Playing in his first NBA game in 430 days, former Celtics All-Star Isaiah Thomas made his season debut for the New Orleans Pelicans on Tuesday night.
Thomas was not shy in his return to the court, netting 10 points on 4-13 FG (2-6 3PT) with two assists, two rebounds, and four turnovers in 25 minutes of action.
This wasn’t quite like his electric 2015 Celtics debut, but Thomas quickly made his presence felt on Tuesday. He connected on several terrific passes and scored eight points on 3-5 FG (2-2 3PT) within his first nine minutes.
Unfortunately, Thomas and the undermanned Pelicans could not sustain the hot start. They lost 107-123 to the Hawks.
Shaking Off the Rust
Thomas’s season debut was inefficient but still encouraging. The Pelicans signed him to a 10-day contract on April 3rd. They want Thomas to provide some scoring and energy while Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart, and Nickeil Alexander-Walker work their way back from injuries.
After a lengthy layoff, Thomas understandably needs more reps to shake off the rust. But as he readjusts to NBA playing speed and competition, his efficiency should improve.
Regardless of stats, Celtics fans are just happy to watch IT back on the court in an NBA uniform. Seeing him healthy and confident makes the sentiment even sweeter.
Long Road to Recovery
Thomas has faced an arduous and well-documented recovery process.
In the best season of his career, Thomas averaged 28.9 points and finished fifth in MVP voting in 2017. Unfortunately, he aggravated a hip injury that knocked him out of the Eastern Conference Finals and was infamously traded by Danny Ainge to Cleveland shortly thereafter along with Jae Crowder and other assets for Kyrie Irving.
Thomas’s ailing right hip cost him a significant chunk of the 2017-18 season. He spent time with the NBA G League’s Canton Charge and appeared in only 15 games for the Cavaliers before he was traded to the Lakers. For the Lakers, he played just 17 games before undergoing arthroscopic hip surgery and missing the remainder of the season.
Prior to the 2018-19 season, Thomas signed a one-year deal with the Nuggets. However, he played just 12 games for Denver and averaged career-lows across the board.
Last season, Thomas played in 40 games (37 starts) for the Wizards and shot a career-high 41.3% from 3PT range. Though he noticeably lacked explosiveness in Washington, Thomas demonstrated an ability to adapt and refine his offensive game. He frequently got to his favorite spots and took smart shots.
Prior to the 2020 trade deadline, the Wizards dealt Thomas to the Clippers and he was waived two days later. During the NBA’s COVID-19 hiatus, he took advantage of extended time off and underwent resurfacing surgery to fully fix the right hip that bothered him for the last three years.
Now fully recovered, Thomas is vocal about his health and desire to play. To prove it, Thomas joined the USA men’s national team in the FIBA AmeriCup qualifiers in February.
What’s Next for Isaiah?
Isaiah Thomas is finally back where he belongs: on an NBA roster.
“I’m 102%,” Thomas told reporters on Tuesday. “I’m more than good. This is the best I ever felt since before I got injured. It’s not even a question no more. Every day I wake up with a smile on my face because honestly I never thought I would feel this good again and feel back to normal.”
It’s been a tough journey, but Isaiah was bound to eventually get another chance with a team seeking an extra scorer and savvy veteran. With the recent slew of Pelicans’ injuries, New Orleans is a great fit. Stan Van Gundy is well-aware of Thomas’s knack for scoring in bunches.
Nothing is guaranteed with 10-day contracts and Thomas’s long-term health will always be a concern. But like his recent stint with Team USA, New Orleans offers a great chance to showcase his abilities against high-level competition. It’s a huge opportunity to prove he can still ball.
By building on shooting adjustments he made last season while readjusting to NBA pace, Thomas has the heart and talent necessary to become a key offensive playmaker off the bench. His best days are behind him, but a healthy IT can still contribute and facilitate an offense.
Many Celtics fans cannot help but romanticize the idea of a future reunion with Thomas. It’s not crazy to think the former King of the Fourth would make a great sparkplug scorer for Boston’s second unit backing up their star-studded starting lineup.
Thomas is hoping to turn his 10-day contract into a full-time deal with the Pelicans. But regardless of whether he remains in New Orleans or winds up somewhere else, most Celtics fans will continue unabashedly supporting him for the rest of his career.
Few athletes are capable of earning that kind of unconditional long-term respect in Boston. After everything he did for the Celtics, Isaiah Thomas deserves all the love we can give.
Photo: (Scott Cunningham/NBAE via Getty Images)