The former Celtics star’s career was derailed by a hip injury, and he’s ready to show NBA teams that he’s fully recovered.
It’s been a grueling journey for Isaiah Thomas the past few years as the former two-time NBA All-Star attempted to play though an injured hip. The injury degraded not only his game, but also his spirit.
Thomas’ hip issues began during the 2016-17 season, his second full campaign with the Boston Celtics. He was on his way to his second-straight NBA All-Star Game, as well as a spot on the All-NBA second team, and finished fifth in the league MVP voting. But along the way, pain began to swell in his right hip.
His last appearance with the Celtics was in Game 2 of the 2017 Eastern Conference Finals. He was traded to Cleveland after the season, beginning a nomadic migration through five NBA teams over the next three years.
“It was very frustrating,” Thomas said. “I didn’t know how to deal with (the injury), everything was on the fly. I was really trying to do everything I could do to compete at a high level, but I wasn’t myself, and anyone who watched the games could see that.”
The 5-foot-9-inch point guard out of the University of Washington, played 82 games for Boston in 2015-16 and 76 the next season. But over the next three seasons, he played just 84 games total with the Cavaliers, Lakers, Nuggets and Wizards. He was sent to the Los Angeles Clippers as part of a three-team trade on Feb. 6, 2020. But the team waived him three days later.
Just 30 years old, Thomas was out of the league.
However, the COVID-19 pandemic that swept the world and threw the NBA schedule into disarray provided an unexpected opportunity for the nine-year league veteran.
“It gave me time to get 100 percent healthy,” Thomas said. “I was able to get a procedure done on my hip last May that has allowed me to feel 100 percent again.”
That surgery, performed by Dr. Edwin Su in New York, resurfaced the hip, relieving the searing pain that Thomas had dealt with for so long.
“It’s been night and day,” Thomas said. “With how bad my hip was, I never thought that I could play the game without pain ever again, and now I wake up every day with a smile on my face, because I’m not dealing with constant pain. It’s got me in so much of a better place not only physically, but mentally.
“I feel so thankful to be able to play the game again, and more than that, I’m thankful to be able to feel normal again.”
Thomas said he’s back to full health. Now, step two: getting an NBA team to take notice.
Enter USA Basketball.
While the U.S. has already qualified for the FIBA AmeriCup Tournament, scheduled to take place in September 2022, two games remain in the qualifying round in San Juan, Puerto Rico, this week.
The two-game set provides an ideal chance for Thomas to show his hip is once again healthy, and that he still has much to offer the game.
“It was a no-brainer,” Thomas said. “It is a great opportunity to come out here and participate. A lot of NBA teams have told me that they want to watch me play. Here at this tournament, I’m able to play against real competition in addition to being able to represent my country, which is an honor and a privilege.”
The U.S. is slated to play the Bahamas and Mexico on Friday and Saturday, respectively (both games will be streamed live pm ESPN+). Thomas and his USA teammates have been in San Juan since last week, first spending three days isolated in quarantine, and now practicing together, in preparation for the games.
“It’s been fun to be back out there, able to compete, and getting to know my teammates,” Thomas said.
Friday’s game against the Bahamas looks to be the first official competition that Thomas will take part in since he last left the court for the Wizards on Feb. 3, 2020.
“It’s been a long year since I last played,” he said. “But now I’m in a good space both mentally and physically. The opportunity I’ve been given with the USA team is a way for me to show that I can still play at a high level. My skills didn’t go anywhere, but I haven’t been healthy enough to display those skills. Now I am.”
With representatives of several NBA teams expected to closely examine Thomas’ efforts in San Juan, this two-game set is critical to his chances of returning to the league he called home for the better part of the past decade.
While his hopes of returning to the NBA remain paramount in his mind, the importance of the responsibility that comes with wearing his country’s jersey is not lost on Thomas.
“Having that USA across your chest means so much, and anybody that has worn it knows that it’s about more than just yourself,” he said. “That’s what this week is about — representing your country the right way, winning these two games and showing what I can do while doing it.”
Thomas believes he still has much to offer the game that he loves. USA Basketball has provided the chance to show it. Now, he knows it is up to him to prove it.
“It’s time to stop talking about it and let my game do the talking,” he said. “I’m so appreciative for the opportunity.”
Tom Carothers is a freelance contributor to USAB.com on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.