NEW YORK -- On the night of June 23, 2011, Sacramento Kings guard Isaiah Thomas sat at home.
He'd made himself eligible for the draft after three strong seasons at University of Washington, but the NBA didn't bring him to the Prudential Center in Newark. There wasn't much chance he'd be taken in the lottery, giving him that unforgettable experience of putting on an ill-fitting hat and shaking hands with David Stern.
Still, he didn't expect to be waiting so long for his name to be called.
"No, I was definitely expecting the beginning of the second round," Thomas told me as we chatted in front of his locker prior to Wednesday night's game against the Knicks. "I mean, that was what people were projecting me as. That was what teams were telling me. And to slip that far, when it came to that point, I just asked God, I wanted a chance. Whether the first pick or the 60th pick. I wanted an opportunity."
Funny Thomas should mention the first pick: The Cleveland Cavaliers used it on Kyrie Irving, a point guard. And Irving hasn't disappointed in his three seasons.
But so far, this season, Isaiah Thomas has been better than Kyrie Irving. He's been better Brandon Knight, Kemba Walker, or any of the 13 point guards taken ahead of him. In fact, by Player Efficiency Rating, Thomas is fifth among all guards in the league, checking in at 21.
But you won't find Thomas on either of the All Star rosters this weekend, unlike Irving. Whether it's his market, or the team struggles of the Kings, Thomas' season has been largely overlooked this year, just as 59 other players looked more promising to the NBA talent evaluators back in 2011.
Thomas is pretty sure he knows why.
"No, I just think it was one thing, and that was my height," the 5-foot-9 Thomas said of the draft. "It may have scared teams away. You don't see small guards, really, especially my height, around the NBA. And I think that was the biggest factor as to why I was the last pick in the NBA draft."
Nor did he begin this year as a starter. However, 18 games into this season, Thomas' first under coach Mike Malone, the Kings traded starting point guard Greivis Vasquez, all 6-foot-6 of him, to Toronto in the Rudy Gay deal. Thomas would get his chance, and he'd do it playing for Malone, who'd been an assistant working with both Steph Curry in Golden State and Chris Paul in New Orleans.
"I feel like a lot of people need to be given the opportunity," Thomas said. "Because everybody's talented in the NBA. You can see Jeremy Lin, when he got the opportunity here, to just go out and play basketball. He excelled at that, and he shocked the world.
"So I was at home actually, and my agent had called me, said there might be a trade going down. When it did happen, I just told myself -- first off, I thanked God for the opportunity -- but also, I said, this is my chance to show the world I am a starting point guard in the NBA, no matter my height."
Suddenly, the Kings were Isaiah Thomas' team on the floor.
He seized the opportunity," Malone said of Thomas' response to the starting role. "He's got tremendous heart, and belief in himself. He can do anything out there, that's how he feels."
But while Malone clearly believed, with good reason, that Thomas' stature wouldn't prevent him from excelling, his comparisons don't quite capture how good Thomas has been this season.
"He's just another example of a guard, regardless of his size," Malone said. "You can't judge Isaiah by the 5'9"... there's a lot of guys like that. Nate Robinson. Earl Boykins, back in the day. Muggsy Bogues. Small guys with great heart, great energy, great belief in themselves."
But if we're simply talking about the smallest NBAers, Isaiah Thomas' season is blowing those guys away. Among those listed at 5-foot-9 or smaller, Thomas' 21 PER would be the best season mark in league history, just ahead of fellow 5-foot-9 guard Calvin Murphy's 1973-74. To be fair to Murphy, a Hall of Famer, he played before the three-point line existed. But that Thomas is having a season in the same conversation as Murphy's best campaigns illustrates how far he's come already, just a few days after turning 25.
I pointed out to Thomas that though he's often talked about in the same way Robinson is -- after all, they both attended Washington, and Thomas received Robinson's blessing to wear his number in college -- he's operating on a different level than Robinson has in the league.
So it shouldn't be any surprise that Thomas' model is someone a bit more accomplished.
"Damon Stoudemire," Thomas said of the 13-year standout, one who measured out at a still-undersized 5-foot-10. "I modeled my game after him. He's been a mentor to me. I talk to him at least a couple times per month. He's been my mentor since at least my final year in college."
But Stoudemire, it should be noted, was an absolute star in college for Arizona. Height didn't stop him from getting picked seventh overall in the 1995 NBA draft.
