Isaiah Thomas and the Curious Case of the Nuggets Loving Short Players

Isaiah Thomas and the Curious Case of the Nuggets Loving Short Players
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The Denver Nuggets season kicks off tonight, October 17, and there’s a new face in town: Isaiah Thomas. Standing at 5'9", he may seem puny, but he’s nothing to sneeze at. In fact, if Thomas can stay healthy, he may become a hometown hero.

And it's a town that welcomes shorter basketball players. Although the average height of an NBA player is 6'7", Denver has a history of signing sub-six-foot players, and seems to do it more than any other team.

Look at a list of the shortest NBA players in league history, and you'll notice that player after player was part of the Nuggets organization at one point in his career. We can only speculate as to why so many short basketball players end up in Denver — it'd be impossible to go back in time and ask every coach to explain his motivations — so we'll chalk it up to the altitude advantage. They can jump higher in thinner air. That's it, right?

Height-impaired players like Thomas were undoubtedly questioned about their career choice starting in grade school, when they were called shrimp and small fry (and worse), all the way to their preparation for the NBA draft, when scouts probably told them that they loved their athleticism but couldn’t convince a general manager to sign such a short player.

Yeah, okay, not all short players pan out. Like many other players who make it to the NBA, some fizzle out quickly, moving on to play in leagues overseas. But some defy the odds and go on to have successful careers. And Thomas is the latest to join this formidable bunch of short players who have called Denver home.

Thomas has a chance to become a better Nugget than any of his height-challenged predecessors.

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Younger Nuggets fans will recall that Nate Robinson, also 5'9", played in recent years in Denver. Robinson may have been much shorter than the average NBA player, but he made up for his size disadvantage with freakish athleticism and a vertical jump that made him seem much taller than his height allowed. He even won the NBA Dunk Contest three times, despite being much shorter than the other contestants.

Earl Boykins, the second-shortest player in NBA history, called Denver home for more than three seasons. In 2004, Boykins dropped 32 points in a win over the Detroit Pistons in front of a hometown crowd at the Pepsi Center.

Older fans may have watched the Denver Nuggets in their American Basketball Association days, when the NBA had another league competing with it for viewers. In 1975, Monte Towe, all 5'7" of him, was drafted by both the Denver Nuggets of the ABA and the Atlanta Hawks of the NBA. Towe ended up signing with the Nuggets, playing for two seasons under legendary coach Larry Brown, the only coach in basketball history to have coached teams to both NCAA and NBA championships.

Not quite as short as the others, 5'10" Mike Adams played for four seasons for the Nuggets. He even enjoyed his best NBA season during his stint in Denver, averaging 26.5 points and 10.5 assists per game in 1990-’91. The Nuggets may have lost 42 more games than they won that year, but Adams made it known that height is just a number.

Thomas has a chance to become a better Nugget than any of his height-challenged predecessors. There was a point in his career when Thomas was unguardable, and in the 2016-’17 season, he dropped 28.9 points per game for the Celtics. That is an absurd stat line for any NBA player, let alone one who measures in at under six feet.

The only thing that might prevent Thomas from getting back to that level, so to speak, has nothing to do with his height: It’s his propensity for getting injured that could keep him from returning to his previous dominance. He’s starting the season on the injury report, still nursing a nagging hip injury. He even signed the veteran’s minimum to get a spot on the squad, a far cry from the maximum contract that he would have earned had he not injured his hip. But if he can get healthy again, Thomas has a chance to do great things for the Nuggets.
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Conor McCormick-Cavanagh is a staff writer at Westword, where he covers a range of beats, including local politics, immigration and homelessness. He previously worked as a journalist in Tunisia and loves to talk New York sports.