One of the toughest and strongest players in recent South Carolina basketball history hit a wall.
Sindarius Thornwell, six months removed from leading the Gamecocks to their first Final Four, was continuing with his signature dogged defense when a perennial NBA All-Star made him realize he wasn’t in the SEC anymore.
“Running into Blake’s screen,” Thornwell said, “it hurt my shoulder.”
Blake Griffin is a 6-foot-10, 251-pound teammate of Thornwell’s for the Los Angeles Clippers. Taking shots from the former No. 1 draft pick is part of the new norm for the reigning SEC Player of the Year.
To date this preseason, Thornwell’s already banged with Griffin, gone one-on-one with Lou Williams and came out 50-50 in encounters with decorated Portland Trail Blazer guards Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum.
“I got caught on an iso with both of those guys,” Thornwell recalled by phone earlier this week. “I was 1-for-2. I stopped C.J., but Damian, he got me.”
The Clippers’ regular season opener is Thursday against the Lakers. Assuming his Griffin-punished shoulder is healed, Thornwell could then make his NBA debut, representing not only a memorable USC team, but a state that watched his rise to stardom.
“I take tremendous pride just because I’m South Carolina, born and raised,” said the Lancaster native. “So I always look at myself as a positive role model for kids in South Carolina. I’m just showing kids from South Carolina (how) to play basketball because, you know, football is the main sport. I’m just showing those kids that once you play basketball, you can do it from South Carolina. Even though a lot of people don’t, you can.”
Thornwell is part of a small fraternity of ex-Gamecocks to make the NBA. When he was taken in the second round (48th overall) last June, he became the first USC product drafted since Ronaldo Balkman in 2006. P.J. Dozier, Thornwell’s former backcourt mate who went undrafted, has spent this preseason with the Dallas Mavericks.
ESPN’s Sean Farnham, who covered South Carolina games for the SEC Network, believes Thornwell has the potential to stick – and then thrive at the next level.
“I fully expect that he will be on this Clippers roster,” said Farnham, who resides in the Los Angeles area. “They need somebody like him that will defend on the perimeter. They need somebody out there that’s a little bit stronger with his body makeup and his muscle mass. That is going to benefit him and it’s going to benefit the Clippers moving forward.
“So initially I think he’ll be on the floor more for his defense than his offense. And you expect his offensive game to kind of round into form as he gets more and more comfortable at the speed of that level, the spacing that takes place on that level.”
Thornwell averaged an SEC-best 21.4 points and 2.1 steals per game last season. He shot over 40 percent from the floor (44.4) for the first time in his college career, stamping his mark as an elite two-way player.
Reports from his early profession days suggest the balanced style has remained. Over three preseason games, Thornwell totaled 22 points and seven rebounds in 37 minutes. He hit seven of 13 field goal attempts, including three 3s.
“He’s got an incredibly high basketball IQ,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said of Thornwell last week to the Orange County Register. “You would never know he’s a rookie. He makes mistakes because he’s a rookie, but if you watched him play, you would never say that’s a rookie out there. He’s not a great shooter yet. He just knows how to play.
“I just like him. … There are certain guys, they’re going to find their way onto the court, no matter who’s in front of them. He’s more of a three (small forward). I want him at the three more because I need some toughness there, but he can play any position.”
The 6-foot-5, 215-pound Thornwell has impressed Rivers with his defensive versatility. The accomplished coach pointed to Thornwell’s challenges of both Lillard and McCollum as a prime example.
“He’s just tough,” Rivers said. “That’s what I like about him. He’s just tough. (Against Portland), he guarded the one (point guard), the two (shooting guard) and the three.”
Such praise was once echoed through Columbia by another noted coach.
“I think that comes a lot from playing for Coach Frank,” Thornwell said, nodding to USC’s Martin. “When I first got to college, I didn’t even like to play defense. And I learned fast that if I wanted to play in the game I had to play defense at South Carolina.
“So over my four years there playing defense became something natural to me. I just got better at it every year. Now it’s just like second-nature to me.”
Soon, so will the grind of the NBA life.
“I learned a long time ago that opportunity doesn’t go away, it just goes to the next person,” Thornwell said. “So I’ve always been taught to take advantage of every opportunity that you have.”