Last season, the strength of the Phoenix Suns was its backcourt - when healthy together, the Slash brothers of Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe tore up the NBA. Unfortunately, those two were only healthy together for 24 games.
Jeff Hornacek's two-point guard system relied on having two dynamic guards on the floor at the same time, and as hard as Ish Smith played, the drop-off from Bledsoe to Smith was significant. To adress this, the Suns went out and signed Isaiah Thomas away from the Sacramento Kings on a favorable contract.
Thomas averaged 20.3 points and 6.3 assists per game last year for the Kings as a part-time starter. For the Suns, Thomas will play the sixth man role as a sparkplug off the bench. How does his game compare to Dragic and Bledsoe's? How does he fit into Hornacek's system?
From what I've seen, the answer to those questions is "very well."
The vast majority of the Phoenix point guards' offense came on four play types: pick-and-roll, transition, isolation and spotting up. Taking a look at Tomas' numbers via MySynergySports.com reveals a very similar play distribution, and also shows that Thomas does very well in all these areas.
Thomas ran the pick-and-roll on over 40 percent of his possessions, shooting 44.3 percent from the field and scoring 0.89 points per possession, a number that places him inside the top 30 in the NBA.
In comparison, Bledsoe scored 0.85 points per possession on 42.8 percent shooting and Dragic scored 0.98 (top 10 in the NBA!) on 51.5 percent shooting.
It was quite impressive that Thomas was able to be as effective as he was in a situation like the one in Sacramento, where spacing is virtually nonexistent and Reggie Evans was often on the floor.
Thomas' greatest asset is his quickness. With his speed and agility, and a screener to give him some seperation, Thomas is able to get anywhere he wants on the floor. Often enough, Thomas catches the defender off guard by rejecting the screen and using his quick acceleration to blow by his defender.
Here's an example from a game against Minnesota (he actually made the same play twice in the game).
Thomas brings the ball up and waits on the right wing for DeMarcus Cousins to set the screen.
As Cousins gets closer, Thomas takes a step towards him, and when Ricky Rubio takes a peek to find the screen, Thomas takes advantage and explodes.
Thomas had Rubio beat the second he looked for the screen, and he easily sidesteps the lackluster attempt at help from the corner.
Then elevates and finishes. As if Kevin Love was going to block him.
Thomas has been short for a long time, and has developed an arsenal of shots to compensate for his lack of height. He's very explosive and has good touch around the basket, using a lot of floaters, short pull-ups and difficult layups around the rim. However, even with his skill it can be difficult for him to get good looks off once he gets into the paint.
Thomas is definitely a scoring point guard, but with his quickness he can really force the issue, collapsing defenses and drawing double-teams. When he does that, he's more than capable of dumping the ball off to the roll man or kicking it out to the popping big for the open jumper.
Sacramento's lack of spacing isn't the best situation to learn about shot selection, but Thomas' biggest downfall in the pick-and-roll is his inconsistent jumper, and his over-reliance on it.
Thomas is not a strong shooter off the dribble. He is often off-balance when he rises up to fire, either leaning forward or falling back, and that makes it tough for him to be consistent. He also settles for too many of these jumpers, although part of that could be due to the less-than-iseal situation in Sacramento.
Phoenix is one of the fastest teams in the league, and with the addition of Thomas, the Suns only got faster. In Sacramento, Thomas didn't run quite as much as our guys in Phoenix, but it was still his second most common play type at 17.8 percent.
Thomas shot 55.1 percent and scored a respectable 1.17 points per possession on the break, placing him in between Dragic at 1.23 points and Bledsoe at 1.08 points per possession.
Thomas is as fast from end to end as anyone in the league. If you don't stop the ball early when he's in transition, he's running right by you and all the way to the rim. If someone does pick him up, he uses his excellent hesitation and change of speeds to still get to the rim.
Here's an example of Thomas' blazing speed in the open floor.
Minnesota's Alexey Shved tries to throw up a floater (silly Alexey Shved) that gets spiked right into Thomas' hands ...
and Isaiah is off to the races. Notice where the two Sacramento defenders are when Thomas takes off.
At this point he's already left Ronny Turiaf in his dust, and J.J. Barea is all that stands between him and the basket. Ha.
Good job, good effort Jose Juan. Two points for Thomas.
Unfortunately, he still gets blocked a decent amount despite his speed and athleticism, and he's not going to get any taller. That, and his tendency to settle for pull-up jumpers is why his field goal percentage is only 55, whereas Dragic and Bledsoe are both around 60 percent on the break.
Thomas makes up for this, however, by shooting 41.1 percent from 3-point range in transition. He's quite good when he can step into the shoot, whether that be pulling up off the dribble or spotting up to catch and shoot.
Thomas is much more of a shooter than a distributor when he gets out on the brake. By my count (with the help of Synergy), he racked up 44 assists on the break last year, many of the highlight variety. He loves going for the lob down court, especially to big time leapers like Rudy Gay and Ben McLemore. Unfortunately, those are high-risk passes and it comes at the cost of turnovers, 28 of them to be exact.
