Late last month, former Celtics point guard Isaiah Thomas went to Los Angeles to work out with his former Wizards teammate, John Wall. While they were training Wall learned of some high-level pickup games taking place in the city, headlined by Nets stars Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. Wall asked Thomas if he wanted to join, and Thomas did not hesitate to say yes.
It would be some of his first five-on-five action since the latest procedure on his troublesome right hip. This time, doctors had done a resurfacing, essentially creating more space in the joint to give him full range of motion. He said that prior to the operation, “It was just bone on bone.” Now, he says, his right hip feels even better than his left. And the chance to test it against the best players in the world was too good to pass up.
On the court, the 31-year-old Thomas said, he was carving and cutting and swirling just as he once did. He said it felt wonderful. He said it felt like he had finally found his swagger again.
“Those guys were like, ‘Damn, welcome back. You really look like yourself,’ ” Thomas recalled. “That only gave me more confidence to be able to play the game again. I mean, I was blowing by people. I haven’t blown by anybody since I had a Celtics uniform on. When I was able to blow by MVP-caliber players, that told me my burst and power and speed are there. I really feel like I’m back.”
Now, though, Thomas must persuade an NBA team that this is reality and not a mirage. He was waived after the Wizards traded him to the Clippers last February and was not signed elsewhere. Now, the first four days of free agency have passed and roster spots are being gobbled up, and Thomas is still without a team.
“We’ll see what happens,” he said. “But I’m ready.”
In 2016-2017, Thomas crafted one of the most dominant seasons in Celtics history. He averaged 28.9 points and was an All-Star and a second-team All-NBA performer. He gave Boston all he could until he simply could not give anymore, his right hip crumbling beneath him in the conference semifinals.
His path since then has been rocky and unnerving and frustrating, as his hip kept him from being the pint-size menace that enchanted the TD Garden crowd for 2½ seasons. He tried rest. He tried surgery. He tried anti-inflammatories. He tried just believing.
He understands why some might be skeptical now, because during those comebacks and test drives with the Cavaliers, Lakers, Nuggets, and Wizards over the past three seasons, he often proclaimed that he had regained his powers, even though it was clear he had not. He admits now that he had no other choice.
“I had to say that,” Thomas said. “If I didn’t say that, I probably wouldn’t have gotten the chances I did with Denver and the Wizards. People who were around me every day or had seen me before I got injured obviously knew I wasn’t myself. I was definitely feeling better but it wasn’t good enough, and I think people saw that. I knew, but I had to make people believe I was OK when I really wasn’t. But, this time around, I’m feeling really good, and people can see it for themselves.”
Thomas said he was in constant pain for several years as he sought answers and remedies for the hip impingement and labral tear. Still, he remained a relatively productive offensive player given the circumstances. In 40 games with the Wizards last season, he averaged 12.2 points over just 23.1 minutes per game and shot a career-best 41.3 percent from beyond the 3-point line.
“I was really playing on one leg against the best players in the world,” he said. “That’s difficult for anybody. I just had to adjust my game to where I was able to make an impact in any way possible. I relied on my jump shot more than I usually do, and my strength has always been getting in the paint and finishing around the rim. Now I’m able to move, get to the hoop, and put pressure on the defense.”
Thomas had the resurfacing procedure about seven months ago. He was on crutches for about two weeks afterward and then began training five or six days a week. He started on-court work about three months ago and has had no setbacks. He said he has testing results to show teams medical evidence of his improved condition, too.
In addition to the runs with Irving, Durant, and Wall, he has played more frequent pickup games in the Seattle area with NBA players such as Zach LaVine, Marquese Chriss, and Jamal Crawford.
Crawford said it is clear Thomas’s burst has returned.
“This is the most healthy I’ve seen him look since Boston,” Crawford said. “He’s healthy, he’s spry, and he has that pop in his step. And he can play for long stretches now. It’s not like, ‘Man, I played yesterday, I can’t play today.’ It’s not that. Now it’s, ‘No, let’s go. Let’s go longer.’ You can tell he’s a new person.”
Crawford, one of the NBA’s most well-respected players, said he would give his full endorsement of Thomas to any general manager who asked for it. Thomas, meanwhile, is eager to prove it himself.
“I’m done talking about it now,” he said. “I just want to show it. Whoever’s going to give me a chance will see that I can be a big piece, I can be a small piece, I can be whatever a team needs me to bring. I just want to be a part of something, and I want to help.”
Adam Himmelsbach can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @adamhimmelsbach.