European basketball leagues have a great collection of talent, but make no mistake about it: the NBA is – and always will be – home to the best basketball players in the world. Surviving in its confines means your skills are on a world-class level – even the bench warmers are required to have that.
No one probably knows it more than the undersized point guards, particularly guys who are inches below 6’0. They are demanded to do more and every strength they have gets downplayed.
It’s not the scouts being bias, though. Such assumptions are fair as much smaller players can be easily exposed to mismatches, which is pretty costly.
Free agent guard Isaiah Thomas, who stands at 5’9, is in that group. In a ‘Q & A’ session on Twitter on Monday, he shared some thoughts on the narrative and point out the things that small guys need do to thrive in the NBA.
I think as a small guard you have to be SPECIAL at all times. Whatever that means then that’s what you have to be. They don’t give little guards anything so when you get your chance be SPECIAL!!! https://t.co/0eKVe4k0f8— Isaiah Thomas (@isaiahthomas) March 23, 2020
Thomas is quite familiar with getting kicked into the curb despite showing a ton of promise. He was the last pick of the 2011 NBA Draft despite a standout collegiate career with the University of Washington (16.4 PPG, three-straight appearances in the NCAA tournament).
In 2014, the Sacramento Kings traded him for nothing after averaging 20.3 points and a team-leading 6.3 assists per game. In 2017, while nursing a hip injury, the Boston Celtics didn’t show him the so-called “loyalty” players ought to have. They shipped him following a superb season where he put up 28.9 PPG and led the league in fourth quarter scoring.
Here’s an example of how he was playing for the Celtics:
This season with the point guard-hungry, John Wall-less Washington Wizards, he was let go despite averaging a respectable 12.2 points and 3.7 assists in only 23.1 minutes of play. Thomas was sent to the LA Clippers and was immediately waived.
The below 5-foot-9 club
The NBA has had 24 different players that are 5’9 or shorter – ten only played one season and only five were able to play 10 or more seasons. Thomas himself is still one year short of joining that list, and he is indeed right: If you are in that certain range of stature, you have to have something really special in you if you want to stay for long.
Here are five other small guys that played big in the NBA:
Spud Webb (5’7)
Spud Webb played from 1985-1996 and then made a short comeback in 1998. He had a solid four-year run as the starting point guard of the Sacramento Kings and averaged career-bests 16 points and 7.1 assists in the 1991-92 season. Also, as you probably know, he’s the smallest player to win the slam dunk competition.
Muggsy Bogues (5’3)
Muggsy Bogues played from 1987-2001, and was a regular starter for the Charlotte Hornets for much of the ‘90s. He had three seasons where he averaged two or more steals and five seasons where he was top five in assists per game. He’s the smallest player in NBA history – but that didn’t stop him from getting a role on Space Jam.
Nate Robinson (5’9)
Nate Robinson played from 2005-2016, and was known as a reliable energy off-the-bench due to his shooting and highlight reel plays. In 2008-09, he averaged 17.2 PPG as the New York Knicks’ sixth man, and in 2012-13, he filled in nicely for the injured Derrick Rose and helped take the Chicago Bulls to the postseason. He’s the only player to have three slam dunk titles, and his most memorable play was probably his block of 7’6 Yao Ming.
Earl Boykins (5’5)
Earl Boykins played from 1999-2012 across 10 different NBA teams. His best stretch was with the Denver Nuggets from 2003-2007, where he was the key sixth man. On January 19, 2005, following the Nuggets’ 116-110 win over the Seattle SuperSonics, he set a then NBA record 15 overtime points
Calvin Murphy (5’9)
Calvin Murphy played for the Houston Rockets from 1970-1983, averaged 17.9 PPG over his career, and still the smallest player in the NBA Hall-of-Fame. His no. 23 is retired by the Rockets.