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NBA AM: Thornwell Proves Maturity Beats Potential

Teenagers rule the top of the NBA Draft, but Sindarius Thornwell’s experience is as valuable as potential.

Joel Brigham

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If you, like a lot of people, were surprised to see the seventh-seeded South Carolina Gamecocks make the Final Four in this past spring’s March Madness tournament, you might not have been if you had watched any of South Carolina star Sindarius Thornwell’s senior season.

Thornwell, easily one of the league’s best two-way guards, not only scored 21.4 points per game while shooting a career-high .442 from the field, but also averaged 7.2 rebounds, 2.2 steals and one block, showing just how effective he was on both the offensive and defensive ends of the floor.

Currently, though, not a single one of the Basketball Insiders mock drafters has last year’s SEC Player of the Year slated as a first-round pick. Draft Express currently has him going 55th overall, which basically intimates that he could just as easily get drafted as not. That seems like a small miracle considering how good he was in his final college basketball season.

But he’s a senior, which these days works against older players hoping to get drafted. Teams seem to think a player in his 20s can’t offer the same potential for growth as a 19-year-old with his whole career still ahead of them.

Thornwell, stoic and tough in both his on-court and off-court personas, thinks that is a bunch of hooey.

“I’m getting drafted. It’s just a matter of where—late first or second round,” he told Basketball Insiders at the NBA Draft Combine late last week.

His argument is that there are simply too many things he’s proven he can do that these unproven teenagers haven’t.

“I bring more toughness (than the freshman players),” he said. “Physically, I already can compete, and I’m mature enough to understand my role and not get as upset about maybe not playing as much right away. Plus, I’m able to guard. Young guys don’t understand, that’s what’s going to get you minutes.

“That’s what I’m selling myself on, is giving team’s stars a break on defense so they can compete more on offense, but I also know I can score. You’ve got 18-year-old freshman heading into this draft that have never scored 18 points in a game. There are guys who averaged 10 points a game being talked about in the lottery, whereas I’ve proven myself to be a good scorer.”

He has, and not just against the lower-level teams South Carolina may have played during the regular season. Thornwell had a huge NCAA Tournament, scoring 24 points or more in four of his five tourney games. He believes showing out on the big stage proved he still should be in consideration for a draft selection much higher than the 55th one.

“The NCAA tournament run helped me a lot,” he admitted. “It’s not like I was playing one way during the season and then just had a crazy game. The way I played in the tournament is the way I played in January and February. Being on that stage, with all those eyes watching me, I knew I had to take advantage of that opportunity, and I love the spotlight. Everybody was paying attention because of all those big teams that were playing. It’s one thing when you score 25 points against South Carolina State, but it’s something else when you have 25 against Duke. That’s a big difference, so I think that I benefitted a lot.”

As far as the Combine is concerned, Thornwell didn’t do a whole lot to change what teams already knew about him coming into the process. They understand his maturity, his strength, his toughness and his experience. It’s just going to be a matter of how many teams want to take risks on youngsters, and how many teams are looking to add an established talent. Thornwell knows his best fit is going to be with the latter type.

“I feel like I can come in and help right away. I bring toughness, competitiveness, playing hard. Those things spread, especially when you have a guy that competes and loves to defend. On the offensive end, I’m not a defender that you don’t have to worry about on the offensive end because I can create and make the open shot. I bring a lot to the table.”

Some team will snatch him up in the second round and immediately benefit from his skillset. At some point in the draft, it’s silly to pass up known value for a roll of the dice, and Sindarius Thornwell absolutely is a known commodity. Somehow, though, he still has a lot to prove.

“I’m just doing whatever I can to help my stock,” he said of the Combine. “I’m not worrying about what everyone else has going on. Whatever I have to do to help my situation, I’m doing it. I’m not worried about it helping me or hurting me. I think that’s why some guys don’t compete. They’re afraid of someone that’s ranked lower than them outplaying them. They’re trying to protect themselves in workouts and in the process.

“I just want to show that I’m a competitor on both ends of the court. I don’t even feel like I have a position. I’m just a ball player. I want to do things the right way and compete. That’s all I’m worried about.”

