Player Capsules 2012, #58-60: Isaiah Thomas, Gilbert Arenas, Blake Griffin

As our summer mainstay, Aaron's writing a 370-part series discussing almost every notable player who was -- as of last season -- getting minutes in the NBA. Intent is to get you talking, thinking, and appreciating the myriad of wonderful folks who play in our favorite sports league. This week starts with Isaiah Thomas, Gilbert Arenas, and Blake Griffin.

• • •

Follow Isaiah Thomas on Twitter at @Isaiah_Thomas2.

I really like Isaiah Thomas. The 60th pick in last year's draft, Thomas has already proven to be the greatest 60th draft pick in the history of the NBA. Think that's crazy? It's true. (Ed. Note: Actually, I was wrong, it isn't quite true. I forgot that the draft used to go three rounds, meaning that there are a wealth of 60th picks that site doesn't pick up -- including Drazen Petrovic, whose career was indeed solid and who could yet turn out to be the best 60th pick. Though if Isaiah gets at all better and has any longevity, the argument is null. Still, thanks to Greg Wissinger & commenter jbeumer for noting this fact. I left the rest of the post unscathed, but know that I realize the error in my original ways.) Now, I admit, that's a pretty tricky fact, and one could argue it's mostly because the 60th pick didn't actually exist until the league added the Charlotte Bobcats for a total of 30 franchises in 2004. Thus, he's the best out of a set of 7 players. So... okay, that's not all that big of an accomplishment. More notable, in my view, is rating Thomas next to his contemporaries at the point guard position. Or, as the nice folks at Sactown Royalty best summarized here, the fact that you can actually do that. The first season or two a player spends in the NBA is necessarily difficult and hard-to-manage -- the entire lifestyle is different, and atop that, there are new playbooks and more athleticism than any NBA prospect has ever seen in their lives. Temptations abound, practice is tough, and the travel demands are insane. It's hard for a rookie to see daylight, in most cases, let alone produce numbers comparable to a veteran NBA player.

But that's exactly what Isaiah Thomas did. There were four rookies who really put up veteran-level performances last season -- Kyrie Irving (who was a star), Kenneth Faried (who still didn't crack Karl's depth chart until the last third of the year), Kawhi Leonard (who may yet be a star), and good ol' Isaiah. There was no element of rookie rust in their games -- each of these players came to play, every night, and brought to their teams the kind of production usually reserved for a man two or three years into their career, at the very least. To do that at any point in a league as tough as the NBA is impressive, but to do that your rookie year? That takes some incredible fortitude and grit, doubly so to do it off of a low draft position where one had to painstakingly earn his stay. Thomas played the part of a solid, potential-laden point remarkably well.

And perhaps calling him solid underrates him. His true shooting percentage last year -- a blistering 57% -- would place him in the top 60 all-time among NBA players, if he continued shooting at roughly that pace his entire career. There are a total of 6 guards in the entire history of the NBA who put up rookie numbers like Isaiah's -- that is, 11-2-4 on a true shooting percentage above 55%. Incredible company, that. And remember -- he was the 60th player chosen in last year's draft, and was passed on by 59 teams before the Kings finally decided to pick him up. In style, he's pint-sized but scrappy, with a pesky defensive touch and an adept maturity handling the ball and keeping his defender on a string. His rebounding was solid -- 2.6 rebounds a game doesn't seem like much to the uninitiated, but for a point guard, that's actually a rather impressive total. And it's made all the more impressive by the scant 25 minutes a contest he achieved it in. Thomas was solid, promising, and has areas to improve. And he did it all with a refreshing style, a humble assurance about him, and being just barely large enough for the league. Incredible.

