While some doubt the ability of Washington Huskies guard Isaiah Thomas to play point guard in the NBA Draft looming, Cal fans are probably well aware of his capabilities.
Thomas averaged 11 assists per game in two games against the Golden Bears this season and had what has been discussed as one of the most impressive performances of any guard in a Husky uniform during coach Lorenzo Romar's tenure in a 92 - 71 win at Berkeley on January 16. Thomas beautifully orchestrated the Husky offense to the tune of a career-high 13 assists to only five turnovers while scoring 27 points on 8-for-16 shooting and going 8-for-8 from the free throw line.
Thomas' performance against Cal probably still stands out as a major high point in an otherwise tumultuous season, plagued by injury and legal problems.
And games like that were exactly why Thomas had to come out now - as described by ESPN's Diamond Leung yesterday, the return of Abdul Gaddy from injury next season and the arrival of Tony Wroten would leave little room for Thomas to showcase those skills again, leaving the doubts to linger and people assuming that this past season was little more than a fluke. People can question or mock his decision to leave early all they want, but he's absolutely right that his draft stock simply won't get any higher than it is right now.
To put Thomas' point guard ability in perspective, DraftExpress' Jonathan Givony recently told SB Nation's Raptors HQ in an interview that the average pure point rating (a proxy for how efficient a player is at balancing the potential to create an assist with the risk of creating a turnover) of a NBA starting point guard in college is 1.2. Thomas' pure point rating during the 2010-11 season improved to 3.28 after improving by about the same margin to -0.89 between his freshman and sophomore years. And given that his conference PPR was about the same (3.37) it's not as if it was just Gaddy's injury that triggered his point guard improvement - it was a shift in mentality that was evident even from the Huskies' first exhibition game against St. Martin's in which he scored only eight points on 2-for-2 shooting but had 11 assists.
And it was obviously a necessary improvement that added to his ability to get to the free throw line at an extremely high rate and hit the three is very impressive.
In Gregg Bell's Huskies.com feature that Leung cited, he noted a comparison to 5-foot-11 Dallas Mavericks point guard J.J. Barea, who played a huge role in the Mavs' championship run this year who was lauded by DraftExpress as a point guard with "incredibly pure playmaking ability" after the 2007 NBA summer league. But returning to the standard Givony cited, Barea had a senior season PPR of 2.57 and was much less efficient as a player who used nearly a third of Northwestern's possessions while getting to the free throw line less often. Having proven himself to be a dynamic scorer on a tournament team, Thomas has been more efficient as a passer and scorer in college than Barea was while also showing a much better ability to get himself to the free throw line. Just for kicks, we could also compare Thomas' numbers to that of former Indiana Pacers playoff standout Travis Best, who also had a lower PPR (2.78) while also shooting the ball more often and getting to the line much less often.
Like Barea, a stint in the D-League could be in Thomas' future before getting regular minutes in a regular season NBA game. But actually running a team when he's not expected to score quite as often could be beneficial for Thomas' continued development as a distributor. And as confident as he already is, it would only give him more confidence moving forward.
In other words, there's a place in the league for Thomas in a situation where he's given a chance to have the ball in his hands as a distributor as well as offering a scorer's presence, much as Barea did in helping the Mavericks win the 2011 NBA Title.