Once per season, Duke fans celebrate Tyler Thornton Day.
It’s the one game per year that the team’s glue guy—the one who helps keep things together and rarely gets the credit—shines.
The rest of the time, it can be easy to overlook Thornton. Other players go through slumps and funks and see their minutes fluctuate. They make bad gaffes and highlight-reel plays. They stand out.
Rarely sticking out, but always there, Thornton has been ol' reliable for Duke, which for the past three seasons has counted on him for 20 minutes per game. Rarely more, rarely less. Given two choices, he rarely makes the wrong one. In Duke’s last 12 games, he has 23 assists and only four turnovers.
Always praised for his hustle and grit—a game never ends without him diving for a loose ball—he excels at the supposed ordinary. More often than not, that’s all Duke needs: the little things done right.
“Against BC, later in the game, he gave the best post pass we had in a couple years to Jabari [Parker],” head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “Nothing flamboyant, just real simple.”
Duke never counted on Thornton being a star. Except for Andre Dawkins, who reclassified to come to Duke a year earlier than initially expected, Thornton is the only scholarship player on the roster who wasn’t among ESPN’s top 100 recruits.
But Thornton’s AAU team, the D.C. Assault where classmate Josh Hairston also played, always won. Krzyzewski saw that winning mentality in Thornton and sought to make him a Blue Devil.
“None of us besides Josh were ranked high. But we beat all the really good players in our class, so that’s one of the things that attracted Coach to me,” Thornton said. “When he was recruiting me, he told me, ‘You’re going to be a guy who’s here for four years and really takes advantage of what Duke has to offer on and off the floor,’ and so far I’ve been able to do that.”
The first Tyler Thornton Day came in his freshman year, when he nabbed four steals in 12 minutes and sparked an 11-0 run to help the No. 1 Blue Devils rally past Maryland at home Jan. 9, 2011. Entering that game, he had three steals all season. He had played just six minutes in the previous game against UAB and did not play at all in the game before that against Miami.
Since then, Krzyzewski hasn’t been able to stop gushing about him.
“For Tyler to play as well as he did, it is really one of the things that makes you love coaching,” Krzyzewski said after that Maryland game.
The 2011-2012 season's Maui Invitational championship game was the next celebration of Tyler Thornton Day. The sophomore made two threes in the final 1:14, including the game-winner with 21 seconds left.
"People will say it's a lucky shot, but I'll say I'm lucky to have him on my team,” Krzyzewski said after the win. “Sometimes you're on a bus with a guy who deserves it and for that moment we were on his bus. Thank goodness he knew how to drive it."
Krzyzewski’s affection for Thornton may stem from their similarities. After Thornton hit 3-of-4 3-pointers to lead the Blue Devils past North Carolina last season—Tyler Thornton Day 2013—Krzyzewsksi said he believes Thornton will be a coach one day.
He also said they share a fire, one players need in moments like that game, when the Blue Devils trailed by as many as 10 to the unranked Tar Heels.
“I like him because he can get angry. I don’t think players get angry like they used to,” Krzyzewski said after that win. “That comes easy for me.”
The savvy Thornton displays on the court—his anger, his intelligence, his alertness—is what Krzyzewski values most, more than any 3-pointer or steal. He said Monday Thornton is the team’s best on-court communicator and again repeated that he thinks he will be a coach one day.
Thornton plans to try and play professionally after college—“until my body breaks down,” he said—and after that he would like to be a coach. He doesn’t know when that will be, but he said, “By the time I plan on coaching, I don’t think Coach will still be coaching.”
With Duke’s deep backcourt this season, Thornton is playing only 19.4 minutes per game—fewer than in his sophomore and junior seasons. But he is actually having arguably the best statistical season of his career. He knows he has a small role in an offense that has a plethora of scoring options, so he uses only 8.8 percent of the team’s offensive possessions, according to KenPom.com. With such a low usage rate, the sample size is limited, but he ranks third nationally in offensive rating. He’s hitting 52.6 percent of his 3-point attempts and has an assist-to-turnover ratio of nearly 4:1.
Because he didn’t have to take classes this summer, he was able to practice twice-a-day in preparation for the season.
“My touches on the offensive end are going to be limited based on the team we have or the players that we have,” Thornton said. “Being effective and being efficient have been my main focuses.”
It’s too early to tell if Tyler Thornton Day 2014 has come and gone. The loss to undefeated Syracuse on the road had the potential, when he hit 3-pointers on three consecutive possessions to help Duke force overtime.
“The Syracuse game, I don’t think it counts. The loss negates all of that. I always feel like I just step in and do what I need to do, whatever that is,” Thornton said. “I don’t go into a game and think, ‘I’m going to put the team on my back today.’ It’s just all about the flow of the game and what happens, happens.”
Sounds like a coach's answer.