A few personal items on the adorable/awesome stage from Mr. Thomas. Here, we have a highlight reel from Isaiah Thomas' formative years -- specifically, sixth grade -- where Thomas proceeds to style on all comers. The young Thomas is caught on camera diving into the stands like a madman, throwing up rainbow threes, and scarring young defenders with unguardable behind-the-back dribbles and enough style to make Mike Bibby descend into a quivering mass of fright and horror. The second is a personal tale about Isaiah growing up -- this piece discusses how Thomas struggled in school as a young kid, and how he overcame the problems he grew up with. And then, if you want one singular example of how entertaining he is? Check out this HD version of Isaiah's absolutely breathtaking buzzer-beater to win the Pac-10 tournament and clinch an appearance in the 2011 NCAA tournament. And this is the guy that went 60th in the draft. But that's all for the best. Because we now have, barring something insane, the best (or close to it) 60th pick in the draft sewn up for the next 20-30 years.

Good work, Isaiah. Keep proving folks wrong.

• • •

 

Follow Gilbert Arenas on Twitter at @agentzeroshow.

There are two ways to approach the problem of Gilbert Arenas. The first is simply to reflect on what he is now. That is to say, he's a washed up old player who's beginning to enter the waning, depressing years of his career. A player forced to sell his hilarious and ridiculous mansion-grotto in the D.C. area to help put away money for when the salary runs dry. He shot 34% from the field (not from three, from the field) in 2011 and an only-slightly-better 40% in 2012 (tailing off to an abominable 25% in the playoffs). He's had his problems on twitter, and his problems in court. Then there was the gun issue, and the sometimes-depression, and the ill-fated term with the Magic. Things haven't gone well for Gilbert, recently. There's no denying that.

Alternatively, you can reflect on what Gil was. That is, an electric scorer whose skillset dazzled as much as his off-court antics amused. Gilbert Arenas is one of few players in the history of the league who truly excelled at the no-conscience 28 to 38-foot three pointer -- the shot no man would deign to guard, and fewer still would dare to take. In his prime, Gil was an electric shooter who nevertheless got much of his value from just how often he'd get to the line -- in Gilbert's best season, 2007, he was a few free throws away from leading the league in free throws drawn per-minute. He also was always a more complete player than he was ever given credit for -- always one of the best rebounders from the guard position in the league, a decent (if sometimes unwilling) passing talent, and more style than just about anyone else in the league. His defense has always been awful, but as a guard in the hand-check era, you can get away with that. You can also reflect on what he still is -- according to many of his current teammates, Arenas emerged as a off-the-bench leader for them. Despite his lacking production, and his age, and his varied injuries -- there's still a wealth of respect there, and the sense that Arenas truly has been in the trenches of the playoff wars. Has he? Not really. He's only had one particularly inspiring personal playoff run, that being the Wizards' 2006 thriller against a very good Cleveland Cavaliers team. But the sense remains, and respect persists.

One last thing. The gun issue will always loom darkly over Gilbert's legacy, but all things considered, shouldn't Javaris Crittenton's current status exonerate him a bit? Yes, Arenas offered the gun, but it was only after threats from Crittenton and multiple confrontations. And while at the time Arenas bore the brunt of the blame, years later, Crittenton was arrested on suspicion of murdering a pregnant mother of four in a drive-by shooting. I'm not one to think that this truly EXONERATES Arenas, but doesn't this at least partially let him off the hook? For Arenas, there hasn't been a single report of trouble since the incident. The only thing is his divorce, but even then, how is that any way comparable to murder? Nobody knows exactly what went on in that locker room, and nobody knows the conditions under which the spat occurred. But if Crittenton's disturbing recent history tells us anything, it would tend to indicate that Arenas might've gotten far too much of the blame for the incident.

And that says it all for poor Gilbert. A man doomed to be eternally in the wrong place at the wrong time, whose skills -- never easy to appreciate in the first place -- made to be a longstanding joke in a tableau of bad ideas and poor decisions. I'm hoping he comes back next year, plays a full healthy season, and goes off into the sunset after a long playoff run as a contributor to a good team. I don't have much faith it happens. But I hope all the same. So here's to you, Gilbert -- the second half of one of my favorite interviews ever, and an interesting person despite his myriad flaws. At least you have your millions, mate.

