Isaiah Thomas pronounced his surgically repaired hip as fit as it’s ever going to be.
His confidence? Now that’s as healthy as ever with the point guard making his Denver Nuggets debut Wednesday night.
“My job is not to fit in. It’s to stand out,” said Thomas, who entered to a standing ovation late in the first quarter against the Sacramento Kings, the team that picked him in the second round of the 2011 draft. “I’m going to do whatever I can to get minutes on the basketball floor and I’m going to play to win and help this team get to the next level.”
Thomas’ last NBA game was March 22 with the Los Angeles Lakers before undergoing an arthroscopic procedure to fix his troublesome hip. The Nuggets signed him to a one-year deal in the offseason and gave him plenty of space to recover from his operation.
He could provide a big boost down the stretch for the surging Nuggets, who are near the top of the Western Conference standings.
His minutes, though, could come at the expense of Monte Morris and Malik Beasley, two young guards who have been pleasant surprises for the Nuggets this season. Thomas doesn’t think the chemistry will be altered in the least for a team that’s rolling along.
After all, he’s played an integral part in creating it, with his robust personality in the locker room and on the bench.
“It’s a great group of guys that don’t have any egos,” Thomas said. “I’ve been on a few teams like that to where guys don’t care about who gets the success. We just care about winning. Since Day 1 when I came here, I’ve seen that. We just care about getting wins and getting better each and every day. That’s a good sign when you have that.”
Thomas only recently returned to 5-on-5 action with the team. Before that he was going through rehab and, on the road, looking for friendly pick-up games at local gyms in order to get his cardio and rhythm back.
Take things nice and slow — all part of the master plan for Thomas and the Nuggets.
“I’m going to be patient with my body. I’m going to be patient with my game, knowing that it’s going to take a while,” Thomas said. “It took me years to get to an MVP level, and I know it’s going to take me a while to get back to that level and get back to feeling like that player again. I’m just going to take it day-by-day and continue to get better each day.”
Nuggets coach Michael Malone tried to temper expectations.
“Everybody needs to remember, when you don’t play live basketball for 11 months, you’re not going to come back in the first game and be the I.T. that we all want him to be,” Malone said. “It’s going to be a process for him.”
Thomas, who turned 30 last week, has averaged 18.9 points over a career that’s included 473 games with Sacramento, Phoenix, Boston, Cleveland and the Lakers. It’s been an arduous journey back from hip surgery, but the persistent pain is finally alleviated.
“I don’t feel what I felt last year. That has left my body,” Thomas said. “I got a goal that I want to reach. I want to be one of the best players that ever played the game. There’s no quit in me. This is just a part of my story, and I’m going to just continue to grind, continue to keep going, and continue to listen to my body and hopefully I can help this team take the next step.”
As for what he brings to the floor, easy: Competitiveness.
“A guy that makes a difference out there. Plays to win,” Thomas said. “I know it’s not all going to come back right away, so I’m not putting any pressure on myself, but at some point in time, it will come back and the world will know.”
The world certainly is familiar with his compelling backstory: The 5-foot-9 Thomas was the last pick in the 2011 draft. He defied the odds and became a two-time All-Star. He helped carry the Celtics in the 2017 postseason despite a balky hip and a broken heart following his sister’s death in a car crash.
“One of the biggest things is they’ve seen what I went through a couple years ago with the passing of my sister, and how I pushed through. It wasn’t just me, though, it was like the world helped me get through that,” Thomas said. “I know my story’s inspirational to all the kids around the world.
“They kind of gravitate to stories like that. Guys being overlooked. Guys being counted out.”