The New and Improved Isaiah Thomas

Ryan Petitt /
Ryan Petitt / /

During the post-game interview session on Sunday evening, I got an answer from Quincy Pondexter to a question I’d asked that sounded like the obvious, easy answer — the non-controversial language of a team leader.

My question: “Which of your teammates has played so well so far that you’ve taken notice of it?”

Quincy’s answer: “Isaiah Thomas. You see what he’s done? He’s shot the ball extremely well so far. And, he’s making the game easy. He’s rebounding well. . . He’s a terrific scorer and he’s doing a lot of little things to help this team win.”

At first, my thought was: duh! But when I thought about it more, Quincy wasn’t giving me the obvious answer. Quite the opposite, actually. It’s hard to imagine how Isaiah Thomas could raise eyebrows with his play again this year after such a terrific freshman season, but that’s exactly what he’s doing.

I see four major improvements in Thomas’s game after the opening weekend of the season, and all of them could go a long way toward the Huskies’ success this year:

Three-point shooting: After shooting only 29% on three-pointers last year, Isaiah has started the year 10-19 from deep. If you’re concerned that there’s not enough evidence yet to know this shooting streak will continue, let me point out that Isaiah doesn’t mess with his scoring. He checked back into the game on Sunday with UW up about 50 points to ensure he put up 20 for the evening. He promptly nailed a shot, and went back to the bench, a minute after checking in.

If Isaiah wasn’t confident that he could get his points by shooting the three, he’d shoot it less. Last season, less than a third of Thomas’s shots were from beyond the arc. This year? 19 of his 37 attempts have been from deep.

Defense: This is the hardest improvement to quantify at this point. Sure, I.T. has three steals so far, but that only leaves him fourth on his own team. It’s more the effort and focus on the defensive end of the court that I’m seeing. And, he’s doing it without fouling (one per game to start the season). Thomas isn’t a lockdown defender at all at this point, and he may always struggle against larger players, but the tools are there for him to be much-improved. We saw hints of it this weekend.

Passing: Maybe it’s from playing day-in and day-out with Abdul Gaddy, but Isaiah all of a sudden has added a thread-the-needle touch pass to his arsenal that has come in handy so far for the Huskies. The assist numbers aren’t there yet (1.7 per game compared to last year’s 2.6). But, since Thomas can draw defenders on his way to the rim so well, it’s going to be fun watching him able to make more of these dazzling dishes to his teammates as the season continues.

Rebounding: Thomas averaged three rebounds per game last year, which he’s raised to five per game this year. There were a couple of instances this weekend when Thomas got wrapped up with taller teammates, like Quincy Pondexter or Matthew Bryan-Amaning, both players coming down holding the ball. Thomas isn’t quite a triple-double threat, but since this team needs an all-hands effort on the boards, every improvement will help.

Left out of the above are his improved free-throw shooting so far (22-27 from the line) and the fact the muscle Isaiah put on this summers means he can somehow absorb even more contact on his way to the rim this season and still finish baskets.

All of this, and it still took an ah-ha moment from Pondexter to consider that Isaiah was indeed the most improved Husky after the season’s first weekend. It’s true that it’s easy to take your best players for granted. Thanks, Quincy, for the wake-up call.