Isaiah Thomas has had to deal with a lot over the past year and his path back to superstardom doesn’t look like it’s getting any easier.
The former All-Star has left the Los Angeles Lakers to get treatment options for his sore hip, with pain still remaining from the injury that ruled him out of last year’s playoffs and kept him sidelined for much of this season.
Thomas, who rehabbed back from a right femoral-acetabular impingement with labral tear, apparently isn’t back to full strength yet, even after sitting out more than seven months.
The Cleveland Cavaliers were unwilling to wait for the 29-year-old to get back to full health, shipping him to the Lakers at the trade deadline after having him on the floor for just 15 games.
The point guard averaged 14.7 points on 36.1 per cent shooting overall and 25.3 per cent on 3-pointers during his tenure with Cleveland. He’s been only marginally better through 17 games with Los Angeles, fielding averages of 15.6 points, 38.3 per cent shooting and 32.7 per cent from long range.
With the Lakers out of playoff contention and only a couple weeks left in the season, it makes sense for Thomas to shut it down and restart his recovery.
Unfortunately for Thomas, that would mean having no more opportunities to show he can still be the player he was last season with the Boston Celtics – when he carried the team to an Eastern Conference Finals appearance and finished fifth in MVP voting – before hitting free agency in the summer.
It’s unlikely the last couple weeks of the season will influence Thomas’ earning potential anyways. Regardless, the ‘Brinks truck’ days are a thing of the past as the diminutive guard almost surely won’t get anywhere near a max contract from any suitor.
The more likely outcome would be Thomas, who has carried a massive chip on his shoulder ever since entering the league as the last pick of the 2011 draft, betting on himself with a one-year deal that allows him to show he can still perform at an All-Star level. That would be the only path to securing the lucrative contract that he was expecting when he was still in Boston.
Whether or not he can, however, is a different matter.
The hip injury was a long-term concern even before he started feeling soreness again with the Lakers.
With Thomas standing just 5-foot-9, any hit to his athleticism has the potential to severely hinder his game, which is predicated on quickness.
Other stars throughout history have managed to offset losing a step by utilising their skill – however they weren’t as vertically-challenged as Thomas is.
Losing a step for Thomas could be the difference between crossing over a defender and knocking down a pull-up jumper, and having no space to work with.
Plus, with the point guard position as deep as it is across the league, few teams will be dying to sign an aging, short, damaged playmaker this offseason.
It doesn’t necessarily mean Thomas’ career is over, but the mountain he was attempting to scale to get back to where he was just got steeper.
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And in the 123-104 win over the Denver Nuggets on Monday, the number one overall pick showed flashes of what made him the consensus top prospect in the last year’s NBA draft, while also looking like someone who hadn’t seen game action in quite a while.
Fultz played just 14 minutes, but found a way to fill up the stat sheet in his brief time on the floor by scoring 10 points on 5-of-13 shooting, dishing eight assists and grabbing four rebounds.
His shooting, which has been under the microscope since he entered the league, got better as the game wore on, while his playmaking and ability to put pressure on the defence was as advertised.
With the 19-year-old coming back from a mysterious shoulder injury that has derailed most of his rookie campaign, it was an encouraging performance, all things considered.
“He showed signs of why he was the first player chosen,” Philadelphia coach Brett Brown said. “Obviously, the game is fast, and elite at this stage, and that’s a good team, but the night could not have worked out better.”
The night got off to a somewhat slow start, with Fultz unsurprisingly trying to search out a rhythm.
On his first offensive possession, his downhill attack was blocked off and resulted in a turnover. Nearly a minute later, Fultz got on the board by taking a handoff from Joel Embiid and gliding uncontested to the basket for an easy lay-in.
From there, he appeared to settle in and feel more comfortable, with his passing coming to the fore.
Fultz delivered a sweet behind-the-back pass to Embiid after being trapped coming off a screen, before finding Ersan Ilyasova in transition for a mid-range jumper.
The highly-anticipated moment of Fultz taking a jump shot finally came near the end of the first quarter, when he attempted a pull-up from 11 feet out that found nothing but air, with Denver’s Mason Plumlee possibly getting a piece.
