Marcus Thornton’s season has been inglorious. His team is last on the ladder, he’s shooting 36.6 percent from the field and he was the victim in the Illawarra beer-pouring incident.
The Sydney Kings’ import guard joined the team after averaging 20 points per game in his senior college season and being drafted in 2015 by the Boston Celtics. Despite those credentials, his NBL struggles can be explained.
“Obviously he’s still a young guy getting used to the quality of play here,” Kings interim head coach Joe Connelly told Downtown last Sunday.
“Coming from a low-major college in the US where probably 80 percent of the plays were run through him, to coming here where it’s a huge, huge jump in levels. So, not making excuses for him, but it’s still an adjustment process,” Connelly said.
Thornton played four seasons at William & Mary, a college in the Colonial Athletic Association. He shot 45.6 percent from the field in his senior year of 2014-15, and finished his W&M career as the school’s all-time leader in three-pointers made, games played, and points scored.
But the NBL game is different to what he faced in college, as Thornton noted.
“It’s pretty physical, I would say, compared to most other places, especially the States, but I think that’s something that will benefit me long down the road, so I appreciate going up against that challenge,” Thornton told Downtown on Thursday.
Connelly said Thornton is still adapting to the more physical style in the NBL, where teams are making an effort to bump him off the ball and put a body on him.
Connelly hasn’t been Thornton’s head coach all season, though. He was the replacement for Damian Cotter, who was released after the Kings started 3-9. In addition to that disruption, Josh Childress has missed 15 games, Julian Khazzouh suffered a season-ending injury in December and Al Harrington and Damion James joined the team briefly as replacement players.
Sydney’s unsettledness, Thornton said, has been a challenge.
“Our team has held mentally strong regardless of what’s gone on this year, but as far as on-the-court X’s and O’s, it’s been a stretch to try to pull everything together,” said Thornton, who has played in all of Sydney’s games this season.
He’s averaging 12.4 points, 2.5 rebounds and 1.9 assists with 28 percent shooting from three-point range.
“I just don’t think the way he’s been playing is a reflection of who he is,” Connelly said.
As Fox Sports commentator Shane Heal pointed out, it’s been a statistically unflattering season.
“He’s not rebounding, he’s not a defensive stopper and his assists are really low for a guard, so I think all the way across the board you would probably expect more,” Heal said.
Thornton’s athleticism and body type are positives according to Heal, who said the guard’s shooting ability appears superior to what the numbers say.
“He looks like he can shoot it even though his percentages certainly don’t back that up,” Heal said.
Thornton’s right foot drifts forward when he’s in the air for a jump shot. It’s a distinctive jumper but it’s infrequently shown off within the flow of Sydney’s offence.
“He’s somebody that needs the ball in his hands to sort of get his offence going,” Connelly said.
Thornton said he’s more comfortable playing point guard than shooting guard. The Kings have Jason Cadee and Rhys Carter to run the point, and Thornton hasn’t played there much this season. When asked if his lack of time at point guard was frustrating, Thornton said it was “a little bit,” but he also had a team focus.
“You accept your role and do what you can for your team,” he said.
Being the 45th pick in last year’s draft could have raised fans’ expectations for Thornton, who was the only recent draftee among the new NBL imports signed last offseason. Jordan McRae and DeAndre Daniels had ultimately unsuccessful NBL seasons in 2014-15 after being second-round picks, but James Ennis’ time with the Perth Wildcats in ’13-14 was fruitful.
Connelly was unsure if being a draft pick is a burden for Thornton in the NBL.
“He keeps a good poker face so you don’t really know whether pressure’s bothering him or not,” Connelly said.
According to Heal, the play of Thornton, McRae and Daniels shouldn’t deter NBL teams from adding rookie second-rounders.
“I don’t think that everyone’s tarnished with whether one or two or three people have been successful or not,” Heal said, adding recruits have to be judged on their own merits, and players straight out of college are more of a risk than those with pro experience.
According to Connelly, Thornton should be using his NBL experience to learn what he needs to improve – and maybe change – in order to make the NBA.
“If he analyses a game, analyses a style of play he likes to play and analyses [the] type of play say the Celtics play, it’s a lot different than what he’s used to and it’s a lot different than what his game is predicated on,” Connelly said.
One aspect of his game that doesn’t match the NBA brand of basketball is his decision making on offence. Connelly, a former player development coach with the Washington Wizards and the brother of the Denver Nuggets’ general manager, said the choice a player makes when he receives the ball—whether to catch and shoot, drive or pass—must happen quickly in the NBA style of game.
“Those decisions have to be made in a blink of an eye,” Connelly said.
“I think he’s still not there yet with making those quick decisions with his shooting, attacking or driving to the rim and getting to the line.”
There is time, however, for the 22-year-old, whose rookie professional season still has three games remaining. His run with Sydney hasn’t made him doubtful about his game.
“I know what type of player I am, I’ve proven it over the years,” Thornton said.
“I’m comfortable with what I’m able to do and who I am as a player.”