Only 26 games are in the books, but Al Thornton has already endured a full season’s worth of drama. After shooting an abysmal 12 for 36 from the field in the Clippers first four losses to start the season, the third-year pro was demoted to the bench for the first time since becoming a starter late in his rookie season. Thornton would soon see his playing time decrease dramatically (21 min, 18 min, 16 min) in three straight Clippers wins with his coming off the pine. After the last of those three games, a 113-110 win against Memphis on November 7th, Thornton was asked if he was growing comfortable with his new role off the bench, and he answered with an emphatic “No.” Struggling on the court and brooding off of it, Thornton desperately needed to catch some sort of break. Luckily for him it wouldn’t take long, as Eric Gordon’s hamstring injury would result in Thornton’s unheralded return to the starting lineup.
With his starting job back and a new chance in front of him, Thornton went to work. He scored 15 points against New Orleans, then went for 20 points two games later against the Thunder. Then after dropping 30 in a rematch against the Hornets, Thornton went off against the Timberwolves for a season high 31. It was an extraordinary turn of events for Thornton, who credited his improved play to the motivation from the benching and a better diet. While there’s no doubting that a healthier nutrition can lead to improved athletic performance, it seems like this was more about Al needing something to blame for his early season struggles so he could move on and begin to play with confidence. Remember, this is the same Al Thornton who randomly decided not to talk to his girlfriend or get a haircut until the Clippers were able to snap out of a losing streak last year. It may come off as goofy superstition, but for Thornton it all comes back to confidence.
Really it was Thornton’s receptiveness to coaching during this stint that may have been the biggest mental adjustment of all. Surely the coaching staff had been telling Thornton to take it to the rim since the day he was drafted, but it took a willing Thornton for the change to actually be made. The extra motivation, diet, receptiveness to coaching and regained confidence certainly helped Thornton get things back on track, but what exactly has he been doing differently out on the court?
- Last season, 54 percent of Thornton’s total field goal attempts were jump shots, and he was only able to connect on 36 percent of those attempts. This season, Thornton’s percentage of field goal attempts that were jump shots is down considerably at 39 percent. He’s only connecting on 31 percent of those attempts, but he’s shooting far fewer of them. Last year around this time, Thornton had attempted roughly 165 jumpers. This year, that number has been drastically reduced to 93. Perhaps the biggest difference in Thornton’s game is that he’s all but eliminated the 3-point ball from his repertoire. Last year at this time, Thornton had already attempted 32 3-pointers. This year, Thornton has only put up six shots from deep. The results have led to a more consistent, efficient style of play. Thornton has scored in double digits in all but two games since being inserted back into the starting lineup, and is also only 3.3 points short of his season average last year despite shooting the ball four fewer times per game.
Off the Ball Movement
- Perhaps Thornton’s best work this year has come away from the ball. One of the main gripes with Thornton is that he ruins offensive spacing because he’s simply not a threat from outside 15 feet, and while that’s still a valid concern, Thornton has taken steps this year to help partially alleviate those worries. When he’s without the ball, Thornton now relentlessly dives to the hole and forces the defense to collapse on his cuts. On sets designed for him, he’s doing much more work before the ball ever touches his hands. He’s been big and physical when posting up, often getting pretty good position down on the block instead of getting pushed out to the perimeter away from his scoring comfort zone. While the Clippers aren’t exactly a run and gun team (18th in Pace Factor), Thornton himself has done a good job in transition by getting out early and running the floor. He’s been simply outstanding finishing on the break this year, with his most memorable performance coming in the fourth quarter comeback against Memphis on November 29th that saw him score multiple times in transition.
- What to do when you’re not getting as many touches as you’d prefer on the offensive end? Create your own opportunities. While Thornton’s defensive rebounding totals leave much to be desired (2.6 DRB per 36 minutes), his work on the offensive glass has been admirable. Al’s averaging 2.3 offensive rebounds per game, but he keeps quite a few balls alive for Camby and Kaman and is constantly forcing his man to place a body on him on the boards. It’s a new important wrinkle to Thornton’s overall game, as now he has a way to contribute on nights when the rest of his offensive game betrays him.
- While Thornton’s overall defensive numbers haven’t shown much change from last year, he’s certainly passing the “eye test” better than before. Thornton has had some fine individual moments similar to when he recently defended the much larger Marreese Speights and held his own. The effort hasn’t always been consistent, but there have been multiple games where Thornton has been able to string together impressive possessions against a wide range of different styled players by using his strength and aggressiveness. He’s nowhere near the best defender on the Clippers roster, but he may be the most physical and the most athletic player not named Blake Griffin, which eventually could translate into something on the defensive side of the ball.
The numbers behind Thornton’s vastly improved play don’t lie: Since Thornton returned to the starting lineup November 9th, he’s 118 for 228 from the field, good for an incredible field goal percentage of 52 percent. It may be natural to assume this a statistical aberration similar to what Chris Kaman experienced earlier in the season, but it’s important to note that Thornton isn’t relying heavily on his jump shooting like Kaman was. Although Thornton is shooting roughly 10 percentage points higher from the field than his career average, his jump shooting percentage has been much worse this year than in previous seasons. If Thornton starts knocking down even a respectable amount of his jumpers, look out.
What’s most important about Thornton’s transformation isn’t his individual statistics; it’s how he influences wins and losses. Although the numbers point to a more productive lineup when Rasual Butler starts instead of him, there’s no question that Thornton has earned the right to finish games. Chris Kaman’s habit of fading in the second half teamed with the perimeter players’ struggles to penetrate late in ballgames have caused Dunleavy to search for new primary scoring options in crunch time. It’s unbelievable considering where he was 18 games ago, but if the Philadelphia game serves as any indicator, that primary source for late game scoring just may end up being Al Thornton.