Minutes later, Plumlee then fully blocked Fultz’s second pull-up from 13 feet. The ball found its way back to Fultz on the possession but his strong take to the rim was swatted away.
After being subbed out seconds later, Fultz didn’t return to the game until the back-end of the third quarter.
That’s when he showed off his ability to attack as he first used a crossover at the top of the key and a spin move in the paint to get off a clean floater, which rolled off the rim.
Fultz stayed aggressive on the next possession by slicing to the hoop in transition and this time finishing an unorthodox lay-up off the glass.
He then had the presence of mind to cut into the paint for what would have been an easy lay-up had Paul Millsap not recovered late to force a miss.
On the next possession, Fultz again cut in open space and converted at the basket off Marco Belinelli’s dish.
The fourth quarter, which saw Fultz make good reads on passes and get blocked two more times, was most noteworthy for what he showed with his jumper.
With the 76ers in control, Fultz let loose three pull-ups near the end of the contest – the first he knocked down over Plumlee from 14 feet after a killer crossover; the second he drilled over Plumlee from 20 feet; and the third he missed from the elbow from 17 feet.
“I got even more comfortable,” Fultz said of how he felt as the game went on. “The first time, I was just trying to make sure I did what I could do. The second time, I started to get my groove back more and more.”
Of everything Fultz put on display in his first game back, maybe the most encouraging for Philadelphia was his confidence. He didn’t look timid or hesitant to shoot the ball outside of the paint, which bodes well for where he’s at mentally.
Combine that with what he can do as a slasher and playmaker, and Fultz could be a factor for the 76ers sooner than expected.
They play a completely different sport half a world away, but the NBA’s two Middle Eastern representatives are still soccer fans at heart.
While Mejri hails from Tunisia and Nader is Egyptian-born, they’re united in their love for Real Madrid.
For Mejri, who was a soccer player until he picked up basketball relatively late at the age of 18, his fandom for the La Liga club was amplified by his two-year stint playing for Madrid in the EuroLeague from 2013-15.
So as Zinedine Zidane‘s men get ready for their Champions League quarter-final first leg against Juventus on April 3, Mejri knows Madrid will have a fight on their hands to stay alive in their bid for a third straight title.
“Juventus is a tough team,” the 31-year-old big man told Sport360°. “They beat us three years ago (in the semi-finals) when I was still at Madrid, I remember I went and watched the game.
“They beat us and Italian teams are tough to play, you know. We play more open and with more offence and good soccer. Italian teams play more closed, so it will be tough.
“If we pass Juventus, I think we’re going to go far.”
In the NBA, it might be the case where there’s not more than one soccer fan on a team. Luckily for Mejri, he just so happens to share a locker room with another one of the league’s soccer lovers, Dirk Nowitzki, who is a big Bayern Munich supporter.
And with Bayern also still in the Champions League and set to face Sevilla in the quarter-finals, Mejri hopes he and Nowitzki’s favourite clubs end up meeting so bragging rights can be settled.
“We’re going to beat them easily,” Mejri said “That’s an easy game for us.”
A day after Salah scored four goals against Watford in the Premier League, Mejri was in awe of the Egyptian.
“It’s crazy man. He’s so good,” Mejri said with pure admiration. “I’m a big fan of him.”
It’s hard not to be a fan of Salah, regardless of your nationality.
But it would stand to reason he would be a God-like figure to all Egyptians, right?
Well, despite being an Alexandria native, Nader worships at the alter of another footballer.
“I’m all about La Liga and literally the biggest [Cristiano] Ronaldo fan you’ll meet,” the 24-year-old told Sport360°. “I have his jerseys, his shoes and everything about him. So I’m all about Real Madrid.”
Nader might be the one Egyptian in the world who prefers Ronaldo to Salah right now, but you can forgive the young Celtics forward because he’ll still cheer hard for his nation at the World Cup this summer.
“I’m a big soccer fan. I’m ecstatic,” Nader said of Egypt qualifying for the showpiece event for the first time in 28 years.
“Especially my family, my dad really gets after it. He keeps me up to date, especially because it’s hard for me to catch the games because of the different time zones.
“But I’m in full support.”