November 20, 2011

DotComp: My take on Thornton's 'big' game and what it means

EAST LANSING - Austin Thornton had the best game of his Michigan State career, in some aspects, on Sunday night. Yet Tom Izzo didn't approve. Izzo wants more.

These are good things for Thornton, and the Spartans.

Thornton had not scored in Michigan State's three previous games, going 0-for-8 from the field despite playing an expanded role over his three previous seasons with the Spartans.

Last year, Thornton averaged 2.0 points and 11.1 minutes per game. This year, his minutes are up to 18.5 per game, but until Sunday night, statistical productivity had not followed.

That's why his 13-point performance was so surprising. He was 3-of-7 from the field and 7-of-9 from the foul line.

He tied for second in rebounds with six, which had a direct impact on his team-high nine trips to the foul line.

Inside Thornton's 13 points

In case you missed Sunday's game, or weren't paying close attention, this is how Thornton snuck up as the team's leading scorer for the night:

  • Thornton was 1-of-2 from the field in the first half. He scored on a back cut out of a 1-4 set, via a pass from Draymond Green. He converted the lay-up in traffic while getting fouled. His free throw gave MSU a 12-5 lead.

  • Thornton missed a 3-pointer from the right wing versus Arkansas-Little Rock's zone defense. Brandon Wood set him up by driving from the wing and kicking opposite to Thornton. Thornton launched it with :13 seconds left on the shot clock. Thornton missed badly, but Izzo wants him to continue to shoot that shot - for now.

  • Thornton was 3-of-4 from the foul line in the first half.

    His drew the first two foul shots while attempting an aggressive a shot in transition, thanks to a feed from Wood.

    On the second foul, Thornton was cutting from the right wing off the same 1-4 back door action that produced his lay-up earlier in the game. This time, a Little Rock defender bumped Thornton and impeded him during his cut, and was called for the foul away from the ball. MSU was in the bonus. Thornton went to the line and hit both foul shots to give MSU a 25-9 lead with 6:59 to play.


    In the second half, Thornton was 2-of-5 from the field:

  • He turned defense into a lay-up when he stole an in-bound pass and took it the length of the floor with 5:34 to play, making it 59-40.

  • He hit a 17-footer in transition from Travis Trice on MSU's next possession, to put the Spartans up 61-40.

    Feeling an offensive groove, he went up with an 18-footer early in a possession a short time later, but missed.

    He rounded out his scoring by getting fouled while collecting an offensive rebound. He made both free throws, giving MSU a 66-45 lead.

    "That's my job," Thornton said of creating chances with offensive rebounds. "I'm supposed to crash."

    Needing The Shot

    Thornton had a healthy off-season for the first time in three years, and with a human resources degree in hand he was able to work on his game harder than in previous summers. He felt good about his improved perimeter shot.

    Thornton shot just 19 percent from 3-point range last year. He and Izzo say his range shooting has shown improvement in practice. However, it hasn't surfaced on game day. Thornton is 0-for-9 from 3-point range on the young season.

    In the second half of Sunday's game, Thornton missed two 3-pointers from the left wing against Little Rock's zone defense.

    But Izzo hasn't given up on the possibility of Thornton coming around as a perimeter shooter.

    "For the first time in a long time, he yelled at me in the first half because I didn't take a shot," Thornton said. "I didn't take it, and I should have, and he yelled at me, and I'm glad he did. That's one thing that I need to do, is be ready to shoot when I have opportunities."

    Thorton also took it as a positive that Izzo criticized Thornton's 13-point performance rather than praising it.

    "He's a great coach, he's hard on us and he expects a lot out of us," Thornton said. "So we are going to continue to get better and work on ourselves."

    Thornton's first points of the second half came when he was fouled while getting in position for a defensive rebound. MSU was in the bonus at the time. Thornton went 1-of-2 from the foul line on that trip, making it 46-31.

    The Analysis For Now

    Thornton didn't shoot the ball much better than in the past, but he seemed more active and scrappy against Arkansas-Little Rock. Three of his second-half points came via rebounding battles. MSU can use that.

    I don't anticipate seeing Thornton approach double figures many more times this year. MSU isn't asking him to be a double-figures scorer. MSU just needs him to be a glue guy, someone who can play positional defense - that means playing the angles, communicating, executing switches and x-outs like a veteran. That means playing leak-free on the help side, bumping cutters and surviving as an on-ball defender. MSU won't ask him to guard an opponent's star player, but the Spartans need him to be solvent against support players for a few minutes per game.

    MSU also needs him to be active on the glass. His 0-rebound performance in 16 minutes of playing time against Duke was unacceptable.

    And MSU needs him to serve as a conduit within the offense. That means delivering good entry passes from the wing - on time and on target - when Green, Adreian Payne or Derrick Nix are open or coming open. That means reversing the ball and helping to direct traffic when applicable.

