season. But at his size of 5-foot-9 as a scoring point guard with only a 32.5% knockdown rate from 3 (that he improved quickly as a pro), Thomas slipped all the way to Mr. Irrelevant in the 2011 NBA Draft, going 60th to the Sacramento Kings. The “he’s too small” he heard his whole life had followed him to the big leagues.

And just like he did in high school and in college, Thomas proved those people wrong.

“I’m a huge IT fan,” Suns guard Bradley Beal said Tuesday. “From competing against him for so many years when he was in Boston (to) being his teammate in D.C. as well. … To be able to come back now, it’s very unheard of. I commend him, I salute him.

“He’s always been a worker. … He’s always gonna be a hooper. … He’s one that lives it out. He’s a great prime example I feel like to kids and to a lot of people of just going out and keep pushing. No matter if people tell you no, people shut you down — he’s heard it all.”

Thomas cited the exact date of that draft on Wednesday.

“I said all I ever wanted was a chance,” he said of getting drafted with the last pick in 2011. “I’ll do the rest if I get a legit opportunity.”

In Sacramento, he blossomed immediately as a microwave scorer into a starting role by the midway point of his rookie season. After making Second Team All-Rookie, Thomas averaged 20.3 points per game in his third season, setting himself up nicely for his first go at free agency. That’s when Phoenix signed him to a four-year deal in a sign-and-trade.

The misfortune in that move would be made up for and then some by the move that would change his career.

Thomas struggled to adapt in a reserve role behind Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic, unable to find a constant rhythm with a position where the amount of time on the ball he was getting would vary night to night. In January, however, Thomas did figure it out. He reached double digits in the first seven games of the month before another spurt with four 20-plus-point outings in a row while Phoenix went 10-3 and was 28-21.

But the three-guard dynamic was reaching an end’s meet behind the scenes just as it had stumbled onto a groove to get back on track after an unexpected 48-win season the year prior. Bledsoe, the prized possession of general manager Ryan McDonough’s short tenure thus far, was viewed as the franchise point guard of the present and future. That surely frustrated Dragic, who was Third Team All-NBA the season before. He demanded a trade, setting into motion the wildest trade deadline day in franchise history.

Dragic was dealt to the Miami Heat, and at the same time, McDonough finally pulled the trigger on some of his stockpiled assets to acquire Brandon Knight from the Milwaukee Bucks. Knight possessed some combo guard traits and a defensive pedigree to accentuate Bledsoe in a shared skillset backcourt.

But even with Thomas’ recent form, McDonough still saw fit to end the Hydra experiment, shipping him off to the Boston Celtics in exchange for Marcus Thornton and a future first-round pick. Because Thomas was signed on a reasonable contract, the thinking at the time was he’d net an asset if it didn’t work out, and that’s what Phoenix decided to do. Not long after, McDonough admitted he would take a mulligan on trading Thomas.

What McDonough and the entire basketball world didn’t bank on was Thomas becoming one of the best players in the league.

“I was surprised I got traded but little did I know it changed the way my career was going,” Thomas said. “It was a blessing in disguise.”

Thomas the year after for Boston made his first All-Star team and followed it up with a Second Team All-NBA 2016-17 campaign. The Celtics gave him the keys unlike Thomas’ previous two stops and he rewarded them. Thomas finished fifth in MVP voting and led them to the 2017 Eastern Conference Finals. Meanwhile in Phoenix, Knight went through a steep decline of his basketball abilities that was as bizarre as it was immediate and Bledsoe would be the second guard to demand a trade in two years.

But as suddenly as Boston became Thomas’ city, the Celtics dealt him that offseason as part of the package that yielded Kyrie Irving, a shocking decision that left that city, Boston’s own front office and Thomas himself hurt.

It was revealed that offseason that Thomas had several issues with his right hip, including loss of cartilage, arthritis and some inflammation to go along with a torn labrum, per The Athletic. Thomas played through that latter injury for months, originally tearing it in mid-March. He missed just two games before playing with it through that playoff run, aggravating and re-aggravating the injury, according to ESPN. Thomas could only muster the opening pair of conference final fixtures against Cleveland before being ruled out the rest of the season, when his hip injury was made public.

ESPN’s story from that summer details labrum tears in the hip and what makes them so tricky, and in retrospect, it has a foreboding section on the career-threatening nature of the injury. And Thomas was playing through these problems long before that summer of 2017 when he attempted to fully recover. But he would never go on to be the same player again, nor effective in the NBA as a whole.

