“Who’s your favorite player?”
Sindarius Thornwell had a likeable crowd before him late Saturday evening. Roughly 30 minutes had passed since the Los Angeles Clippers lost their eighth consecutive game, but defeats are easier to swallow when familiar faces and colors are there to greet you afterward.
They came in both garnet and black, some from his hometown of Lancaster, others from Columbia and a majority situated right here in the Queen City. The crew sat together behind one basket at the Spectrum Center following the Hornets win over the Clippers, eager for interaction with the most popular NBA rookie in the Carolinas.
“LeBron James,” Thornwell told a young boy in a Gamecocks jersey. “Who’s your favorite player?”
The boy, after receiving a quick word of advice from his whispering mother, nodded back to say, “You.”
Thornwell grinned, walked over and slapped the kid a low-five.
The former USC star started and scored five points, had three assists and made two steals against the Hornets. When it was all over, he took off his jersey and handed it Kyle Gaither, Thornwell’s former AAU coach who was seated near a baseline.
“To have my family and friends support me and cheer me on was great,” Thornwell said. “You really don’t get that too often playing in Cali. I don’t really get that too often. So this right here means a lot to me.”
The Clippers are in Atlanta on Wednesday to face the Hawks, giving the locals perhaps another chance to see Thornwell this season. But Saturday was always set up to be his homecoming.
The reigning SEC Player of the Year said he wouldn’t try to estimate the number of supporters he had among the 17,640 in the Spectrum Center. The Charlotte Gamecock Club organized the post-game meet-and-greet.
“My Facebook was blowing up all week,” Thornwell said, “like ‘Man, you better be at the game. If you’re from Lancaster, you better be at the game.’ So I don’t even know.”
The scene was a sign of respect for the second round pick eight months removed from leading South Carolina to its first Final Four.
The Gamecocks raised their banner last week.
“Me and P.J. (Dozier) called each other,” Thornwell said. “We were like, ‘Damn, man, I wish we were free. I wish we could make it.’ But it’s dope.
“I’m actually going to try to make it back at some point this year just to see it. But it’s dope. I remember walking in the gym as a freshman and saying ‘I want to leave something here where I can always show my kids – whenever I have kids – and I can always be remembered.’
“It’s something that shows my hard work paid off for my four years there.”
Thornwell left USC No. 3 in program history in scoring, fourth in steals, ninth in assists and 10th in rebounds.
The 2016-17 SEC Player of the Year has started five consecutive games for the Clippers, guarding the likes of Paul George, Russell Westbrook, Kemba Walker and LeBron James.
“He’s going to be an elite defender, I really believe that,” said L.A. coach Doc Rivers. “He’s an above-average to good defender now and he doesn’t know what he’s doing yet.
“He’s going to be an elite defender. He really will be.”
Thornwell’s starting streak could come to an end Monday when veteran Patrick Beverley is expected to return from injury against the Knicks. But the physical 6-foot-5, 215-pounder has likely done enough to stay in the rotation.
And for that, Thornwell gives credit to USC coach Frank Martin.
“I think it’s paying off just because I know how to grind,” Thornwell said. “I know the grind, I know the effort, I know the defense. I understand that just by being with Frank.
“It’s a grind, being with Frank, he’s going to grind it out from the time you’re there. My four years there, I went from losing to one of the best teams in the country. And that didn’t come from getting the best recruits or the best players or anything like that. It was just about grinding it out for four years. We went to work for four years.
“So I just kept that mindset in everything I do. I just go to work and grind it out.”