Thornton’s play gives Blue Devils toughness
Among the plays Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski highlighted from Saturday’s win over North Carolina was one authored by the least-acclaimed Blue Devils starter.
With the ball bouncing out of play near the UNC bench, Tyler Thornton dived and grabbed it. In mid-air, he fired it back off a Tar Heel player before falling into the UNC bench.
After deflecting off the UNC player, the ball landed out of bounds and gave possession to the Blue Devils.
It is why, as No. 2 Duke heads into the postseason, Krzyzewski harbors deep appreciation for the 6-1 Thornton, who averages 3.3 points and 2.2 rebounds per game.
“Tyler Thornton doesn’t have to take a shot, and he’s important because of his defense, leadership, his presence on the court,” Krzyzewski said.
A junior guard, Thornton started his fifth game of the season when Duke beat UNC 69-53 at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill. Thornton hadn’t started since a Jan. 17 win over Georgia Tech.
Even though he never scored in double-digits in an ACC game, he’s an important cog in Duke’s rotation.
He averaged 21.8 minutes per game in ACC play. His minutes per game average trails only Mason Plumlee, Seth Curry, Quinn Cook and Rasheed Sulaimon — Duke’s regular starters — as well as senior Ryan Kelly, who has started when healthy.
Plumlee, a senior who is playing his third season alongside Thornton, raves at Thornton’s ability to handle his ever-changing role without any hang-ups.
“It’s really impressive because whether he comes off the bench or starts for us, some guys mentally they can’t handle that going in and out of the lineup,” Plumlee said. “For him, it’s just like it doesn’t matter. (He thinks) ‘My minutes are important minutes.’”
Thornton moved back into the starting lineup with Sulaimon, a freshman, mired in a scoring slump. Krzyzewski also said Sulaimon needed to be more assertive with his play.
For Thornton, adjusting to a new role is nothing new. He started three games as a freshman in 2010-11 and 19 games a year ago as a sophomore.
“I’ve been in this position before as far as being a starter,” Thornton said. “I was always prepared and ready if the coaches ever needed me to step into this position. I know it gives my teammates a little extra confidence with me on the floor being able to do the dirty things and make big plays.”
Those dirty things that Thornton spoke of include things like taking charges to force turnovers or getting a hand in the passing lane. Sometimes, it’s even setting a pick to allow one of Duke’s big men room to roam in the lane on offense.
“He’s going to do whatever it takes,” Plumlee said. “If I want to get open, I’m going to make sure he sets the screen for me down in the post. He’s just a tough kid, and I don’t just go around calling players tough. But Tyler is a tough kid.”
Despite the fact that Thornton only attempted two shots and grabbed one rebound, Duke associate head coach Chris Collins called Thornton’s game against UNC a “clinic of a winning player.”
Thornton’s diving play into the UNC bench to save a possession was the prime example. Plumlee said that play was “symbolic of his career.”
Thornton loves that role.
“Somebody has to do it in order for us to win, especially if we are going to win close games,” Thornton said. “It never really boils down to the last shot. It’s always something earlier in the game, little plays in the game, that actually make that difference in the game.
“I’m glad to always be able to those plays that always help us to come out ahead in the end.”
Cook, Duke’s starting point guard, called Thornton is his best friend. That’s despite the fact that Thornton started the majority of the games at point guard last season and Cook took that starting job this season.
“He’s been the best teammate, best big brother, best friend that you can have,” Cook said. “Just to have a teammate like that is a blessing. I’m blessed to have him as my teammate.”
Duke begins its postseason on Friday (7 p.m., WRAL) against either Maryland or Wake Forest in the ACC Tournament quarterfinals at the Greensboro Coliseum. The Blue Devils are the No. 2 seed in the tournament because of the four ACC games they lost while Kelly was injured.
But on the national level, now that Kelly is back, Duke is considered among the team’s that can win the NCAA championship.
The Blue Devils know a relatively unheralded player such as Thornton is a big reason why they are thinking big for the postseason.
“Truly a selfless player, and he’s’ really all about the team,” Plumlee said. “Those are the kind of guys that make you want to win big. He may not be all-conference and he may not (be) next year, either, but being part of a team that does something big, he has as big a hand in that as anybody.”