He quit school six months ago, after his sophomore year. He had led Indiana to the NCAA basketball championship and, as he said at the time, he was ready for the real world.
So far, the real world has been rather kind to 20-year-old Isiah Thomas, mainly because he hasn't changed much. He still drives a Volkswagen, wears his Indiana letterman's jacket and watches for the peach fuzz on his face to get more substantial so he can shave for the first time.
"The way I play and the way I am is just me," he said. "Why should I change? It's worked so far."
The Detroit Pistons won't argue with that. The Pistons made Thomas, a 6-foot-1 guard, the second pick in the last National Basketball Association draft and signed him to a guaranteed four-year, $1.6 million contract.
In Thomas' first game, he scored 33 points and had 11 assists. Three weeks later, he went four for 24.
He also has been struck in the face by a punch thrown at a teammate and suffered a sprained ankle that caused him to miss five games. When he returned, the Pistons started on their current four-game winning streak.
"You've got to take the good games with the bad games, the good days with the bad . . . and keep smiling," he said.
Now, as Thomas leads the Pistons into Capital Centre for tonight's 8:05 game against the Bullets, he is the leading vote-getter among the guards for the Eastern Conference all-star team. He is averaging 18 points and seven assists a game.
Thomas always seems to say and do the right things, and his boyish look and constant smile give him an almost angelic appearance.
"I look at Isiah and I see a nice, pleasant little kid," said Coach Scotty Robertson. "Sometimes I just shake my head at how boyish he looks."
Thomas was born and grew up in the poor, tough west side of Chicago. He was an honor student in both elementary school and high school. He was a B student at Indiana, as well as a basketball all-America. He is a self-described "role model for a lot of people back in the ghetto."
He is also responsible for bringing some respectability to the Pistons, though he will admit, "I'm no franchise."
The Pistons had a 37-127 record for the 1979-80 and '80-81 seasons, the poorest in basketball in that span. Even with Thomas, they still aren't world beaters, but they are making progress. They come into the Capital Centre with a 13-15 record.
"I'm pretty sure I'm going to lose more games this season than I've lost in my whole career until now," Thomas said. "But unlike in college at Indiana or Kentucky, it's not a national crisis if you lose one game in the pros."
The losing in Detroit shouldn't go on much longer. The Pistons are one of the youngest teams in the NBA and they have two first-round choices in the next draft.
Thomas is the team leader now, though. Despite being slowed by his sprained ankle, he leads the Pistons in steals and assists. Robertson says Thomas' role is to get the team into its offense, to play defense and to score, in that order.
"Everyone says you can't build a franchise around a guard, but I don't say that," said Robertson. "Isiah is just what we need on this club right now. I just tell him what I want done. He's a quick learner. He'll make the right decisions under pressure and he has the humility to overpower anyone with his leadership."
"He's a lot like Kevin Porter," said Detroit guard John Long, who has played beside both Thomas and Porter. "Isiah has better range than Kevin with his shot, though, and that makes him doubly tough."
John Lucas of the Bullets said Thomas "could be the best point guard to ever come into the league. I mean better than Magic (Johnson) and all of them."
"Isiah is going to be like Larry Bird and Magic," said Jerry Sloan, coach of the Chicago Bulls. "He's just so good for attitude reasons."
"He has a sense of how to play," said Bullet Coach Gene Shue. "He sees the whole court all of the time. That, more than anything else, helps make him so good."
Thomas' jump shot makes him effective. He will pull up and shoot it at any time. He has an excellent follow-through, cocking his head a bit to the left as he shoots.
Isiah Thomas also throws the ball away a lot, about five times a game, the most of anyone in the NBA. He makes a lot of silly mistakes, hand-checking fouls and reaching-in fouls. He also tries to be too fancy sometimes. Defensively, he has some problems because he is small and lacks strength.
He says his game hasn't changed much from high school, "and it won't.
"I don't have any obligation to anyone but myself," he said. "If I don't play up to someone's expectation, that's their problem, not mine. I just try to do things the simple way. Sometimes you have to be fancy, though. I got here playing one way, so I'd be foolish to change now."