So that's where just criticizing the league's talent evaluators for simply employing a "You Must Be This Tall to Be Drafted" sign falls a bit, well, short. Thomas is a much better, more efficient player than he was in college.
Thomas, for instance, shot 34.9 percent from three his final season at Washington, and 32.5 percent over three seasons there. He's shooting 36.8 percent from three this season, even with his additional starting point guard responsibilities, the tougher competition and the longer distance.
The same is true of his free throws. A 71.3 percent free throw shooter in college has been at 86.1 percent in the NBA.
The dramatic improvement in his accuracy, according to Thomas, comes from his consistent work on his shot. During the offseason, Thomas said, he won't stop shooting for the day until he gets to 500 made shots.
"Just work. Just working on it," Thomas said. "Before practice, after practice, the offseason. I'm constantly getting reps up. It's just all about repetition, working my butt off. Because as a little guard, I need to be better on three-point shooting."
This season, he's also improved his shooting significantly in midrange, up over 40 percent from 3-10 feet and 16 feet to the three point line, along with 48.4 percent from 10-16 feet. This step forward came from Thomas realizing that he can't always dictate, at his size, precisely where he'll get his shot. Icing Wednesday night's game with a midrange stepback was further evidence of this improvement.
"Midrange is a lost art in the NBA," Thomas said. "And you can't always get to the hoop. That's been something I've always been able to do my whole life. But guys are just too big at this level to be able to get there, and finish, every time. So this summer I worked a lot on my floater, and also pulling up midrange, around the free throw line."
Thomas travels to Dallas in the offseason to work on his shot with Jason Terry. And Terry, who is from Seattle, plays with Thomas and the other Seattle-based ballplayers in games he incorporates into his offseason training.
"Jamal Crawford. Nate Robinson. Brandon Roy, Spencer Hawes -- we've got a lot of guys, we run Monday through Friday, 5-on-5," Thomas said. "So it's kind of like a two-a-day for me. Working out in the morning, and then playing with those guys later in the afternoon. And working on the skills that I'm working on by myself, but playing against pros."
This is not to say that Thomas is some kind of finished product.
"I think, for him, shot selection," Malone said when I asked him what Thomas needs to work on next. "He has been a volume shooter at times. And he needs to be more of a timely shooter. Let me get Marcus [Thornton], and Ben [McLemore], and some of these other guys off. And as the game goes on, he's gonna have the ball in his hands so much. Then he can pick his spots.
"I think the challenge is, for him, when do I play as Isaiah the scorer. And when do I need to play as Isaiah the playmaking guard, the coach on the floor, the extension of me out there. Close game, I've got to make sure I get us into an offense, get us organized, get us the best shot possible. And he's done that a few times, and other times, he hasn't. But what I love about Isaiah is, he's a gym rat, he watches more film than anyone on our team, he has a great passion for it. And because of those things, those intangibles, I know he's going to get it, because of how much time he's putting into it."
Those offseason games have allowed Thomas to try out things he picks up watching video. So seeing Thomas' assist rate jump to 32.4 percent this season, his steal rate inch up, his DRating improve-it's all part of what Malone wants Thomas to become.
For his part, Thomas is constantly asking Malone about what he's seen in Curry, in Paul, with his sights set on becoming not merely great for his size, but great.
"I'm a student of the game," Thomas said. "I'm just watching film every day, whether it's film of myself, watching League Pass throughout the day, I'm just a fan of basketball. And I feel like one of the biggest keys is your willingness to learn, willingness to watch other guys, and how they go about the things that they do. Examples like Chris Paul, Steph Curry. The top NBA point guards, I watch them. Not just because I look up to them, but I feel like with an opportunity, I can be one of the top guards in the NBA."
So you may look at Thomas on the floor, the smallest one out there, and think of his ceiling in limited terms. But when he's on the floor, that's not how Thomas sees himself, perhaps due to years of practice.
"When I go out there, I don't feel 5-foot-9," Thomas said. "I've always been the shortest guy, since I was a little boy. So I've always had to make adjustments. But when I go out there, I don't feel like what people look at me as. I don't know why, but I feel like I'm just like everybody else."
That doesn't stop Thomas from expressing his ultimate career goal in stature terms, though, when I asked him what he ultimately wanted to be in this league.
"The best little guy that ever played," Thomas responded without hesitation. "That's what I want."