- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Isaiah Thomas just wanted the opportunity. The last two years had not gone his way — sidelined first by a debilitating hip injury, then unable to crack the rotation on a contending playoff team. The two-time All-Star point guard believed he still was “one of the best basketball players in the world,” but realized he needed a chance to prove it.

So as Thomas stood in the locker room after Monday’s 115-99 win over the Detroit Pistons — having started his first game since March 14, 2018 — he was grateful. The Wizards promised him there would be opportunity in the District — and so far, Thomas is taking advantage.

Thomas has a ways to go before he’s again considered among the NBA’s elite, but Monday marked a sign of progress. After missing the first two games of the year with a thumb injury, Thomas has averaged 14 points and seven assists for the Wizards in four outings. Coach Scott Brooks announced Thomas‘ move into the starting lineup before tipoff against the Pistons, saying he likes the guard’s “spirit.”

Monday’s start was a reflection of all the work Thomas has done over the past two years to get to this point. “I know I wanna be one of the best basketball players to ever play. I know I’ve got a lot left in the tank, and I’m only 30 years old.”

At just 5-foot-9, Thomas became a sensation three seasons ago with the Boston Celtics. Despite his size disadvantage, he consistently beat defenders off the dribble and ruthlessly attacked the rim. His 28.9 points per game ranked third in the NBA and Thomas was named second-team All-NBA after the season.

But adversity struck near the end of his 2016-17 campaign. Thomas battled through a torn labrum in his hip before being shut down in the Eastern Conference Finals. The guard, too, dealt with personal tragedy as his sister, Chyna, was killed in a car accident.

After the Celtics, he was traded twice: First to the Cleveland Cavaliers and then to the Los Angeles Lakers midseason. Thomas started for the Lakers before he underwent hip surgery shortly after. Last season, he played for the Denver Nuggets, appearing in just 12 games as he couldn’t get off the deep bench of a playoff team.

“There were darks days,” Thomas said. “I mean, it’s rehab. For me to go through that for two years, it was tough. I’m not going to lie to you. It did break me at times, but it can’t storm forever.”

The Wizards, though, have offered Thomas the opportunity he desperately wanted. The team needed point guards with John Wall out with an Achilles injury and Tomas Satoransky signing with the Chicago Bulls in free agency. Thomas wasn’t guaranteed to start, but soon earned the role.

In his time in the District, Thomas has made an impression. Teammates describe him as a fierce competitor who isn’t afraid to point out mistakes. Brooks, too, has seen the guard’s edge when it comes to playing time.

The Wizards have tried to carefully manage Thomas‘ minutes to avoid further injuries. Thomas played 24 minutes against the Pistons.

“He’s in the NBA for one reason: He’s as tough as nails,” Brooks said. “He thinks he can play 48 (minutes), and I fight him with many, many times already. Just do your job out there and do it the way you’re doing it. … He’s been great.”

Added guard Jordan McRae: “He’s really doing everything he can to be the Isaiah we know he can be.”

Speaking to reporters, Thomas smiled after initially trying to downplay his first start. Thomas said he never lost confidence in himself, crediting his friends and family for helping him throughout his journey.

“I’m never going to quit,” Thomas said. “No matter what. I’ve been through real-life situations bigger than basketball. Really … It’s been tough the last two years, but I know my end goal.”

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