Isaiah Thomas is used to people doubting him. Now, just three years removed from finishing fifth in the NBA’s Most Valuable Player voting, the 30-year-old has recovered from the hip injury that has limited him over the last two seasons and is hoping to have a strong bounce-back campaign with the Washington Wizards.
HoopsHype caught up with Thomas to discuss his health, offseason training, decision to join the Wizards and much more.
When free agency started, you were linked to a number of teams and then ultimately signed with the Washington Wizards. Can you walk me through what this free-agency period was like for you and what factors you were considering?
Isaiah Thomas: This free-agency period was all about opportunity. That’s what it came down to and what it was all about for me: being put in a position where I can be successful and having a big enough opportunity to show the world that I can still play at a high level. When the Wizards called and showed interest, with John Wall being out possibly the whole year, that seemed like a big opportunity for me to be able to showcase that I’m 100 percent healthy and that I can still play at the high level that I’m used to playing at. That was the biggest thing – that was the only thing – coming into this free agency. I’m excited. I’m excited just to join this Wizards team and I can’t wait to take advantage of this opportunity.
You mentioned John Wall, who has been out due to a ruptured Achilles tendon. Did the Wizards give you any kind of assurances that you’d be the starter as long as John is out?
IT: Nah, I don’t really care about that. If it’s about competition, then let the best man win. I will always win that battle. My biggest focus was opportunity and being able to showcase that I can still play at a high level. But, also, I can still bring something to a team and help them win games, which is the most important thing. [Washington] just made the most sense for me, so I took advantage of that.
Brad Beal seemed excited that the Wizards signed you based on his tweets. He’s developed into such a good player. Are you looking forward to playing with Brad and how do you feel you guys complement each other?
IT: I’m excited to play with an All-Star-caliber player like Brad. He’s someone who’s an All-Star, and he’s still getting better each and every year. He battled me when we were in the playoffs a couple years ago, so I know what he brings to the table and what he’s about. I’m all about those same things. I’m excited to be around a good group of guys. We’re going to put our hardhat on every night and look forward to making the playoffs.
As you said, making the playoffs is the team’s goal. Do you have any individual goals that you’re setting for yourself?
IT: My individual goal is just to get the right opportunity and I think the Wizards are giving me a big opportunity to come in and play and showcase what I can do. That’s all I can ask for. I don’t have any specific individual goals as of now. I’m just going to continue to work on my body this summer, continue to get even healthier and continue to get better. This is my first time in two summers where I’m able to really grind and get better [rather than just rehabbing]. I can’t wait to play during the season and just show people what I can bring to the table.
When people are writing you off and doubting what you’ll be able to do this upcoming season, what’s your reaction to that?
IT: I don’t really pay too much attention to it. I see it and it’s obviously there because I’m a big name and, for whatever reason, everybody always likes to talk about the things that are going on with me. But I don’t need it as motivation; I’m already really motivated. My kids motivate me. Being hurt motivated me and made want to get back to a high level. Those type of things don’t motivate me anymore. I don’t have anything to prove anymore. Everybody knows what I bring to the table when I’m healthy. All I need is the right opportunity and that’s all I’m focused on – getting better this summer, getting ready for this opportunity and taking full advantage of it. That’s all I care about.
You told me that you’re 100 percent healthy again. At what point did you get back to 100 percent and does your body feel the same way you did before the hip injury?
IT: During the season, I got back to 100 percent. I took my time and didn’t come back until February, and taking my time allowed me to get healthy. I didn’t play that much this year, so I don’t have much wear and tear on my body from this past year. I didn’t play as much as I wanted to, but I just focused on continuing to work and continuing to build my body. Now, I feel good. I feel really good. This summer, I’m focusing on strengthening my legs back up and getting my power and explosiveness back. I’ll be ready once the season starts. That’s all I’m focused on. I’m getting there and it’s going to take some time, but I’m getting there. I feel great.
You mentioned not being able to play as much as you wanted to this past season in Denver. What was your experience like with the Nuggets and, if you felt like you were back to 100 percent, was it frustrating not being able to play more in Denver?
IT: It was just a decision that the coach (Mike Malone) made. It was very frustrating. But at the same time, I was supportive of my teammates, I was being a professional and I was doing what I needed to do to get my guys ready to play and win basketball games. At the end of the day, me not playing didn’t stop me from getting better. I continued to work. I worked out after every game, I worked out before every game, I ran the stadium stairs… No matter what the situation is, I’m going to continue to work and continue to get better. The situation was what it was this past year and I’m moving on. But Denver did allow me to get 100 percent healthy again and I can’t thank Tim Connelly and the Nuggets organization enough for getting me healthy and allowing me to take that time to get healthy again. I can’t thank them enough.
When a player is dealing with injuries, everyone focuses on their physical health, but it seems like a lot of guys also struggle mentally when they aren’t able to play. There have been many players who have become depressed because their body is breaking down and they can’t do what they love. How have you managed to stay so positive and optimistic throughout this whole situation?
