Tyler Thornton may not torch the nets like Seth Curry, rattle the rim like Mason Plumlee or drop dimes like Quinn Cook. But the junior guard from Washington, D.C. has carved out a niche for himself in the Blue Devil lineup as the consummate role player—a lockdown defender who can add a big shot once in a while.
Thornton cracked the starting lineup in Duke’s regular season finale against North Carolina for just the second time in ACC play. And it appears he could hold onto that role as the second-seeded Blue Devils take on seventh-seeded Maryland at 7 p.m. Friday in the ACC Tournament quarterfinals at the Greensboro Coliseum.
"I'm glad my coaches have confidence in me to have me out there on the floor a lot, have me be able to make plays and just do whatever I can to help the team out," Thornton said.
Thornton started 19 games as a sophomore a season ago, including Duke’s final 14 contests. But after beginning the year as a starter, sophomore Quinn Cook quickly assumed the point guard role, leaving him once again scrapping for minutes in the backcourt behind Cook, Seth Curry and freshman Rasheed Sulaimon.
But if there’s one thing Thornton knows how to do well, it’s scrapping. His stats are not eye-popping—averaging just 3.3 points, 2.4 assists and 2.2 rebounds per game. But Thornton’s value lies in his intangibles.
"He does the little things that don't show up in the box scores,” Cook said.
Although Thornton is just 6-foot-1, he is often tasked with guarding much larger shooting guards. When he started in Duke’s regular-season finale against North Carolina in the place of Sulaimon, he was frequently matched up against 6-foot-7 Tar Heel swingman Reggie Bullock.
Thornton said he focuses on disrupting his opponent’s rhythm. Physicality is paramount—he leads Duke with 83 fouls this season despite playing the sixth-fewest minutes per game on the team at 21.9.
“You're never going to shut anybody down,” Thornton said. “[I want to] make someone work harder than they want to get the ball and score the ball.”
Offensively, Thornton has provided sparks in several games this season. A 36.8-percent 3-point shooter, he knocked down three triples on four attempts against North Carolina Feb. 13 to keep the Blue Devils within striking distance and help them rally past the Tar Heels. It’s not the first time Thornton risen to the occasion—last year he hit a game-icing shot against Kansas in the Maui Invitational to propel Duke to the tournament title.
And as Duke is getting deeper into its season, Thornton’s role is expanding. In each of the last two games, Thornton played 28 minutes, a sign that his contributions are not going unnoticed.
“It’s really impressive because whether he comes off the bench or starts—a lot of players mentally can’t handle being in and out of the lineup—it doesn’t matter,” senior Mason Plumlee said. “Coach was showing on film the play where he dives against Carolina, throws the ball off the other guy, falls into the bench—to me that’s symbolic of his career. He’s just going to do whatever it takes.”
Plumlee attributed Thornton’s clutch performances to his grit and desire.
“He’s a tough kid,” Plumlee said. “I think that’s why shots like in Maui, that’s why it happens, because he’s so deserving of making those shots, because he’s really a selfless player and all about the team.”
Thornton’s increased minutes have meant less playing time for Sulaimon, who is mired in another cold spell. The freshman is just 7-for-23 from the field in his last four games, with only one made 3-pointer in 11 attempts.
Sulaimon tallied just 15 minutes off the bench in the regular-seaosn finale in Chapel Hill, his lowest total all season and just the second time he played fewer than 20 minutes. The only other time was in the game before that, in which he played just 17 minutes in Duke’s home finale against Virginia Tech.
“Rasheed hasn't had a normal freshman year,” Cook said. “He came on so strong. Freshmen are usually going to go through a time period where they struggle a little bit.”
Sulaimon, averaging 11.4 points per game, has more of an offensive arsenal than Thornton, and Cook said the freshman has accepted his changing role.
“He'll still be the scorer, the driver that he is, just from a different position,” said Cook. “He's okay with that.”
At times recently, Sulaimon has appeared frustrated with himself and with officials. Those little show the difference between him and Thornton, a veteran who never lets the little things get in the way.
“You can’t get caught up in the officials, with foul calls, whatever it may be,” Plumlee said. “It has to be a next play mentality, because the next play is the biggest play.”