Being labeled an NBA journeyman has to be awkward.
In recent years, we’ve seen players who have been clearly good enough for the NBA not receive opportunities, and not for a lack of skills or experience. Seemingly, it stems from the need to take more swings on players of a certain age, weeding out the NBA veterans, causing locker rooms to skew younger than in previous generations. It’s something that’s been lamented by the previous era of players, like Jalen Rose, who spoke on this late in 2018 regarding Kyrie Irving’s call for his then-Boston Celtics squad to add a veteran presence:
“What ends up happening in the NBA is, the longer a vet has served years in the game, you get paid more. Teams have decided instead of having that 10-to-15-year veteran that’s going to mostly get DNP’s, probably be relied on to play if there’s an injury, but more importantly, be a calming influence in the locker room. That has been taken completely out of the game, because now the team says, ‘I’ll just save money at 10-through-15 and just have a young player.’”
Enter Isaiah Thomas, who found his way back on an NBA roster last week and made his return last night as part of the New Orleans Pelicans, who lost 123-107 to the Atlanta Hawks. Thomas is only on a 10-day deal for now, and if he earns a second 10-day deal, the Pels will have to decide whether or not to keep him for what’s left of the regular season. Even at his listed 5-foot-9 stature, and even five seasons removed from his infamous stretch with the Boston Celtics where he averaged 29 points and six assists before falling to injury, Thomas demonstrated himself to be productive just last season.
He’s far from his peak, but with the Washington Wizards in 2019-20, where he started in 37 of 40 appearances, he posted 12.2 points and 3.7 assists in 23.1 minutes per contest while shooting 41 percent from three. And even last night, he began with eight points in nine minutes of 3-of-5 shooting, though Thomas ended the contest with 10 points on 4-of-13 shooting, logging 25 minutes in his first NBA game in 14 months.
But the absence of quality veterans has increased. It took forever for Jamal Crawford to get back into the league, and when he did, he played just one game with the Brooklyn Nets in the bubble, and that was despite having 51 points to end his 2018-19 campaign. And even recently, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, who is only 26 years old, finally just made an NBA team this year — the Portland Trail Blazers — despite his production for last season’s Toronto Raptors, who nearly found themselves in the Eastern Conference Finals. Hollis-Jefferson, now in his sixth year, posted 7 points, 4.7 rebounds, and shot 47 percent from the floor in less than 19 minutes per outing through 60 games. But because he isn’t 22, and because he’s 6-foot-6 and can’t shoot threes, his relentless defensive effort and generally positive attitude wasn’t seen as enough of an upside until now, apparently.
Crawford is still technically out there. Shabazz Napier, who played with Thomas in D.C., is still out there. Jeremy Lin is probably still good enough, judging by his G League production. Even recently turned 25-year-old Emmanuel Mudiay isn’t on a team right now, despite averaging 11.0 points per game for his career and shooting 45 percent over his last two seasons. The lack of veterans and elder statesmen in the league was a topic Anthony Tolliver and I discussed before he began playing with the Blazers in 2019-20.
“When I first came in the league, everybody had a bunch of veterans and a few young guys,” recalled Tolliver. “Now it’s just the opposite pretty much. I think there’s a lot that could be lost in translation when there are not enough veterans around to teach the young guys. A lot of young guys are out there trying to figure it out for themselves.”
He added that it doesn’t only help rosters in terms of putting in productive players with more experience and higher basketball IQ’s, but it also aids the development of the younger players on the roster that are being collectively built around.
“It’s taken delays of development for some of the young guys. So over time, you’ll see a lack of understanding in certain situations,” he said. “Coaches are always going to be knowledgeable, but there’s so much that is communicated from player to player where a lot of coaches can’t really get that same message across. It’s kind of like the parents of the kid. The parent might say one thing a hundred times, but as soon as a highly influential outsider of some sort says the same exact thing, the kid actually listens.”
So, great for Thomas to continue his NBA career, and here’s to hoping other NBA teams take shots on guys like this who have earned a better exit. If not, the Big3 will benefit from their NBA absence in due time, at least.