The last year has been a whirlwind for Boston Celtics point guard Isaiah Thomas.
Over the past 12 months, the veteran averaged 22.2 points, 6.2 assists, three rebounds and 1.1 steals, made his first All-Star appearance and then played a major role in the recruitment of stars like Al Horford and Kevin Durant for the Celtics.
Now, entering the 2016-17 season, Thomas is hoping to form a dominant one-two punch with Horford, continue to produce at an All-Star level and turn Boston into a legitimate contender in the Eastern Conference.
Basketball Insiders recently caught up with Thomas to discuss his recruiting skills, offseason training, relationship with New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, expectations for this season, desire to be great and much more.
Alex Kennedy: What have you been working on this offseason?
Isaiah Thomas: “I’ve been working on extending my range. I’m doing a lot of off-the-dribble threes just because that’s something I shot a lower percentage on and that’s something that I do a lot, where I got the ball in my hands and I’m dribbling and I need to be able to shoot better off of the dribble. I’m pretty good at catch-and-shoot and spot-ups and stuff like that. My main focus this year was extending my range, getting a quicker release on my jump shot and being able to pull-up from anywhere. When the defense has their hands down, I want to be shot-ready at all times. That was my main focus and then also just getting better at everything else. Getting better with my right hand, whether that’s finishing around the rim – different types of finishes – or right-hand passes off of the pick-and-roll. I just tried to continue to get better and also to continue to work on my one-legged shot. I pulled that out a lot of more and improved it. I’m supposed to be having a conversation with Steve Nash in a few days and just pick his brain about his one-foot shots that he used to do when he played.”
Kennedy: You ended up playing a big role in the recruitment of Al Horford, Kevin Durant and other free agents this summer. Entering the offseason, did you know you’d be in that ‘recruiter’ role and is it something you enjoy?
Thomas: “Yeah, I’ve always been a pretty good recruiter. Even back in college, I was pretty good at getting guys to come play on the teams that I was on. Danny [Ainge] actually asked me. He said just whenever he calls, pick up the phone and if they need my help, be there. I said, ‘I will!’ He wanted better players and I wanted better players as well. He’s trying to build this team to be a contending team. We went out and got a great player in Al Horford. We tried to get Kevin Durant and a few more players, but we came up short. With our team, we’re satisfied with what we have. I don’t know if those guys [in the front office] are working on getting any other players, but we’re satisfied with what we have with Al Horford, Gerald Green, the draft picks we added and our returning players; we can build with that.”
Kennedy: Take me through the process of landing Al Horford, and what was your reaction when he agreed to join the Celtics?
Thomas: “First off, with that type of money, he better be coming (laughs). Nah, just kidding. We were genuine with him. We told him what we liked in his game and what we felt he would help us at. He saw us a lot last year, so he was a fan of the style of play that we have along with the coaching staff and the players that we have. It was just the cherry on top to get in a meeting with him and sit down and tell him how interested we were in him with the skills that he brought – not just on the court, but off the court. I think he’s just going to mesh with us so well and help us take that next step in getting past the first round.”
Kennedy: How much easier does Horford make your job as a point guard?
Thomas: “He’s going to make my job very easy. He knows how to set picks, he knows how to roll and pop in certain situations, and he’s a four-time All-Star for a reason. He knows how to play the right way and he’s a winner. He’s kind of won at every level. Even though he hasn’t won an NBA championship, but he’s been a part of really good teams and he can help us out. He’s a professional and knows how to get the job done. I can’t wait to get things started with him.”
Kennedy: How did the whole Tom Brady thing come about? You guys obviously made headlines by bringing Brady to your meeting with Kevin Durant. Do you have a relationship with Tom?
Thomas: “Yeah, we text every now and then. It’s funny because I wanted to sit down and talk to him last season, but our schedules didn’t permit it as we were both busy. Then, when we were headed to the Hamptons, they said they had a surprise. We were actually on different planes going there and then when we landed, he was there. It was a great moment, not just to have him at the meeting with Kevin Durant, but for myself too because I wanted to pick his brain. We actually rode the same plane back to Boston and I got to ask him a lot of questions and we exchanged numbers. Throughout the summer, we have texted back and forth a few times and hopefully I’ll get to go to a game and watch his greatness. I’m a fan. And I want to be great, so I want to build relationships with the great players – not just in basketball, but from different sports as well.”