That should be enough to get him drafted, and whoever does select him is going to get a real competitor, which sometimes is worth a hell of a lot more than the high hopes attached to players with “potential.”

With Thornwell, we’re not talking about potential anymore. Potential was three years ago. Now, he’s an NBA player.

All he needs to prove it is a team.

Joel Brigham is a senior writer for Basketball Insiders, covering the Central Division and fantasy basketball.

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Dejounte Murray: The Spurs’ Latest Steal

The Spurs have a history of drafting talented players late in the draft. Dejounte Murray is emerging as their most recent steal, writes David Yapkowitz.

David Yapkowitz

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It seems like almost every NBA season, the San Antonio Spurs end up selecting a player late in the draft who unexpectedly goes on to become a valuable contributor, sometimes even a star. The entire draft in itself can often be a crapshoot, but the lower the pick, the lower the chances of a team finding a solid rotation player. But with the Spurs, it’s as if they hit far more often than they miss.

Their pick from a year ago is shaping up to be no exception as the injury to starting point guard Tony Parker has opened up a huge opportunity for Dejounte Murray; one that he is taking advantage of.

There is a lot of preparation by analysts leading up to the NBA draft. Several mock drafts are created up until draft night itself. Murray was often projected to be a high first-round pick, possibly even a lottery pick. He had a solid freshman season at the University of Washington where he averaged 16.1 points per game, six rebounds, and 4.4 assists.

Draft night arrived and he ended up slipping to the bottom of the first round (29th overall), far later than he had anticipated. Following his selection, LeBron James himself, who is represented by the same sports agency as Murray, tweeted out some words of encouragement for the young rookie. He let Murray know that he may not have been drafted where he wanted to, but that he was with the best organization in the league.

Murray pretty much rode the bench last season as a rookie, which is not at all uncommon for a first-year player on a veteran team with championship aspirations. He was inactive for most of the final two months of the season. In the first round of the playoffs against the Memphis Grizzlies, and most of the second round against the Houston Rockets, he was relegated to garbage time duty. Perhaps if he’d been drafted as high as initially projected, he might have had a bigger opportunity at getting minutes right away.

That all changed, however, against Houston in Game 2 when Parker went down with the injury that he is still recuperating from. Murray was thrust into the starting lineup and he responded as well as an inexperienced rookie under the bright lights of the playoffs could. In Game 4, although the Spurs lost, he had eight points on 50 percent shooting along with three assists. He actually didn’t play in Game 5, but in the Spurs closeout Game 6 win, he poured in 11 points, ten rebounds, five assists and two steals while shooting 50 percent from the field.

Even though the Spurs were ultimately swept in the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors, Murray continued his steady play with 8.3 points, 3.8 assists, and three steals.

At the start of this season, Murray has taken his momentum from the end of last season and carried it over. He was given the starting point guard spot in place of Parker on opening night against the Minnesota Timberwolves. He responded on national television with 16 points on 7-8 shooting from the field, five rebounds, two assists and two steals.

It’s still too early to tell, but it’s highly possible that the Spurs have found their starting point guard of the future once Parker eventually decides to hang it up. At 6-foot-5, Murray is a tall point guard and his length gives him the potential to develop into an elite defensive player. He can score the basketball and he is improving his court vision and playmaking.

One area he could improve in is his outside shooting. Although he did shoot 39.1 percent from the three-point line last season, he only took 0.6 attempts. In his lone college season, he shot 28.8 percent from downtown. If he can improve his range and really begin to put together his entire package of skills, we’ll be talking yet again about how the Spurs bamboozled the rest of the league and found a draft-day gem.

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NBA Saturday: Jabari Bird Experiences The NBA Whirlwind

Jabari Bird entered a hostile environment Friday night after being on his couch just three days before.

Dennis Chambers

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When Gordon Hayward suffered a season-ending injury six minutes into the Boston Celtics’ season on Wednesday, he wasn’t the only player who saw his season changed in the blink of an eye.

“I was at home in California watching the game as a fan,” Jabari Bird said.

Bird was the 56th overall pick in last June’s NBA Draft. After playing his college ball at the University of California, the Celtics gave the 6-foot-6 swingman a shot to continue his career. After impressing throughout the preseason, Bird was signed to a two-way contract with Boston and returned home to the west coast.