Thomas across the next five seasons made eight total stops post-Boston, and the cruel turn of fate was that his Suns contract ran out in 2018, so Thomas never cashed in on his All-Star form. His next contract was for the veteran’s minimum with Denver. Thomas had surgery on his hip in 2018 and again in 2020, telling ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski he was essentially playing on one leg for three years and he sometimes needed help from his kids to put his socks on.

Thomas said roughly a year after that second surgery in 2020 is when he 100% felt back to himself.

“I feel like I’m better than I was at 25,” he said Wednesday. “I feel the same. My mind is a lot further than it was. I’m ready to just take advantage of whatever the opportunity is.”

With Thomas’ last shot in the league coming two seasons ago, it seemed like his chances of getting back were done. But in early March, Thomas signed on with the G League affiliate of the Utah Jazz to keep sticking with it. As it turns out, Jazz CEO of basketball operations Danny Ainge, who was the decision-maker for Boston that traded Thomas at the time, was the one Thomas said helped make the opportunity happen.

Phoenix signed him shortly after he played a few games and dropped a few 30-pieces.

Why Isaiah Thomas helps the Suns

The 10-day contract Thomas is on makes his future with Phoenix unclear. But he will change the team for the better, whether it’s across those 10 days or the rest of the season.

“However long I’m here, I promise you I’ll make a positive impact,” Thomas said.

In ways that Devin Booker is described as your favorite hooper’s favorite hooper, Thomas is beloved within the close-knit NBA circles. There is unanimous respect for how he got here, what he’s been through and how hard he plays.

His work ethic, like Kevin Durant’s, is legendary. It was no surprise to hear Thomas say the two of them were at Phoenix’s facility Wednesday morning before shootaround getting more work in.

It’s a different-looking Suns team than he remembers. And city!

“Ten years ago went by so fast! It don’t even look like the same city!” Thomas said.

There aren’t many familiar faces, either. Equipment manager Jay Gaspar is still here, as is assistant general manager Trevor Bukstein and director of basketball communications Cole Mickelson. In a fun “small world” turn, Suns sideline reporter Amanda Pflugrad was in Boston with Thomas.

Suns head coach Frank Vogel is another. He worked with Thomas in Los Angeles on the Lakers, one of the guard’s pitstops.

“Get a chance to see where he’s at with his phase of his career. … We’ll be watching (when) he’s able to play in some of the pickup games that we have, our off-day bumps. … He’s a guy that everybody loves,” Vogel said Tuesday. “He’s a very well-liked, respected guy in this league.”

The role will first and foremost be as a leader, something Thomas is comfortable with.

“When you have a high-character guy that’s a winner that’s well-liked he’s gonna have a strong impact on the locker room,” Vogel said.

Beal gets another trusted voice in his ear to help him out with floor general duties, noting Thomas’ basketball IQ is “super-high.”

“I think he’ll definitely help me out a lot with running the point and just giving me some different viewpoints and ways that I can attack that I may not have seen before,” Beal said.

Vogel told Thomas to stay ready and he quickly replied, “I’m always ready” with a smile.

The coach said Thomas is someone who can help Phoenix out if some injuries come along, not quite matching the narrative web that is easy to fall into of Thomas’ point guard acumen filling the need the Suns haven’t had all year.

The Suns have been trying to patch together the back-half of the bench rotation with two-way guard Saben Lee, who has a limited amount of games left on that deal. Lee brings defense and rim pressure but lacks shooting, which is where Thomas theoretically fills in. Eric Gordon has had seven different stints out due to injury, lasting between one to three games. Thomas could potentially fill that void too.

He won’t need a heads-up.

“If my name’s called, you know I’m ready. I’m ready right now,” Thomas said. “But if it’s not, I can impact the game in so many ways.”

And again, that’s why the addition of Thomas will be valuable. He correctly views himself as one of the ambassadors of the game. He understands the value his story has, whether it’s to the kid in high school trying to get collegiate offers but is told they’re not tall enough or the veteran in their 30s trying to get back to the league they were in before a serious injury.

For Thomas, it was about the NBA and nothing else. He had professional offers elsewhere. Not interested.

“I know my worth. I know what I’m about. I know how good I am. I know the impact I can make and once I got the success I got in the NBA it’s like there’s no other feeling,” he said. “I don’t want to chase anything else.”

Chase is the key word. He’s going to keep chasing it, even if he’s back. That desire to improve and compete doesn’t fade for players like Thomas.

“I want to play a few more years in the league so hopefully this is a setup for that,” he said.

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