In the week leading up to Duke basketball’s first game of the season Friday against Georgia State, The Blue Zone will preview all the expected contributors on this 2012-2013 squad, beginning with the freshman Monday and ending with the seniors Friday.
- Year: Junior
- Height: 6-foot-1
- Position: Guard
- Last year’s key statistics: 4.1 PPG, 2.0 APG, 0.9 SPG
Game breakdown: In his sophomore season, Thornton asserted himself as one of the premier perimeter defenders in the ACC. His ability to pester an opponent’s star player up and down the floor was one of the main reasons why the Washington, D.C. native started 19 of Duke’s 34 games last season. Thornton is hardly unpredictable in his defensive strategy—he keeps opponents close and is not afraid to play physically, as evidenced by his team-leading 95 personal fouls and four disqualifications in 2011.
Thornton’s offensive abilities are generally not up to par with his defensive game. At 37.9 percent, Thornton shot the lowest field goal percentage on the team last year for anyone who played more than five games (see Zafirovski, Todd) and hit just 35.1 percent of his shots from beyond the arc. His 3-point shooting was particularly problematic late in the season, when Thornton was given many open looks from the outside, taking as many as 13 3-point attempts in a game, and could not knock them down with regularity. Outside shooting was undoubtedly at the top of his list when working on his game this offseason, so it’s safe to say that Thornton will hope to become a more complete offensive player in his junior campaign.
Asserting himself as a leader both on and off the floor, Thornton’s poise and energy is one of his defining characteristics. This energy shows through every trip down to the defensive end of the floor, and his leadership skills could be very important for a team that may have lacked chemistry in a subpar finish to the 2011 season.
Role on the team: Thornton’s role on this year’s Blue Devil squad may be one of the more difficult to predict, but it seems that as of now the junior guard may be on the outside looking in. One of the issues is that Thornton does not have a well-defined position on the floor—many consider him to not handle or distribute the ball well enough to be a full-time point guard, but at 6-foot-1, his frame is a bit small to play the off-guard position. Although Thornton cracked the starting lineup for the majority of Duke’s games last season, the team has chosen sophomore Quinn Cook as its point guard of the future. This means the majority of the minutes Thornton will see this season will be at shooting guard, where he will compete with senior Seth Curry and freshman Rasheed Sulaimon for minutes. Although Sulaimon’s ability to defend the perimeter is not as great as Thornton, some say he’s not too far off the junior’s level and his offensive capabilities are much greater. That’s one reason why you may see Thornton’s minutes drop this season—he may be used more situationally by head coach Mike Krzyzewski. But if there’s one thing to know it’s that strong defensive play on Duke teams will earn you minutes from Coach K regardless.
Player comparison: You don’t have to look too far back in Duke’s history to find a player Thornton reminds you of. With his scrappy defensive presence and energy on the floor, many say he is reminiscent of point guard Sean Dockery, who graduated from Duke in 2006. His career averages of 4.0 points, 1.4 assists and 1.4 steals per game are eerily similar to Thornton’s stats from last season, but the more striking comparisons between the two players have to do with their intensity and demeanor. Dockery was a leader on and off the floor during his career with the Blue Devils, and was called upon in key situations by Krzyzewski throughout his four years.
Although Dockery’s defense was what made him stand out late in games, he knocked down a big shot or two in his day as well. His 45-foot heave at the buzzer to beat Virginia Tech during Dockery’s senior season is often compared to the acrobatic 3-pointer that Thornton knocked down to bury Kansas at the 2011 Maui Invitational. These two players are often compared as unsung heroes in Duke basketball.
Projected statline: 4.5 PPG, 1.5 APG, 1.0 SPG
Check back tomorrow for previews of Josh Hairston and Seth Curry.