Not much was expected of Isaiah Thomas when he was drafted by the Sacramento Kings with the final pick of the 2011 NBA Draft. Thomas would go on to prove all of his doubters wrong, however, and made his first All-Star team last season.
Thomas grew up a huge fan of the Los Angeles Lakers and, like many other players today viewed Kobe Bryant as his favorite player. After being drafted by the Kings, it didn’t take long for Thomas to have his first encounter with Kobe as the Kings played the Lakers in the season opener that year.
Reportedly, Thomas had developed a reputation for being difficult to post up during training camp, but that all changed when tasked with having to guard Kobe, via Chris Forsberg of ESPN Boston:
“So it was the first game of the season, Sacramento Kings vs. the Lakers. And there was a rule in training camp; guys tried to back me down and they always turned it over. So [Kings coach] Paul Westphal was like, ‘There’s no backing down Isaiah.’ So when he subbed me in the game [vs. the Lakers], everybody was like, who’s guarding Kobe? Paul Westphal’s like, ‘Isaiah got Kobe. Remember, nobody’s backing you down.’ I’m like, ‘Come on man, that’s my favorite player!’ When he got in the game, there were three straight plays he isolated me and he backed me down. And I’m just smiling. He scored on me three times and I’m just running back smiling. Like, that was the first time I ever smiled when somebody scored on me, but it was Kobe Bryant. That was my favorite player of all time. So it was surreal. It didn’t seem real. So I was happy he scored on me. But when Paul Westphal said that, I said, ‘Man, don’t gas me up. That’s Kobe. He backs anybody down!’ So it was a cool little welcome to the NBA story.”
At that point in his career, Kobe Bryant was still one of the most devastating scorers in the NBA and had perfected his post-up and mid-range game to the point where even the league’s top defenders stood no chance against him. Putting a rookie guard who is a foot shorter on Kobe was really unfair.
A lot has changed since that time. Kobe obviously has retired from the NBA and is focusing on other ventures, while Thomas eventually joined the Boston Celtics and became one of the most explosive scorers in the NBA.
For Thomas, it was a great moment getting to guard his idol even though it didn’t help his team at the time. The Lakers and Celtics don’t meet until later this season where Thomas will likely have to deal with more troubles in the post. D’Angelo Russell obviously isn’t Kobe Bryant, but the second-year guard will have a huge size advantage and is getting a lot better on the block.