That didn’t last long.

“After the game was over my phone was going off that I had to get on the quickest flight to Boston,” Bird said about opening night. “Got in 7:30 the next morning, suited up against Milwaukee, now I’m here in Philly.”

With the massive hole Hayward left in Boston’s roster due to his injury, the Celtics are going to have to turn to some unlikely performers throughout the season to pick up the slack. Bird didn’t light up the scoreboard or stuff his stat sheet, posting just three points and one rebound in 13 minutes of play. But down the stretch in a close game against the Philadelphia 76ers Friday night, Bird came up big on defense.

As the Celtics trailed the Sixers 61-53 with six minutes remaining in the third quarter, Bird subbed in for Jaylen Brown and was tasked with guarding J.J. Redick, who was in the midst of carrying Philadelphia with his lights out shooting.

After wiping away the Sixers lead and gaining an 86-84 advantage in the fourth quarter, the Celtics still had Bird sticking Redick. The Sixers’ shooting guard — and highest paid player — rose up for another three-point attempt which would’ve given Philadelphia a late lead and a momentum shift at home with a raucous crowd behind them. Only this time, Bird’s hand was in his face and the shot attempt didn’t find the back of the net.

In a big-time moment on the road, for a team facing a potential three-game losing streak to start the season, the unlikely rookie answered the call.

“Like I said before, he’s one of the best shooters in the NBA, really good perimeter scorer,” Bird said of Redick. “For the team to trust me with that responsibility, with us being down on the road needing to get a win, I was hyped up and ready to go. I was ready for the challenge.”

Placing such a responsibility like guarding Redick on a night where it seemed like the Sixers marksman couldn’t miss on a player who was sitting on his couch three nights ago seems like a bold strategy. Head coach Brad Stevens, however, knew what he was doing.

“All the way through preseason and training camp I felt like he was one of our better perimeter defenders,” Stevens said. “I think he has huge upside. His rebounding spoke for itself in preseason practices. His ability to guard off the ball, especially shooters coming off screens is just really good. He’s not afraid, and you knew he’d step up.”

Going from the couch to a red-eye flight from California to Boston, to the bench in Milwaukee, to the court in Philadelphia is nothing short of a whirlwind experience. With such a series of events, it’s hard to be coached into that moment. As a player, sometimes you have to just go out and play.

“I wasn’t prepared at all for tonight. Mentally I just had to lock into the game,” Bird said. “Coach just looked at me and said ‘Bird get Jaylen.’ ‘Alright.’ So that’s what I did.”

After signing Hayward to $127 million contract this summer, the Celtics were expecting the small forward to provide an elite scoring 1-2 scoring punch with Kyrie Irving. Obviously, at least for this season, Boston will need to move forward without that possibility. An opening night loss, followed by another defeat to Milwaukee the following night, had the Celtics 0-2 heading into Philadelphia and searching for answers a lot sooner than they may have anticipated just a week ago.

Bird’s journey during his first week in professional basketball represents how quickly things can change, and how the ripple effects of injuries and other moves have far outreaching waves.

“I was already packed, I was ready to go to the G-League,” Bird said. “We had training camp coming up. My bags were already packed, I was ready to get out the house. Then I got the call to go to Boston and I was like alright I’m ready to go, just gimmie a flight. And that’s what happened.”

All-star point guard, and Bird’s new teammate, Kyrie Irving doesn’t foresee the rookie leaving the clubhouse anytime soon. With the adversity the Boston Celtics have felt in the first week of the 2017-18 season, Bird’s addition and impact are a prime example of being ready when your number is called, and the culture this team is looking to create.

“Jabari is now probably gonna be on every trip with us,” Irving said. “Guys are gonna be called up and called upon to be ready to play. We just have to have that expectation that when we come into the game we’re gonna be able to play, and we trust one another and have each other’s backs.”

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Mavs Guard Devin Harris on Personal Leave from Team

Basketball Insiders

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Guard Devin Harris will take an indefinite leave from the Dallas Mavericks after the tragic death of his brother, Bruce.

“I was with him yesterday and just encouraged him that when he’s ready to come on back,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “I don’t know when that will be. He can take as long as he needs.”

Source: Tim MacMahon of ESPN

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