1-on-1 with Isiah Thomas: On Raptors’ Anunoby, NBA’s bright future

OG Anunoby sizes up Washington Wizards star Bradley Beal (Frank Gunn/CP)

“Forget the career. Forget the hall of fame. Forget all of that,” Isiah Thomas tells me from a hotel conference room overlooking the rain-soaked Maple Leaf Square on Sunday. “I’m still a basketball junkie. If it’s hoops then shoot me up!”

I spoke with the Detroit Pistons legend and original part-owner/executive vice-president of the Toronto Raptors on a wide-range of basketball and NBA-related topics, from Raptors rookie and fellow Indiana alumn OG Anunoby, to the meteoric rise of women’s basketball in Canada, and why he has “much respect” for what Michael Jordan did for the sport in Toronto during the Raptors inaugural season.

In the first part of the interview, Thomas talks about Anunoby, the icons of his era, why originality will help the next generation of young stars push the NBA to new heights, the hazards of advanced analytics, and how as an executive “dumb players will get you beat” on draft night.

For part two of the interview, click here.

Dave Zarum: How closely did you follow OG Anunoby’s career when he was at your alma mater at Indiana?

Isiah Thomas: I always go down and watch Indiana play. I attend a lot of their practices and games when he was there with coach Tom Crean. I was actually at the North Carolina game when he got hurt.

The size and athleticism that he has, the quickness, the skill— it jumps out at you right away. I never felt that the college game was able to expose what he was really capable of. There are so many zones, and limited possesions. You’re in and out of the game, playing three to four minute bursts until the next group came in. But credit to [Raptors president] Masai [Ujiri] for understanding what he was watching, because [Anunoby] has a chance to be really special.

Falling to 23rd overall in the draft obviously had a lot to do with his injury. Does it surprise you that so many teams would be scared off by that given how advanced rehab, treatments, and the medical side of things have come over the years? I think of your Achilles injury— you’d probably have recovered from that and played longer if that happened today.

It clearly wouldn’t be as invasive of a surgery as it was back then. The way the game is today— and I say this sadly— everyone looks for the little guy who can stand out on the perimeter, shoot it, look all cute and stuff. I still believe to this day that when the big guys show up, and they start huffing and puffing and throwing their weight around…In this sport, if the big guys play big they’ll beat the little guy every time. And the only reason they can make the impact that they do is because the rules are catered to them now.

So when OG falls to number 23, it’s only because the mindset of most GMs these days is to find a guy who can stand outside and shoot the three and make people clap. One day soon I think the pendulum will swing back toward the middle and the big guys will be meaningful again.

It might take some of the current players, like Joel Embiid or Karl-Anthony Towns to force that to happen sooner rather than later.

Embiid, I think [Anthony] Davis, [Demarcus] Cousins. The bigs are starting to come back in vogue, and if they continue on the track that they’re on then teams will have to start drafting bigger again. Those three alone, plus someone like [Kristaps] Porzingis, are knocking on the door saying, ‘let us back in the game.’ I hope the league’s competition committee can find a way to make it happen.

OG stands out locally, but— 

How about OG? That’s a hell of a name. ‘What’s your name?’ ‘I’m OG’ [laughs out loud].

It’s a marketer’s dream. Plus, he has a really cool backstory. Born in London, grew up in Missouri, his dad is a professor.

[Indiana coach Tom] Crean did a really good job. You look at [fellow Indiana alumn Victor] Oladipo, too, and his background and educational beliefs. Anunoby, Oladipo— those guys are graduating early, working on their masters. They value education.

As a front office executive, how much consideration would you put into something like background and education when it comes to the draft? How do you weigh skill versus character?

I always drafted smart people. Dumb people get you beat. That was a Woody Hayes quote from when he was coaching at Ohio State, and it’s true. You win with smart people. And if those smart people happen to be athletic, and if they can shoot, then you can win with those guys.

It’s a small sample size— less than a month— but, OG aside, the 2017 draft seems to have a lot of guys you can win with.

Man, I look at all of the young players that have come into the league and, really, they’re all flat-out knocking the cover off the ball— and not even from just a winning or scoring perspective. You like these guys, you know?

You look at this next generation that’s coming up and you’re like, ‘the league is in really, really, really good shape.’ First you have the Steph Curry, Kyrie Irving generation who every year keep coming back better than the last. I mean, at one point in time we were thinking about Kyrie Irving in Cleveland like, ‘Aw man, what’s he going to do?’ Now we look at him and say, ‘He can be the MVP of the league.’ Now we’re seeing that generation rise along with this new crop.

Does it remind you of what you saw during your career in terms of transitioning eras?

When we were all coming up in the ’80s I thought we were all originals. I’m not a follower. I’m going to tell everybody: Sometimes that’s not good [laughs]. But everybody wanted to be an original. Magic, who I loved, Kareem, Bird, Jordan— all of those players I named, none of us played like the other. Everybody had their own style.

What analytics has done in terms of the sharing of information is that it’s normalized everything. That normalization of the game, for the last while, meant everybody came out of a cookie-cutter. Everybody wants to run the same plays, shoot the same shots [claps sarcastically].

Some of these guys coming in now have dared to have their own original style. They don’t want to play like the guy they’re playing against. And that’s what makes it all interesting to me.

It’s also one of the things basketball can foster in a way other sports can’t. If you’re a receiver in football, no matter how unique you may be, you’re still running the same route with the same footwork. And then the lack of helmets, facemasks, and bulky equipment let’s that artistic element come across even more.

We have to be careful that we keep that uniqueness about our sport in that we encourage the imagination and the philosophy, that artistry— the things you can’t put a mathematical equation around. We need to keep encouraging those players and give them space to grow and be like a Vince Carter, who could go out there and say, ‘Man, I have this one dunk I’ve imagined that nobody else has ever seen!’ That’s what makes our game great.

If everybody shoots the same shot, wears the same socks, looks the same, acts the same…At some point in time that becomes boring— at least for me.

Click here for part 2 of the Isiah Thomas interview in which he recalls, in vivid detail, arguably still the most iconic game in Raptors history— when the expansion Raps beat Michael Jordan and the record-breaking Bulls at the SkyDome in 1996— and makes his pitch for why he wants to help bring women’s professional basketball to Toronto.