IT: I don’t want to compare my situation to anybody else’s, but the only thing I know how to do is keep going – no matter what. My sister passed away the day before a game and I still played. You know what I’m saying? All I know is to keep going. I really don’t know any other way. I’m going to keep pushing until I can’t anymore. That’s just how I’m built – it’s how I was born and raised. That’s never going to stop. Yeah, some days are tougher than others, especially when you’re going through rehab and going through injuries, you have your dark days and days when you feel like giving up. But at the end of the day, my ultimate goal is to be one of the best players to ever play this game and I still have so much time to prove that; I just need to get healthy. I do this for my kids and for my family, and they really inspire me to keep going when things get tough. I’m never going to quit. The easy thing to do is quit, but that’s not in me.
Now that you’re able to work on your game again this offseason instead of just focusing on your health, what does your offseason plan look like and what aspects of your game are you working on?
IT: My main focus is the weight room. With the on-court stuff, I’m obviously going to continue to get better, but I know how to work on the court. I’m really just trying to put the pieces back together. I’m continuing to work on my shot, my ball-handling and my explosiveness, but the weight room is the most important thing for me this summer. I’m trying to build my body back up and get in the best shape that I possibly can. I’m trying to strengthen my legs, so I have my power and explosiveness back. That’s more important than anything else. I’m able to really take my time and focus in on that this summer. With the basketball stuff, I’m going to continue to get better with the more reps I get and the more time I spend on the court, but the weight room is my main focus.
You’ve faced a lot of adversity throughout your career, from being doubted because of your size or being the last pick in the draft or bouncing around the league early in your career. Some players in your position wouldn’t be able to come back and play at a high level again. But given what you’ve been through, do you feel like if anyone can come back from this, it’s you?
IT: For sure. All I ever want is an opportunity. If the opportunity is there for me to be a franchise player or do those things that I’ve done before, there’s no doubt in my mind that I’ll do it again. I’ll do that and then some. But at the end of the day, it’s really all about opportunity. If you don’t have the right opportunity, you can’t do certain things. Like, everyone expects me to go out and average 30 points because that’s what I did the last time they saw me [healthy], but the opportunity was there for me to do that in Boston. The last few opportunities and situations I’ve been in, it hasn’t been about me going out and getting 30 points a night. I’m human and that’s just not realistic. People don’t put that into perspective. But if anybody can do it, it is me! No doubt about it. I work. I grind. I put myself in position to succeed. I continue to work no matter the circumstances.
I’ve been in probably every situation you can ever be in throughout an NBA career – from being the last pick in the draft, to not playing at the start of my career, to getting a starting position, to being a sixth man, to not playing again, to being the third-string point guard on the Suns, to getting traded, to being an two-time All-Star averaging 29 points per game, which nobody really does, to getting traded again and being hurt and not playing and getting 29 DNPs last year. Nobody has been through what I’ve been through, I don’t care what nobody says. I just keep pushing and I do it with a smile on my face because that’s what I’m supposed to do. I’m going to be ready. I’ve always said that I’m going to be ready when an opportunity is given to me. Whatever it is, I’m going to take full advantage of it.
This may be a dumb question, but where does that confidence come from? You’ve always had that. I remember when we were first met, you were starting your pre-draft training and people were saying you shouldn’t have entered the draft. You just laughed it off and knew you’d become a star player. Where does that confidence come from?
IT: I guess it was the way I grew up. Nothing was ever given to nobody where I grew up. You either play sports or you’re a gang member. Nobody makes it out of there like that. My parents raised me the right way and I’ve never been given anything throughout my whole life. The only way I know is to be a pit-bull and take what I feel is mine.
I’ve noticed that a lot of players are inspired by your journey. Guys who are being doubted or who didn’t get drafted as high as they hoped look at your career for motivation. What advice would you give to players who are being doubted or went lower in this year’s draft than they expected?
IT: Mentally, you just have to be at a different level than anybody else. You need to be able to take punches and keep pushing. I think my story is inspiring because nothing was ever given to me and I took what little opportunities I had and ran with them and turned into a Top 5 MVP candidate and things like that. Anybody who’s never been given anything is going to look at my story and think it’s inspiring, so my job is to keep going. The people who really inspired me were Allen Iverson and those guys who came before me. I know that I just have to keep going and keep pushing because someone is watching me, just like I was watching [Iverson]. I’m helping somebody not give up.
Malik Beasley said that he was constantly picking your brain and asking you questions this season in Denver since you’ve seen so much throughout your career. You’ve always enjoyed helping younger players and being a mentor. Are you planning to take on a leadership role like that in Washington?
IT: Yeah, I’m always here to help. Always. With the Nuggets, the players on that team hadn’t really had too much experience and they were all open ears and always wanted me to tell them what I did. They looked to me for leadership. That’s just who I’ve always been, no matter what. It’s not really something I try to do, it’s just something that I’ve always done regardless of what team I’m on and that’s what I’m going to continue to do.
What message do you have for Washington fans who are excited that the team added you and are pulling for you to have a big comeback?
IT: They know what I bring to the table. I work hard. I’m a leader. If you don’t know what I bring to the table by now, you haven’t been paying attention. I’m going to bring my hardhat every night and give 110 percent. I play to win, and I’m going to lead [this team]. They can expect that.