BOSTON -- When the Boston Celtics starters are introduced before games, Isaiah Thomas finds a quiet spot along the baseline in the corner opposite the Boston bench and, amid the on-court chaos, quietly ponders that night's challenge. Maybe it's the dimmed lights or his diminutive status, but most don't notice Thomas' unique location. And when Boston's fellow starters wander out to greet him as they are introduced, they then point his way when public address announcer Eddie Palladino calls his name.
It's a bit of a habit for a player who has spent the majority of his NBA career in a reserve role. Thomas, thriving now as Boston's starting point guard, says he seeks the solitude to "really lock in," then sneaks into the trees when his team huddles up to offer final words of encouragement before tipoff.
Thomas is the ultimate team player, valuing wins and team success over all individual accomplishments. But the league's shortest active player -- he's listed at 5-foot-9 -- has very tall individual aspirations. And, there's one goal in particular that confirms that lineup introduction is not the only time that Thomas desires to stand alone.
In September, shortly before the start of the 2015-16 season, Thomas noted, "I want to be the best guy to ever play under six feet. That's a goal of mine and I'm going to try to reach that."
It's something he's reaffirmed occasionally this season, all while shouldering Boston's inconsistent offense and making a strong pitch for All-Star consideration while averaging 21.4 points and 6.8 assists in 32.7 minutes per game.
In a league of Goliaths, Thomas is eager to be the best of the Davids.
Which made us wonder: Where exactly does Thomas currently rank in the pantheon of NBA little men? Utilizing Basketball Reference's database, we can sort all players under 6 feet by win share -- an estimate of the number of wins contributed by a single player -- to get an all-time perspective. By that measure, and while acknowledging that Thomas is only in his fifth season, he currently ranks 15th among the 125 qualifying players (tied with fellow 5-foot-9 University of Washington product Nate Robinson, who was waived by New Orleans earlier this season).
A glimpse of the top 15 career leaders in win share for players under 6 feet:
Through four completed seasons in the league, Thomas had generated 23.1 win shares, or an average of 5.8 per season. Projecting a 13-year career like that averaged by the top nine players (all retired) on the win-share list, Thomas would forecast at roughly 75.4 career win shares if he maintained that average (which assumes a spike during the prime of his career before a fade at the tail end).
Depending on Ty Lawson's career trajectory (he's already in the top 10 in his seventh NBA season), Thomas would project to land somewhere near the No. 2 spot behind Rockets legend Calvin Murphy, the only player under 5-foot-10 in the Hall of Fame.
When Thomas namedrops his favorite undersized players of all time, he often references players that were smaller in stature, but still at or above the 6-foot threshold. Players like Allen Iverson (clearing 6 feet in shoes) along with the man he jokes is the "original" Isiah Thomas and Nate "Tiny" Archibald (both listed at 6-foot-1).
The Pacific Northwest -- Thomas played three years at Washington -- helped him forge a connection with former Portland Trail Blazers guard Damon Stoudamire (fourth on the win-shares list) and Thomas has a Mighty Mouse tattoo in his honor.
But unlike many at the top of that little man win-share list, Thomas carries a second chip on his shoulder: The fact that he wasn't a first-round pick. Not even close. He was the final pick, No. 60, of the 2011 draft.
Just about every team passed him over, twice. Even after establishing himself at the NBA level, Sacramento let him walk in favor of signing Darren Collison, and, signed to a bargain deal in Phoenix, he was traded to Boston at a bargain rate.
Thomas wants nothing more than to prove that he's been constantly overlooked and undervalued because of his height.
Quest to be an All-Star
One surefire way for Thomas to insert himself into the "best little man" discussion is an All-Star appearance. Only eight players in NBA history under six feet have been voted to an All-Star game and only four since 1979: Murphy (1979), Dana Barros (1995), Michael Adams (1992) and Terrell Brandon (1996, 1997). Only three players under six feet have ever earned multiple All-Star appearances in Brandon, Fred Scolari (1952, 1953), and Slater Martin (1953-1959).
The NBA's first two returns on 2016 All-Star fan voting found Thomas ranked ninth overall among Eastern Conference backcourt players.
Even with a strong push from teammates and celebrity friends like Seattle hoops brethren Jamal Crawford, boxer Floyd Mayweather (and his 6.7 million followers) and rapper Snoop Dogg (and his 13.1 million followers), Thomas isn't going to win a popularity contest (though he playfully joked about Mayweather's social media sales pitch, "He does that on his own. I thanked him. I definitely thanked him.") Which means Thomas' fate will ultimately sit in the hands of Eastern Conference coaches who vote for the All-Star reserves.
The Celtics' recent rough patch -- Boston has lost four straight and six of its past seven overall entering Wednesday's matchup with the Indiana Pacers (8 p.m. ET, ESPN) -- won't help Thomas' cause. If Boston had built off its strong play in late December, Thomas might have been a popular option for coaches looking to reward a Celtics team that had separated itself a bit from the traffic jam beneath the East-leading Cavaliers.
Instead, Boston has dipped to the back of that pack and now Thomas has to hope his individual play distinguishes him from a competitive field. Not only does Thomas face steep competition, but with the All-Star game in Toronto, voting coaches will have an additional reason to consider the Raptors' backcourt of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan (assuming that current leading vote-getters Irving and Dwyane Wade land the two starting backcourt spots).
While an All-Star appearance is a big deal to Thomas, he's maintained a hope that team success would carry him to that honor.
"It'd mean the world [to be an All-Star]," said Thomas. "I just know if we take care of business as a team and get wins, everything else will take care of itself. Hopefully I make it, but at the same time I'm worried about this team. If we're successful, the individual success comes."
Thomas has certainly put his best foot forward recently. He's coming off consecutive 30-plus point performances, averaging 34.5 points per game in losses to the Grizzlies and Knicks. For the month of January, Thomas is averaging 24.7 points despite struggling from beyond the 3-point arc (22.5 percent).
Thomas' influence can be seen in Boston's offensive efficiency. The Celtics own an offensive rating of 104.0 when Thomas is on the court -- a mark that would rank in the top 10 in the NBA if maintained. Instead, Boston's offensive rating plummets nearly 10 points per 100 possessions to 94.3 when Thomas is off the floor. That's why Boston is tied for 22nd overall in offensive efficiency this season with an overall rating of 101.0.
As Celtics coach Brad Stevens noted recently, "Isaiah is a high-level player. Without him, obviously, we would struggle to create offense."
Only six players this season are averaging 21-plus points and 6-plus assists per game: Stephen Curry, James Harden, LeBron James, Russell Westbrook, Damian Lillard, and Thomas, with the other five players being named All-Stars last season. According to Basketball Reference, the last player to get snubbed with a stat line like Thomas currently has was Curry in 2013 (22.9 points, 6.9 assists).
Despite his size, Thomas ranks just outside the top 10 among paint scorers this season. On Tuesday night in New York, he showcased that fearlessness by attacking the basket, including a couple of strong finishes over 7-foot-3 Knicks rookie Kristaps Porzingis.
It's a reminder that Thomas will be not be deterred, regardless of the size of his opponent. On the way to proving that you're the best little man to play this game, you have to prove you can hurdle even the the biggest of obstacles.