Sindarius Thornwell sat at his locker, eyes glued to an iPad. More than an hour remained until the fifth start of his NBA career, and the former South Carolina star was being schooled on his next defensive assignment.
Los Angeles Clippers assistant coach Patrick Sullivan was Thornwell’s instructor, providing a last-minute breakdown of Kemba Walker, Nicolas Batum or any another Charlotte Hornet he could come across Saturday evening.
Thornwell nodded with conviction. Just a night before, the rookie squared off with LeBron James.
“He did a good job in the first half,” confirmed Clippers coach Doc Rivers. “LeBron really got loose in the second half when Sindarius wasn’t on him.
“So, no, he doesn’t question anything. Sometimes that means he’s really confident and smart. Sometimes he may just not know. And both of those are good.”
Thornwell celebrated his 23rd birthday this week. That made him the same age as three of his more veteran teammates. The second-round pick is something of a rare breed in the NBA. In this one-and-done age, he’s the four-year college player making an early impact at the next level.
“He’s a senior,” Rivers said prior to the Clippers tipping with the Hornets at the Spectrum Center. “He went through a lot of Frank Martin’s practices. So he kind of brings that to our team. You can see that he’s been well-schooled, he’s extremely disciplined, just tough.
“You saw that in college, that his toughness spills out to his teammates – and he’s doing that as a rookie.”
Thornwell, the reigning SEC Player of the Year and centerpiece to USC’s Final Four run, was inserted into LA’s starting lineup last Friday at Oklahoma City, replacing an injured Patrick Beverley. All he’s done since is guard the likes of Russell Westbrook, Paul George, Batum and James.
“He’s been put in a position where he has to make a lot of plays,” said Beverley, a five-year vet nursing a sore knee. “His number’s been called, he’s been answering every time. He has to guard some of the best people on the planet, he doesn’t back down, he hits big shots. He’s an underrated playmaker.
“One of the best rookies, for sure.”
Thornwell, a 6-foot-5, 215-pounder, entered Saturday averaging five points, an assist and a rebound per game. He scored a career-high 13 points on Friday at Cleveland.
Thornwell’s five starts are third-most among rookies taken in the second round of last June’s draft. He’s 17th in the NBA, allowing just 0.736 points per possession on defense.
“He’s a competitor,” said Austin Rivers, Thornwell’s starting backcourt mate. “He’s not scared of anybody. And he just goes out there and hoops, which you like. And he just wants to get better.
“I told Sin just a week into the season that he’s going to be in the league for 12, 13 years. He’s going to have a long, successful career. I can see that in him.”
After his film session with Sullivan, Thornwell popped into a back room for a pregame massage.
The Lancaster native wouldn’t talk to reporters until after the game, but his actions were saying enough.
“Obviously, there’s a learning curve for everything,” Austin Rivers said, “but he’s adjusting quickly to the NBA. He just gets it.”