Defensive-minded Thornton takes the reins

Thornton may not make a big impact in the stat book, but he has made his mark on the defensive end.
Thornton may not make a big impact in the stat book, but he has made his mark on the defensive end.

Point guard is a particularly important position in March, but Duke does not have a floor general that can fill up a traditional stat sheet. According to some of his teammates, though, Tyler Thornton’s value to the Blue Devils is not measured by points or rebounds.

Following Duke’s 91-73 victory over Wake Forest, in which Thornton tallied a career-high eight assists, Marshall Plumlee said in a Duke Blue Planet video that evaluating Thornton properly required new statistical framework, highlighted by “hustle plays,” “defensive stops” and “crowd pleasers.”

On a team that has often struggled with intangibles this season, Thornton’s defense, hustle and energy have been important contributions to the Blue Devils. So while he may not put up many points or dish out an awe-inspiring number of assists, his tendency to accumulate Plumlee’s alternative statistics make him an invaluable cog in Duke’s March machine.

“Coming into the season, the coaching staff just told me to be myself, and that’s probably been the easiest thing for me to do,” Thornton said. “Be myself, not try to think I have to do certain things to have to be on the court.”

Thornton’s winning mentality and consistently excellent defensive effort have always been the staples of his skill set.

“Tyler has done a great job of being a pest defensively,” junior guard Seth Curry said. “He handles the ball a lot for us, running play calls. That has allowed me to be off the ball more, looking to score. That’s been great for the team.”

While his offensive impact is not conspicuous—he averages just 4.0 points and 1.9 assists per game—he has been a steady and consistent floor general throughout the season, proficient in organizing the Blue Devil offense while minimizing turnovers. That has, in turn, allowed teammate Curry to move into a role more suited to his skill set, as an off-guard not tasked with primary ball-handling responsibilities.

Despite his intangible contributions, Thornton’s role fluctuated throughout the first half of the season. The sophomore started sporadically during the early-season schedule, with just a few performances standing out from a largely pedestrian résumé. It was Thornton’s two clutch 3-pointers that propelled the Blue Devils to the Maui Invitational championship over Kansas Nov. 23, and he scored 12 points in just 17 minutes against Western Michigan in December.

Thornton’s playing time diminished as Quinn Cook and Andre Dawkins earned places in the starting lineup with good stretches of midseason play. But inconsistency eventually cost both Cook and Dawkins their starting assignments, and Thornton was thrust back into the lineup.

The sophomore regained his role as a starter against Virginia Tech at the beginning of February and has not relinquished his hold on the point guard role. Beginning with his start against Virginia Tech, he averaged 25 minutes per game during the season’s final stretch and continued to show a propensity for clutch offense, including a late 3-pointer that keyed Duke’s Feb. 8 comeback at North Carolina and a 13-point performance that helped carry the Blue Devils in a close ACC quarterfinal matchup against the Hokies.

Most importantly, though, the consistent playing time allowed Thornton to continuing developing what might be his best trait—leadership.

“[The coaching staff] wanted me to be out there, to be a leader on both ends of the floor, communicating with them on the bench while I’m on the floor communicating with my teammates,” Thornton said.

Thornton’s teammates have called him the Blue Devils’ most vocal player and have named him as the one that holds them accountable for errors both in practice and in games. That role might seem unusual for a sophomore that averages only four points per game, but it is one that comes naturally to Thornton.

“The point guard position—in the history of basketball, most of the leaders have been from that position,” Thornton said. “I’ve known that growing up being a point guard and I’ve done that my whole life and I’m used to it, so it doesn’t matter that I’m younger.”

That attitude has been invaluable on a team with just a single senior and a collection of players adapting to new roles this season. And Thornton’s intangibles—leadership, defensive intensity and offensive efficiency—have allowed the Washington, D.C. native to place a stranglehold on the point guard job, even if it took him a full season to do it.

Thornton may not put many points up on the scoreboard in Greensboro this weekend, but if there were columns in the box score for hustle plays and defensive stops, his importance to the Blue Devils would be clear.


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