    They need him to scratch for loose balls, and not commit any.

    And when an open jump shot comes his way - knock it down.

    "They're going to go, eventually," Thornton said of the missing jump shots. "I make a lot of them in practice. It's a little bit of an enigma to me, but I'm not going to get frustrated with anything. I'm just going to continue to stay confident and the guys are going to continue to stay confident in me, so we're going to be okay and we're going to make shots."

    I'm not sure if Thornton will ever emerge as a reliable shooter. But the glue areas of his game showed improvement on Sunday.

    My sense is that MSU is playing Thornton 18 minutes a game in November in expectation of playing him for 12 or 14 per game when things get more competitive.

    If he shows he can handle 18 minutes per game, that would be a pleasant surprise, and a major plus.

    Izzo asked Thornton to become a leader during the off-season, and Thornton responded by developing a positive, supportive relationship with the newcomers. In Isaiah Dahlman fashion, Thornton is often the first player off the bench offering encouragement during time outs. MSU can use that supportive energy boost, on the court and off. MSU is more needy in that area than expected, due to the retirement of Delvon Roe.

    Thornton doesn't have to be a "plus" offensive player in order to help this team. He just needs to be a guy who can deliver 10 minutes a game without being a liability. If he can do that, he will gain more credibility as a leader.

    Thornton understands the rigors of the season, understands Izzo, understands what Izzo is demanding of the young players. He can be a useful extension of the coaching staff IF he can emerge as a guy who can deliver 10 or 12 problem-free minutes per game. He took a step in that direction on Sunday night, even if Izzo was reluctant to give Thornton much credit. In fact, that's the best compliment Izzo can give Thornton - telling him, and the media, that Thornton should and could do much better than this 13-point performance.

    Why all this fuss over a support player?

    Izzo needs a wing to step up and provide some minutes. Izzo will be able to rely on perimeter players Keith Appling, Brandon Wood, Travis Trice and Brandon Dawson.

    That's 120 minutes of playing time for four players. That's an average of 30 minutes per game, per player, if they receive no further help off the bench.

    With the way Izzo demands championship-level defense, championship-level rebounding, championship-level screening, in addition to renewed emphasis on transition sprinting, it's not practical or possible to expect four guys to play 30 minutes per game and compete up to the Izzo standard.

    Izzo demands that all four go all-out for every minute that they are on the court. It's easier for them deliver if they don't have to play such long shifts. It's easier for them to deliver if there are one or two support players coming off the bench to fill in with solid minutes. That's the Izzo model.

    At other programs, a short rotation of four players for three backcourt positions might yield decent offensive numbers, but check and see where those programs land in March, compare it to the Izzo standard and get back to me.

    [Duke is the only program that consistently gets a short bench to play hard at a championship level - although Duke's NCAA Tournament problems from 2001 to 2009 raised questions and criticism. Duke made it past the Sweet 16 only once in those eight years, with most their failures linked directly to having too shallow of a playing group. At times when Duke does get by with a shallow playing group, they normally have the benefit of fielding five or six McDonald's All-Americans, compared to MSU's one or two.]

    With what MSU has to work with, the Spartans seek to succeed via strength in numbers - and structured effort.

    Shorten the bench and use just those four - Appling, Wood, Trice and Dawson - and you can bet on a short March. That's not the way Izzo has mapped it out in the past, and he's going to stick to the proven method.

    Izzo needs one or two backcourt players to emerge as guys who can play 10 or 12 functional minutes per game, and help conserve the legs and lungs of the main four, and thereby help the Spartans defend, rebound, screen and run up to the code of the Final Four blueprint.

    Who are the choices? There's Thornton, Russell Byrd and Brandan Kearney.

    In the event of short- or long-term injuries, or foul trouble, Izzo needs one or two bench players to emerge as trustworthy options to play more than 12 solid minutes on a given night in the backcourt.

    Byrd is supposed to be a good 3-point shooter, but he is still slowed from 18 months off due to a foot injury. While he is working to recover physically and find his shooting stroke, he'll need to do better in moving his feet on defense, and battling for loose balls under the rim than he showed on Sunday. He knows this and so does Izzo. They will keep working and remain understanding and patient - as difficult as that is for both of them right now.

    Kearney got some time at point guard in the zone offense on Sunday. He rotated the ball around and didn't play soft or casual. He took a fastbreak opportunity hard to the rim and scored while being fouled in transition. That was a step.

    Byrd and Kearney have more talent than Thornton. But Thornton is more equipped for now, in theory, to play a few leak-free minutes per game, just based on experience, understanding of Izzo commandments, and some physical maturity.

    Will Thornton continue to come around and become the type of consistent support player that Izzo needs? Maybe not. But I completely understand why Izzo is investing minutes in the concept at this stage of the season.

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