• • •

 

Follow Blake Griffin on Twitter at @blakegriffin.

I'll come clean. Blake Griffin isn't a player I enjoy watching. All of two years into what will probably be a 12-15 year NBA career, it's a bit of a journey to realize why. All things considered, Blake has been an exceedingly impressive NBA player in his two year run. He's been a plus rebounder, ranking in the top 10 in rebounds-per-game twice in his two-year career. (Yes, that's every year.) His passing is and has always been absolutely exquisite -- he's the best passing big man this side of Pau Gasol, and while he's not as good as Tim Duncan was early in Duncan's career, that's a ridiculous standard to hold a young player to. Furthermore, Blake's scoring has been solid, if not incredible -- 21 points per game is a fantastic total, and his 55% field goal percentage is eye-popping, but I'd say that any player who takes five shots a game from 10 feet outward despite shooting less than 37% from that range falls quite a bit short of incredible, especially when he's hovering around 50% from the free throw line.

I remember when Blake entered the league in 2009, there was talk that he was working hard to develop a three point shot. He broke it out a few times in preseason, and the form was decent, but he was making very few of them. That pattern continued badly when he finally got past his injuries and made it to the league -- he's made a total of nine three point shots on a startling forty attempts, including a downright hilarious 2-16 in the 2012 season. As he goes forward in his career, he should eventually clean that up (as well as his broader problem of taking far too many tough fadeaway jump shots he has no chance of hitting), but as of now it's absurd that his coach and teammates don't sit him down and go "Blake. Come on, buddy. You aren't Juwan Howard. Chill out." So too are the free throw attempts a problem -- until Blake can consistently make over 70% of his free throws (of note: the league average for the four was 74% last season, so that's not a huge bar to climb), Griffin's trips to the line are going to be a proverbial shut-off valve for his productivity. Much like Shaq at his prime, actually.

And there we go. That uncovers the underlying problem. I've never really been a fan of Shaq's game -- dominant from a physical standpoint, certainly, but the defense fell off soon after he left Orlando. The offense was always amazing, and a feat to watch. But I never escaped the sense of Shaq as a player holding himself back simply by refusing to grow up and take care of his gift. That was what differentiated O'Neal from Duncan and Garnett, for me -- both of them went on extreme diets and went about their efforts to keep in shape quietly, while O'Neal only late in his career began to realize all the years he'd simply thrown away with his exuberant overindulgence and his devil-may-care attitude towards his physical gifts. Someday, he wouldn't simply be able to dunk on everyone. What would he do then? As we saw, he'd fade away as something of a joke -- his last few years were ineffective due to either his inability to accept his fading athleticism (Cleveland) or his inability to keep lingering injuries from slaying his ability to stay on the court (Boston). And the off-court shenanigans? There's some element of fakery and facile impishness to Shaq's antics -- it wowed the uninitiated, but to those partial to the darker recesses of Shaq's problems with outright idea-swiping, there was a hollow and disturbing undertone to his clowning around. Which is perhaps why he's been such a bust at TNT.

Regardless. Shaq rubs me the wrong way, and in a similar sense, Blake's two years have done the same. Coming out of college I was completely aboard the Blake Griffin bandwagon, thinking him to be a generational talent that was soon to remake the league in his own image. Perhaps I overestimated him, but watching him in the league, I simply get the sense that there's a surfeit of exposure around him that's put up a wall between him and the advancement of his game. In his two years, I simply haven't seen any tangible evolution from Blake -- he came into the league as a flexing dunkmaster with the potential for a bruising post game, all-world rebounding talent, and admittedly woeful defense. At two years running, he's... a flexing dunkmaster with the potential for a bruising post game, all-world rebounding talent, and admittedly woeful defense. Blake Griffin's defensive evolution has been essentially absent in his time in the league. Whether you attribute it to his incredibly lacking length or a lack of effort on his part, he's been an awful defender with seemingly no real desire to get better.

