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Isaiah Thomas ready to seize the moment in return to NBA
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Isaiah Thomas ready to seize the moment in return to NBA

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2016: Celtics' Isaiah Thomas scores 29 of his career-high 52 points in fourth quarter to beat Heat

2016 — Isaiah Thomas scores 29 of his career-high 52 points in the fourth quarter, setting a club record for points in a period and leading Boston to a 117-114 victory over the Miami Heat.

Boston Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas (4) celebrates in the fourth quarter of an NBA basketball game against the Miami Heat, Friday, Dec. 30, 2016, in Boston. Thomas scored 52 points to lead the Celtics to a 117-114 victory. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

SEATTLE — Nothing has ever come easy for Isaiah Thomas as it pertains to basketball.

Since entering the NBA as the last pick — No. 60 overall — in the 2011 draft, the former Washington Huskies star has experienced just about every possible situation while bouncing around the league.

Early in his career, he was overlooked in Sacramento and underappreciated in Phoenix.

And in Boston, the 5-foot-9 point guard unexpectedly became a modern-day folk hero who overcame impossible odds and conquered a game filled with giants before ultimately being discarded due to a potentially career-threatening hip injury.

Still, the diminutive fan favorite and beloved underdog who goes by the moniker IT, has been relentless in his pursuit to regain what was lost and return to the court healthy and just as lethal as he was during the 2016-17 season when he averaged 28.9 points and finished fifth in the NBA MVP voting.

"I know I can play at a high level given the opportunity," Thomas said Tuesday during a Zoom call. "This is just another chapter in my career."

If the past is prelude, then the latest passage in the book of Isaiah is sure to be spellbinding as Thomas signed a 10-day contract with the New Orleans Pelicans and made his long-awaited return Tuesday night.

Unlike his short, post-injury layovers with the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Los Angeles Lakers, Denver Nuggets and Washington Wizards, this is the first time Thomas has been pain free.

"I'm 102 percent," he said. "I'm more than good. This is the best I've ever felt since before I got injured. It's not even a question anymore. Every day, I wake up with a smile on my face because honestly I never thought I would feel this good again and feel back to normal. Physically, I'm ready. Mentally, I'm ready and I'm just happy to be here."

Given Thomas' age (32) and a 14-month layoff — his previous game was Feb. 3, 2020 — New Orleans is quite possibly the last chance for the two-time All-Star to resurrect a once-promising career.

There's very little job security for players on 10-day contracts, but Thomas is expected to get an opportunity to showcase himself considering the injury-riddled Pelicans have been without leading scorers Zion Williamson (thumb), who returned Tuesday, and Brandon Ingram (toe).

New Orleans is also missing guard Josh Hart (thumb) while point guard Kira Lewis Jr. (calf) and shooting guard Nickeil Alexander-Walker (ankle) are listed as day-to-day.

Presumably, Thomas, who has averaged 18.1 points during his career, will back up starters Eric Bledsoe and Lonzo Ball while leading the Pelicans' short-handed bench that's been outscored 225-153 in the previous five games.

"It sucks for those guys to go down, but injuries are a part of the game," Thomas said. "It's always next-man-up mentality. I'm in a situation where if they do give me some minutes, then I'm going to take full advantage of it and I'm going to be impactful on and off the floor."

In many aspects, Thomas' road to recovery began last May when he underwent a hip resurfacing procedure and spent months during the pandemic recovering at his Tacoma home.

Thomas never wavered in his beliefs, but admittedly at times he had doubts whether his career was over.

"Obviously, I'm human and some days it was harder than others to get up and continue to work without seeing the light at the end of the tunnel," he said. "But I have the upmost faith and upmost confidence in myself. Things have never been easy for me so why would they start now?

"So I was just getting in the gym, staying ready and staying mentally sharp. And I knew once a team called whatever the opportunity was I was going to be more than ready to take advantage of it."

In February, Thomas helped lead USA Basketball to two victories in a qualifying tournament for the 2022 FIBA AmeriCup while compiling 28 points and shooting 50% from 3-point range (6 of 12) over his two games.

"The opportunity to play for Team USA was everything," Thomas said. "Obviously, wearing USA on your chest, but also the bigger picture was for everybody to see me moving and being myself again.

"I accomplished what I set forth going out there to do. Four-five teams were calling after that and very interested. Luckily, New Orleans pulled the trigger and I'm here. USA, those games were helpful for me and it gave me the opportunity to show that I can still play at a high level, that I'm moving like myself and everything is fine again."

Aside from his scoring, Thomas, who returns to the court wearing No. 24, which is an homage to Lakers great Kobe Bryant, believes he can be a veteran leader on and off the court to a young Pelicans team in which 12 of 16 players are 26 years or younger.

"I'm real familiar with the system and the guys that are part of this organization," Thomas said. "I'm willing to help in any way possible. Like I said, I can do so many things other than put the ball in the basket. My experience speaks for itself being in every situation possible whether it's being the man (or) getting DNPs, not playing and being at the end of the bench.

"I'm willing to help the younger guys and hopefully make a push to the playoffs."

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