Kennedy: Last year, you were an All-Star for the first time and played really well. How can you build on last year’s success?
Thomas: “I’ve had a little bit of success, but that doesn’t get to me. I want to be great, like I told you. I want to be better each and every year. The great players always come back with something new and something better. I’ve had long talks with Allen Iverson this summer, just about having that killer mentality at all times and never letting up. That’s how I want to be on the court and he’s somebody that never let up. I think his career averages were about 27 points per game. I got a long way to go to get there, but I’m trying to take the right steps. That means continuing to work hard and never being satisfied and keeping my foot on the pedal. Knowing that as your career goes on, it’s a marathon. You’re going to have ups and downs, but you just keep getting better and keep staying at it and never get satisfied.
“I’m not satisfied with what I did last year. I don’t just want to be an All-Star one year. I want to make this something that’s annual. I want this to be something that happens every year, where people can count on me being in that game and winning playoff series and taking my team further and further. I’m not satisfied. I want to be one of the greatest, if not the greatest, small guys to ever play the game. I know I have a long way to go and I know I have to keep working. But my confidence is at an all-time high and that’s never going to waiver. My confidence is what got me to where I am today and that’s just going to keep me going.”
Kennedy: What are the expectations within the organization entering this season? I recently ranked Boston the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference in our season preview. Is the feeling internally that it’s time to contend now?
Thomas: “It is [time to contend]. Why not? We can compete against the best teams in the NBA. We know that. We showed that. We just got to put it all together. We got a good player in Al Horford and we got a few more pieces that can help us. I think we play so hard and we play so together that it gives us a chance no matter what. Like I said, why not now? We aren’t going to put [specific] expectations on the season; we just know if we can control what we can control, we can be there in the end.”
Kennedy: Was landing Al Horford a major selling point to Kevin Durant? And how did the meeting with Kevin go?
Thomas: “We thought we had a real chance. The meeting went great. I felt like if Al had committed before that meeting and was able to go to the meeting [with Kevin], I think that would have helped even more. At the same time, Kevin Durant surprised everybody by picking the Golden State Warriors. In our meeting, he was a fan of what he had going, was a fan of Brad Stevens and Danny Ainge and those types of things. I honestly felt like we probably didn’t have enough for him in that situation. He’s trying to win a championship now. Like I said, if we had Al Horford going into that meeting, I think that would have been enough. But it is what it is. The man made his decision that he wanted to make and you can’t fault him for that. We tried.
“To say that we had a legit chance at landing Kevin Durant shows that we’re headed in the right direction.”
Kennedy: That’s a great point. Not to mention, you guys will have cap flexibility and more first-round picks coming in from the Brooklyn Nets. How confident are you that you guys can eventually land another star?
Thomas: “Oh, for sure. I know Danny Ainge and those guys in the front office aren’t done. We’re not the championship team they had in 2008. We can always add more pieces. With Coach Brad Stevens and the way he coaches, I know they’ll find somebody. And like I said before, guys like the way we play, guys like the system we play and guys like Coach Brad Stevens. I think if it’s not another star, we can land a really good player that can help us get to the next level.”
Kennedy: Which teammates have impressed you the most this summer?
Thomas: “Everybody. Honestly, guys are working hard. Guys have a bad taste left in their mouth after that Atlanta series. I think with the help of Al Horford and Gerald Green – who is really going to help us out a lot by bringing that scoring punch we need – I think we’re going to be ready. I can’t just name one guy that has gotten better. Everybody has worked hard, and the last week or two we’ve had almost everybody on the team in the training facility working out together and playing five-on-five runs. I think that says a lot itself.”
For more of our one-on-one interviews, check out our recent conversations with Indiana Pacers guard Jeff Teague, Portland Trail Blazers guard C.J. McCollum, Orlando Magic forward Aaron Gordon, Oklahoma City Thunder guard Victor Oladipo, Atlanta Hawks swingman Kent Bazemore, New York Knicks guard Courtney Lee, Indiana Pacers center Myles Turner, Los Angeles Lakers forward Larry Nance Jr., Atlanta Hawks forward DeAndre Bembry, New Orleans Pelicans guard E’Twaun Moore and Sacramento Kings swingman Garrett Temple.
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