Instead of blabbering on, I'll just drop the rest of my transition statistics into a table and move on.
|Name||Possessions||Points per Possession||Field Goal Makes||Field Goal Attempts||Field Goal Percentage||Shooting Fouls||Assists||Turnovers||Assist to Turnover Ratio||Field Goal Attempt to Assist Ratio|
Looking at that chart, Thomas is fairly similar to Dragic in the way he runs the break - fast and looking to score. Bledsoe is a different kin of player, instead looking to play point guard on the break and find others to finish. Jeff Hornacek has said how he is always encouraging Bledsoe to push the pace more like Dragic does, and the numbers show he really doesn't use his own ability on the break s much as Hornacek would like.
Thomas is also a very good isolation scorer, averaging 0.98 points per possession despite shooting just under 40 percent from the field. Dragic also scored 0.98 points per possession on 39 percent shooting, while Bledsoe scored a still respectable 0.92 points per possession. Each of them does it slightly differently, but all three get buckets when they have to.
Dragic is so effective because he almost always gets a shot off, turning the ball over just 15 times in 172 possessions. Bledsoe is really good at converting when he gets the shot off, shooting 50 percent from three-point range and 42.1 percent overall, but he turned the ball over one more time than Dragic in over 70 fewer possessions.
As for Thomas, his strength is scoring inside (47 percent shooting inside the arc) and drawing fouls (eight and-ones, 17 trips to the line for a pair).
Once again, Thomas' quickness is his greatest asset. He is already at an advantage against almost any defender, but he maximizes that with hesitations and head fakes that freeze defenders in their tracks and allow him to blow right by them. His agility and body control are excellent.
Here's an example against Golden State where Thomas used a simple ball fake to get his defender off balance.
Thomas is isolated at the top of the key, with Klay Thompson - a pretty good defender - checking him.
Thomas uses a ball fake, looks left, then crosses over and explodes left.
Thompson barely even moved before Thomas had him beat.
Thompson gets no help from Harrison Barnes or David Lee and Thomas flies in for the layup. Screen caps don't accurately portray how quick he is, but I'm no gif wizard.
Once again, his size sometimes makes it difficult to get shots off but even so he is still a crafty finisher. An added effect of his quickness is the amount of both shooting and non-shooting fouls he draws as opponents often have no choice but to reach out and grab him in order to slow him down.
He has a decent in-between game, with an arsenal of runners and short pull-ups, and he is pretty good at creating contact too. However, once again he settles for the jumper too often, although it's hard to expect a player to create good shots all the time in isolation situations.
In a two-point guard system like the one the Suns use, it's important for at both players to be a threat off the ball as well as on it; there's only one ball to go around. Neither one of the Dragic or Bledsoe are naturals, as both do their best work with the ball in their hands. However, each of them adapted and both were effective in that role last season. In Sacramento, Thomas spotted up more than either one of them so this shouldn't be a problem for him.
Thomas scored 1.06 points per possession, placing him just outside the top 100. He shot 37.5 percent from deep and 41.4 percent overall, and also drew 11 shooting fouls.
Bledsoe scored 1.1 points per possession, a figure that ranks him in the top 70, despite shooting just 17-50 from 3-point range. His real strength was attacking out of the spot up, converting on 16 of his 26 shots inside the arc in addition to drawing six shooting fouls. Dragic was more of a straight shooter in these situations, making only five shots inside the arc and drawing only one foul. However, he still scored 1.04 points per possession because he shot 39.8 percent from 3-point range on nearly 100 attempts.
Just like in transition, Thomas is a good shooter when he has the time and space to step into his shot as opposed to having to create his shot off the dribble. He's also pretty good at moving around the arc to maintain floor balance, get himself open and create passing lanes. A quick look at his shot distribution chart shows he's pretty comfortable shooting from anywhere on the court.
Here's an example of how he might fit into Jeff Hornacek's system.
On this play, Thomas brought the ball down and is going to pass it off to Rudy Gay on the right wing. Imagine Rudy Gay is Goran Dragic for a moment.
Gay initiates a pick-and-roll with one of the Sacramento bigs - much like Dragic would do after receiving a pass from Bledsoe - while Thomas chills on the left wing.
Thomas' defender slides down into the paint to help on the roll man, while Thomas remains on the wing, maintaining spacing while staying roughly parallel to the play and within Gay's range of vision.
Gay makes the cross-court pass and Thomas rises up for the open shot before the defender can get back out to contest. Three points for Sacramento.
This is something I'd imagine we'll see quite often from Thomas on the Suns, with him playing both the shooting and passing roles.
Wrapping it Up
Isaiah Thomas is a very talented basketball player, and he's going to fit right into Jeff Hornacek's system. Everything he does is very comparable to what Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe did last year. He's a massive upgrade from Ish Smith on the offensive end and will allow the Suns to keep up the pressure for 48 minutes every single night. Thomas can score from everywhere on the floor on every relevant type of play, and Suns fans are going to really enjoy watching him do his thing.