SEATTLE – Despite his 5-foot-9 frame, University of Washington men’s basketball player Isaiah Thomas isn’t the type to hide behind anyone – or anything.
So when he was asked after Saturday’s 88-75 win over Arizona State what kind of defender he used to be while playing at Tacoma’s Curtis High School, the stocky guard grinned and let the honesty flow.
“I didn’t play defense,” he said without a hint of shame. “I played offense, and then (waited for) the outlet – like, ‘Give me the ball.’ ”
Thomas has come a long way since his days in Tacoma.
After a solid second-half performance that saw him limit ASU’s Ty Abbott to two field goals and seven points, Thomas was being praised by Huskies coach Lorenzo Romar for something other than his scoring and passing.
“I’m not lobbying for anything; I’m just telling you how I feel,” Romar said Saturday afternoon. “He should be on the (Pac-10) all-defensive team. He’s played that good of defense for us.”
During this, his junior season, Thomas seems to be playing as well-rounded a game as ever. He leads the Pac-10 in assists per game (5.8 overall and 8.4 in conference games), ranks third in scoring (16.9 points per game) and is knocking down a career-best 36.4 percent of his 3-point shots.
But it’s Thomas’ defense that has the Huskies all atwitter – and, knowing him, his personal Twitter account – this season.
After Thomas chased Abbott around in the second half Saturday afternoon, the UW junior said: “I take pride in guarding the best player on the opposing team. I tried my best to slow him down a little bit, and I did it – my teammates and I did a good job of that.”
Abbott scored a team-high 13 points in the first half of that game, helping the Sun Devils stay within a point at halftime. He had fewer looks in the second half, although Abbott downplayed the adjustment.
“He just denied a little bit more,” Abbott said of Thomas. “But I still found a way to get some good looks. There are more shots I’ve got to knock down when I get those open looks. But I didn’t really have a problem finding those open spaces.”
To anyone who watched the game, it was apparent Thomas was making Abbott work harder than usual to get open.
Afterward, Romar proclaimed: “I don’t think we win the game tonight if he doesn’t guard Abbott in the second half. Abbott was playing pretty well.”
Thomas said his growth as a defender has been mostly about mental adjustments. When he started focusing on that part of his game, Thomas grew by leaps and bounds.
“It has a lot to do with weight-room things, getting stronger and quicker, lateral movement,” he said. “With shooters, that’s the easiest thing to guard because I’ll run with you all night. I don’t get that tired. And it’s a matter of just going out and doing it, having the will to play defense.”
He has also benefited from the presence of teammate and sticky defender Venoy Overton, a former high school rival who has helped make Thomas better at both ends of the floor.
“I learned a lot from Venoy,” Thomas said, “just trying to be like him a little bit.”
The way Thomas has been playing this season, young players might be wise to pattern their game after his – in more areas than just driving to the basket and finishing strong.