As a 5-foot-9-inch guard in a league that trends much taller, Isaiah Thomas is constantly looking for ways to reinvent himself, constantly looking for an edge.
Over the summer, Thomas returned to Sacramento — where he spent the first three seasons of his career — to run a youth camp. Before and after each camp session, he worked out with Chris Jent, a former Kings assistant who now coaches the D-League’s Bakersfield Jam.
Jent had watched from afar as Thomas sparked the Celtics’ playoff surge last year after a midseason trade from the Suns. He knew how dangerous the point guard was in pick-and-roll situations, but he wondered if there was a way to further accessorize that part of his game.
So he showed Thomas video clips of former league MVP Steve Nash, who had a proclivity for making difficult jump shots off one leg. Jent told Thomas that this could become an effective weapon for him, too.
“I mean, it’s different,” Thomas said. “The only guys that really do it are guys like Dirk Nowitzki, guys that are a little taller — well, a lot taller than me. But if you watch Steve Nash’s film, he did it a lot. And in different ways, too.”
The main benefit of the one-footed field goal, Jent said, is timing. In the NBA, a split-second can make the difference between getting an open look and having an offering swatted into someone’s popcorn. When a player is on the move, a one-footed shot can come within that flow, as opposed to stopping, setting two feet, and lifting off, a process that takes slightly longer.
Because Thomas is such a capable shooter, on-ball defenders tend to go above picks rather than behind them. With a quick move, then, Thomas is able to drive past the defender and force them to pursue him. Ideally, the one-footed shot would not give them time to catch up. That would then leave the forward or center to stop Thomas while also accounting for the Celtic who set the screen.
“As you come off as a lefthanded player, you feel that right foot hit the ground and hop into your shot, and you’re getting into it quickly,” Jent said by phone Tuesday. “Whereas if you just used a typical two-footer pull-up, you’re giving the defender a split-second more.”
The time advantage was obvious to Thomas, but initially he was uncertain about the shot’s simplicity. The key, Thomas learned, was balance. When he was able to make one fluid motion and end it with the one-footed jumper without sacrificing form, he was sold.
“If you have your balance,” Thomas said, “it’s just like you’re going off of two feet.”
He started working on the shot from close range and it simply felt like a basic floater. But as he moved further from the basket he became increasingly comfortable. He practiced the shot in pro-am games and open gym sessions back in Tacoma over the summer.
“For any point guard in the NBA, you have to have an option before you get to those bigs, and you just need to be sure what’s most comfortable to you,” Jent said. “And for Isaiah, a one-footer, when I saw him doing it, it just looked comfortable. It just looked like it made sense to him. And that’s all you want.”
Through the first two weeks of Celtics training camp, Thomas has been seen working on the one-footer by himself quite often. He did not attempt the shot during either of the Celtics’ two preseason games in Europe last week, saying the opportunity simply did not present itself.
“But it’s coming,” Thomas said. “I’m ready to use it.”
In addition to the footage of Nash, Thomas has also studied film of Nowitzki as well as Warriors guard Steph Curry, who mixes a one-footed jump shot into his arsenal. Curry is the rare player who has converted one-footed 3-pointers, and Thomas believes that can become a dangerous part of his playlist, too.
Jent said the shot would most likely be utilized late in a quarter, or with a shot clock running down.
“It can catch an opponent off balance in those situations, as long as it’s comfortable and on-balance,” he said. “Isaiah, in a late-game situation, can easily shoot a one-foot 3-point shot, and he’ll feel very comfortable. It’s a feel. Like Tony Parker’s two-foot floater, he’s very comfortable doing it.”
“I’ve got it in me,” Thomas said. “If a defense is set up like how I want it, I’m going to do it. Hopefully, I make it.”
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Celtics guard Marcus Smart missed Tuesday’s practice because of an illness and will not play against the Nets in Brooklyn Wednesday. Coach Brad Stevens said guard Avery Bradley will sit out to rest, and that Thomas and Evan Turner would start in the backcourt.