Isaiah Thomas, starting point guard for the Boston Celtics, just had the best scoring year of his career.
Over the course of the season, he averaged an astounding 28.9 points per game, trailing only James Harden and Russell Westbrook for the scoring title. Thomas also took over games on multiple occasions, scoring 50 points several times.
He averaged just shy of 10 points per fourth quarter, which was good for second highest in the league, earning himself a reputation as one of the league’s most clutch players.
In short, Thomas played the best basketball of his career.
What’s more is that Thomas performed even though he’s significantly undersized. He was often matched up with guys a good foot taller than him, yet he still found ways to put the ball in the basket.
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It’s worth asking, how does a guy with such an apparent height disadvantage manage to score so prolifically?
Well, according to the numbers, Thomas launched 1732 field goal attempts this season with 1317 of these attempts coming from beyond the arc or right at the rim. Roughly 44 percent of Thomas’s shots came from 24 feet out and another 42 percent of Thomas’s shots came from within eight feet of the hoop, per NBA Miner.
He also connected on these shots pretty regularly, making roughly 37 percent of his looks from distance and 59 percent of his shots near the rim. Basically, almost all of his offense came from beyond the three-point line or in the lane. The midrange area might as well have been hot lava.
But, what’s less obvious than the shot tendencies just discussed are the various elements that combine in order to get Thomas open looks. Believe me, there are a lot of factors that go into getting Thomas open shots, both from distance and close to the basket.
Thomas is extremely athletic and this athleticism greatly compensates for his diminutive stature. According to his Draft Express profile, Thomas boasted a 40 inch vertical at the 2011 combine. This athletic ability allows Thomas to rise up over defenders on his jump shots, and it allows him to blow by defenders on his way to the basket.
On his three-point attempts, Thomas epitomizes the conventional jump shot technique, often getting a foot of air underneath him on long bombs. This affords him a clear look at the rim, and the opportunity to shoot at the peak of his jump to overcome a defender’s outstretched arms.
Check out how much lift Thomas gets on his three-point attempts in the video below.
As the primary ball handler in pick-and-roll situations, Thomas likes to shoot immediately after he comes around the screen or beats the hedge. Often times he’ll take one or two dribbles and move straight into a jump stop on the three-point line. By doing this, Thomas maintains his balance and gets into his shooting position before the defense can recover.
Brad Stevens, head coach of the Celtics, also utilizes Thomas off the ball, running him off multiple screens to get open looks. In the same fashion, Thomas likes to catch the ball right as he comes around the screen so he can carry his momentum into his shot.
Going to the rim, Thomas once more relies on his athleticism and quickness. He’s one of the best players in the game at changing pace and has a variety of crafty dribble moves to throw off his defender.
One of his more reliable moves is a slow shoulder hesitation from the right side of the court. Thomas will essentially place his left foot between the defender and the ball, setting up for a spin back towards the left side of the floor.
The defender will recognize this and drop back slightly to maintain his balance in case Thomas does drive back to the left side. The instant that the defender shifts his weight is the instant that he gets beat. Thomas, recognizing that the defender’s center of gravity has moved, drives hard to the right and gets to the lane in the blink of an eye.
If the help defense does manage to shift over in time, Thomas will either jump into the bigger defender making it more difficult for him to contest without fouling, or he’ll throw up a feathery floater with surprising accuracy.
These are just a few of the prominent ways that Thomas scores so effectively. Athleticism, textbook shooting form, crafty ball handling, and a variety of acrobatic finishing techniques allow Thomas to thrive as a scoring point guard despite the limitations often implied by his height.