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Isaiah Thomas Is Using The Rim To Outsmart Tall Defenders

Players as short as Isaiah Thomas aren’t supposed to make it in the NBA, let alone be elite scorers. To find the last player who was 5-foot-10 or shorter and averaged 20 points per game in a single season, you have to go back 20 years.1 It’s been almost 40 years since someone that short averaged 25.2 No one that size has ever averaged 30, which Thomas — who is currently scoring 29.5 points a night — is threatening to do.

For someone who is much shorter than the best athletes in the world, an incredible amount of talent is necessary to succeed, especially at the all-star level that Thomas has. But there’s also a ton of skill involved, and the 5-foot-9 Celtics star has honed one tactic well over the past two seasons. Thomas, who is second in the league in points per game, has found a trick for avoiding the big men planted close to the basket: He’s become excellent at using the rim as a fence to stop defenders from blocking his close-range shots.

These plays usually start with the lightning-quick Thomas (who leads the NBA in drives per game) getting a step on his man. He then leaps for the shot but glides out to other side of the basket where the defender can’t realistically do anything to bother the attempt, since he’s still stuck on the other side.

The 28-year-old has gone to a reverse layup 29 times this season, for almost 8 percent of his layups — a rate similar to last season, but one that’s almost double what it was in 2014-15, according to NBA Savant, a site that tracks unusual statistics and the specific sorts of shots players take.

The sleight of hand at least partially explains how Thomas has been able to get to the basket so much more often over the past two seasons. Since the start of the 2015-16 campaign, a whopping 33 percent of Thomas’s field-goal attempts have come from within 3 feet, up from just 22 percent over the four seasons before that. He’s converting those attempts nearly 60 percent of the time.

This isn’t the only move that Thomas has pulled out of his bag to compensate for his size. He’s also been successful with a now-you-see-me, now-you-don’t sort of half-spin at the perimeter, where he essentially lulls his defender to sleep for just enough time to blow past him for a shot at the rim.

No matter how pretty the reverse move looks at times, the display — and other ones that get him close-range looks — is more about survival at the basket. Think of Thomas as the star of one of those National Geographic films that shows a weaker animal trying to fend off much bigger predators. Thomas isn’t always able to scamper away from the bigger players who are hunting him while he’s en route to the basket: He still gets rejected more than any player in the league. But using the reverse has added an extra layer of sophistication to his finishes, likely stopping opponents from being able to block even more of his shots than they already do.

Less than 10 percent of Thomas’s layups have been blocked this season, the lowest rate of his career. That number also represents a considerable drop from last season, when 13 percent of his close-range looks got swatted and the 2014-15 season, when 15 percent of his layups got stoned, according to NBA Savant.

So in other words, yes: Thomas gets blocked more than anyone in the NBA. But that doesn’t mean other vertically challenged players shouldn’t look up to him and his ingenuity around the rim. It’s helped turn him into the scoring machine he is today.

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Footnotes

  1. To Damon Stoudamire, in 1996-97.
  2. Calvin Murphy, during the 1977-78 season.

Chris Herring is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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