In fact, the only thing he's really gotten better at -- in terms of his "defense" -- has been his preening, wherein he's been more artful and boistrous about his exaltations at dunks over other players as his time in the league goes on. He's also gotten a bit dirtier -- Blake sets awful screens, but instead of learning how to set proper ones, he nudges the roller or grabs a jersey surreptitiously. Or not so surreptitiously. He doesn't take much of an effort to recover on spot-up shooters, but he does put in the effort to whinge endlessly at the referees when he feels they've missed a foul call. Which, full disclosure, I don't totally mind when Manu Ginobili does it. But that's mostly because Manu doesn't tend to let it impact possessions -- Blake has several possessions a night where he simply doesn't return on defense, too busy yelling his case with abandon to the closest referee. And all that said? Look at his numbers. A guaranteed 20-10, night after night. The heir apparent as best passing big man in the NBA. Probably will improve, at least on offense, as his shot selection works itself out. He's a great player already (not top 10, as last year's NBA Rank would indicate, but at least top 30). Someday, Blake can be a great NBA player. But that does involve developing, a bit -- he hasn't done it yet, and with effort like this, I find myself almost hoping he doesn't. After all. Shaq "developed" his way into a dominant run and it ruined his later career -- maybe, just maybe, if Blake hits a wall he'll realize he need to defend and set screens and do all that nice stuff. Maybe he'll figure it all out, and his off-court stuff will seem less mass-marketed for public consumption and more from-the-heart. Perhaps he'll figure it all out and make the me of a few years ago -- who really loved Griffin's game and wanted him to be a great NBA player -- a believer again.

As of yet, he hasn't. But he's 23, believe it or not. Kid's got time, thankfully.

• • •

At the end of each post, I'll be scribing riddles for the next group. Whoever gets the most right will get a shout out at the end of the next post. Tweet me your answers at @docrostov, or post them in the comments. We got a 3/3 again, from reader Umlaut. Good work, sir.

  • One of the worst draft picks I've ever made in fantasy basketball was Player #61, who I picked up last season in the 4th or 5th round after I'd gotten him off waivers in 2011. He was incredibly prolific in 2011, but in 2012, struggled a bit. Moving teams now, but where's the playing time coming from?
  • If "Extreme Planking: NBA edition" was a show, Player #62 would win the grand prize. Even if there was no grand prize. They'd make a new grand prize entirely to recognize his ongoing achievements in planking.
  • One of the most "meh" players in the NBA -- offensively, Player #63 has been one of the 5-10 best players in the league for the last 5 or 6 years (finally falling off last year), but it hasn't really pushed the needle because his game is tedious to watch and he's been exclusively on non-playoff teams. That, and his defense is a literal house of horrors. Buyer beware.

More tomorrow. Sorry for the delay on today's batch. Oversleeping isn't cool for cats.

14 comments on “Player Capsules 2012, #58-60: Isaiah Thomas, Gilbert Arenas, Blake Griffin

  1. 1. Dorrell Wright
    2. Dwight Howard
    3. Brandon Jennings?

    Isaiah's just another in the Northwests' storied tradition of ridiculously undersized but overwhelmingly fun-to-watch point guards. NBD.

  2. Because the NBA draft used to go for 7 rounds, there are a lot more 60th draft picks then you think. Two very recognizable names, Drazen Petrovic (1986-Blazers) and Michael Cooper (1978-Lakers) were the 60th picks of their respective drafts. And what about Woody Sauldsberry (1957- Philadelphia Warriors), the 1958 ROY and the Immortal John Tschogl (1972- Warriors) ?

    Actually Tschogl was pretty forgettable. Never mind.

    • Yeah, Greg Wissinger pointed this out to me as well. You're absolutely right. Personally, I'd say he's been better than Cooper. Drazen is another story, and you're totally correct that I got my facts wrong there. Post has been edited to reflect that.

    • You got all three right, but literally three minutes after I posted them. Sorry for the lack of a shoutout!

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