They Smell Like the Future: Marcus Thornton

Posted by Rob Mahoney on June 4, 2009 under Commentary | 4 Comments to Read

Photo by AP Photo/Bill Feig.

LSU Sophomore
6’3.75”, 194 lbs. (Combine measurements)
21 years old
Shooting guard
Projection: Late 1st round/Early 2nd round
Combine Interview

Marcus Thornton is the first legit NBA prospect the Mavs have worked out to date, and he could easily be selected in the 20+ range of the first round.  And, compared to many other prospects, Thornton has me pretty excited.

Thornton won’t be a star.  He’s not versatile or dynamic enough to be a top-level player or a ticket draw.  But he was a very good college player that can be a contributor from the wing in the NBA.  If Mavs fans are pining for Courtney Lee, Thornton may be the closest thing in the 2009 draft.  Marcus has the skills of a prototypical 2 guard, with the ability to shoot confidently from all over the court, finish strong at the basket, and not be a liability on defense.  That’s the main divergence between Lee and Thornton: Lee was able to become a go-to wing defender as a rookie, whereas Thornton may never be that in his career.  But their offensive games show similarities, with the only difference being Thornton’s relative weakness on the pull-up jumper.

Is that enough of a buzz-kill for you?  That Thornton may be Courtney Lee without Lee’s most attractive attribute?  It shouldn’t be.  Though Marcus doesn’t have the defensive chops to be a world-class defender, he’s hardly a sieve.  Thornton should be an average defender against NBA opponents, and that fact coupled with his offensive talents make him a nice fit for the Mavs’ shooting guard slot.  The sweet shooting that the Mavs needed out of Antoine Wright?  Thornton has it.  A bigger defensive body than Jason Terry?  Thornton has it, although he’s still a bit undersized at 6’4”.

Thornton was the man at LSU, but in the NBA he’ll be just another man.  Playing alongside proven stars and scorers will undoubtedly help to translate his game and improve his effectiveness.  When looking at the best players on mediocre college teams, I find efficiency to be one of the most important attributes.  Gaudy totals can be achieved through a variety of means, but players able to create offense efficiently despite being the focal point of the offense show the potential to succeed in their roles on the next level.  That role won’t typically be the top dog, but if Thornton was able to rank highly not only in college PER but also virtually every scoring metric available, all signs point to success on the horizon as a scoring role player.  He’ll be best served as a third or fourth offensive option, which is perfect for a team that already has Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Terry, and Josh Howard.  Thornton will likely never be the best scorer on the floor for the Mavs as a rook, which gives him that much more freedom to play his game.

Finding a great wing defender or serviceable big man late in the draft is a bit hard.  Players usually don’t fall quite so far unless they have clearly visible flaws.  Thornton definitely has his limitations, and while he isn’t the defender the Mavs need at the 2, he has all the offensive skills necessary to make a deadly Maverick attack even more potent.

Pro-Level Projections:

Jon Nichols of used his Box Score Prediction System (BSPS) to project career numbers for Thornton.  The values given are career averages per 36 minutes, considering that per minute statistics at least partially eliminate variables such as abnormal playing time, lack of opportunity, etc.  The projections are based on Thornton’s two-year career at LSU.  For comparison’s sake, I’ve dug up some other players who have averaged similar numbers over their careers (click here for an enlarged chart):

(Note: the years indicated in the chart refer to the last year of the season played.  For examples, the 2004-2005 season will be marked 05.)

There was a wide variety of players with similar per-minute averages to Thornton, but I’ve gone for diversity with the lot shown in the chart.  Kevin Martin is an elite level scorer, a super efficient shooter with the ability to get to the free throw line at an abnormally high rate.  Martin would rank as either a first offensive option or 1B on most teams.  J.R. Smith is a salvo off the bench, a creature put on this planet solely to score the damn ball.  He has incredible range, talent out the wazoo, and the handles to get to the bucket for layups and dunks.  Rashad McCants was a very good college player, but has yet to really make an impact as a pro.  McCants has been decent, mostly as a backup or starting for a bad Timberwolves team in 2007-2008, but is far from a proven commodity.

These are three very different players in terms of usage, but all have put up similar per-minute numbers with one exception: Martin’s rate of free throw attempts.  That’s the reason why Kevin Martin will always be an anomaly compared to “similar” scorers, and why his efficiency numbers catch your eye.  Thornton figures to fall somewhere in between Martin and J.R. Smith in that regard, which isn’t bad company in the slightest.

The height of these players is certainly worth noting.  Thornton measured in at nearly 6’4”, a tad short for a shooting guard, but not a death sentence.  Still, Kevin Martin is 6’7”.  J.R. Smith is 6’6”.  Both have the height to get their shot off, be it on the perimeter or in the lane.  Rashad McCants is listed at 6’4”, and hasn’t been able to find his way to notable levels of success.  Obviously not all 6’4” shooting guards are doomed to fail, but for the purposes of these projections it’s certainly worth keeping in mind that the taller off-guards are the ones whose actual production (on a per-game basis) most closely matches their per-minute pace.

  • Kirk

    Jeez this draft is boring.

    You can tell because when you read about GMs talking themselves out fo Ricky Rubio simply because there’s nothing else to do. I’m sure this draft will produce some contributers and a few shocking stars, but man right now, nada, and its killing me with the dog days of summer fast approaching.

  • Brian D

    Yes yes yes. Being a Tigers fan, I’m a little biased here, but I watched nearly every game he played this season, and you’re pretty much right on the money with this. My only complaint with him is that his shot selection was often terrible, but that mostly came from being the best player on a largely mediocre team. I doubt that will translate to the next level when he doesn’t have to carry the team. He’d be a good 4th or 5th banana on a contender.

  • Big Black

    Brian D –

    You mustn’t have watched this past season. His selection was great. His efficiency was incredible. You must be thinking of his freshman year where he was jacking up 10 3′s a game while being double teamed. I hope the Hornets can snag him.

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