If you stand above sea level and point your ear westward, you can almost hear it: the sound of the Sacramento Kings and Phoenix Suns kicking themselves for letting Isaiah Thomas go for almost nothing.
Three years after drafting him No. 60 overall in 2011, the Kings traded the diminutive Boston Celtics point guard for peanuts—or, a player that would never reach the league and a trade exception. The Suns did a little better, turning Thomas into a draft pick that would become a part of the package that returned raw 2016 No. 8 overall pick Marquese Chriss, who has yet to grasp the speed to the game but at least has time on his side.
"I felt very disrespected. Every year it was somebody new," Thomas said of his time with the Kings, after having moved on to Phoenix. "I felt I did a good enough job to show them I was a starting point guard or a guy who could play a big role with their team. But they thought differently."
Thomas responded by becoming one of the best scorers in the league. He's second in the NBA at 29 points per game, and first in fourth quarter scoring at 10.1, ahead of Russell Westbrook's 9.4. He's on pace to become the fourth player ever to average 29 or more on fewer than 20 shot attempts per game (joining Hall of Famers Shaquille O’Neal, Karl Malone, and Adrian Dantley). All of this for the third-best team in the Eastern Conference, a franchise armed with a stash of draft assets and young talent.
“Not to be cocky, but I feel like I’m the best player in the world,” Thomas told the Ringer. “That’s just the work I put in, and if you don’t feel like that, then you’re cheating yourself.”
While that first part certainly isn't true—Thomas has been fairly putrid on the defensive end for most of his career, thanks in part to his limited physical dimensions—that confidence is part of why he's on the verge of his second consecutive All-Star Game.
“I think that’s the difference between me and other people,” Thomas said. “Some people’s opportunity comes and they waste it, because they’re not ready for that moment. I remember Jason Terry always telling me, ‘Opportunity doesn’t go away, it goes to somebody else.’ You just gotta be ready for that moment. To this day, I’ve always been ready for the moment that came my way.”
The Celtics find themselves in the unique position of being one of the better teams in the league and having a fleet of valuable assets that they can dangle in front of other teams in the hope of netting a star in return. It would appear the franchise hopes they don't have to part with Thomas—who is under contract at a very cheap $7 million for one more season following this one—to accomplish that.
General manager Danny Ainge told Thomas the guard could become a Celtics legend.
“A lot of people in this organization feel that way about my game, and that’s the good thing about it,” Thomas said. “When you have an organization and coaching staff and players that are behind you, that gives you the utmost confidence to just keep going. They love me for who I am, and I haven’t had that in a long time. … I’m not the typical point guard, and usually, people don’t like what’s not normal.”