Duke freshmen Tyler Thornton, Josh Hairston and Kyrie Irving.
Photo Courtesy: David Bradley, Duke Basketball
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DURHAM, N.C. – Basketball players are always wary of being recruited over.
Even Bobby Hurley, as great as he was coming out of St. Anthony’s High School in Jersey City, wanted to make sure that the school he picked wasn’t also going to sign New York City’s Kenny Anderson, a more celebrated prep point guard.
But Tyler Thornton is the exception to the rule.
The Washington, D.C., prep star committed to Duke in September of 2008, then spent the next two years trying to lure more talent to Durham. He and fellow recruit Josh Hairston were the program’s biggest ambassadors on the AAU circuit, specifically targeting superstar point guard Kyrie Irving.
“Josh and I went to the NBA camp,” Thornton explained. “Basically all the top players in our class were there, including Kyrie. They were there doing their thing and we were aware that Duke was recruiting them and recruiting them hard. So we talked to them, asked them, ‘Are y’all going to make that decision to come to Duke with us and win a championship?’”
In Thornton’s case, a positive answer from Irving was going to impact his playing time as a freshman. There are only so many minutes in the backcourt and with Irving joining pre-season All-American Nolan Smith, Liberty transfer Seth Curry and 2010 freshman Andre Dawkins, it was going to eat up a lot of the available playing time.
The situation was so obvious that a recruiting expert from a rival school speculated about Thornton wavering on his Duke commitment after Irving picked the Blue Devils just before signing day in the fall of 2009. It was idle speculation – Thornton (and Hairston) had recruited the gifted point guard as hard as the Duke coaches in camp after camp and in tournament after tournament.
“I’m not a selfish person,” Thornton said. “I’m glad Kyrie decided to join us because he’s a great player and that’s going to make us that much better. It’s going to make me better, playing against him, Seth and Andre in practice every day. It’s going to lift my game. I appreciate him coming.”
Thornton understands that Irving is the likely point guard starter this season. But he believes that his own game is versatile enough to earn him playing time – either alongside or in place of his fellow freshman.
“I can play the wing. I can run the floor. I just do whatever it takes,” he said, adding that he is a natural point guard. “I’m more comfortable on the ball, bringing the ball up and running the offense.”
Thornton believes that his ticket to playing time will come on defense.
“I would say that my strongest point is my defending – my anticipation on the ball and off the ball,” he said. “That’s been one of my strengths since day one. I’m improving my shooting and my ballhandling all the time because guards need to have those things to get playing time so that Coach can trust you with his offense on the floor.”
Still, if he plays a significant role this season, it will be because of his work at the defensive end.
“Basically, Coach Steve (Wojciechowski) and Coach Nate [James] told me that my calling card is going to be at the defensive end,” Thornton said. “I have to get into people. I have to be disciplined, move my feet. If I could lock people down and contain them, that’s my ticket to the floor.”
A Lockdown Defender Defense has always been Tyler Thornton’s calling card, even when he was a nine-year-old playing for the Reston Green Waves in a 10-and-under league in Reston, Virginia.
Actually, Thornton started playing football a year earlier.
“I started playing football at eight,” Thornton said. “Football was my first love. But seeing all the other guys go straight from football at the end of the season to basketball, I wanted to go too.”
“My first year playing, we had a real successful year and won a championship. That was my first taste of winning. Then I played AAU that summer and went to the Nationals, we got fifth place in Orlando – first in our regional in Maryland. So I guess from the get-go, it was kind of a natural thing for me.”
Despite his youth, Thornton was the best player on his team – because of his size and his defense.
“Back in those days, I played the four or the five,” he said. “I was bigger than everybody. That first year, I was the youngest guy on the team, but everybody looked up to me. I was kind of the glue guy for our team. I didn’t play guard, but I hustled and I rebounded. We played a diamond press and I was always the guy on the ball. Our press was unstoppable. Nobody could get through that. I guess it all started from there.”
His basketball journey may have started with the Green Wave, but it meandered through a number of AAU teams before Thornton wound up playing for the powerful DC Assault program.
“I started off playing my first four years with the Virginia Vipers,” he said. “Pretty much, all the guys who played on my Reston team were on the Vipers. Our coach left to go to grad school. Tommy Amaker’s cousin, Bobby Dawson, became our coach for one year. Then everybody decided to go their separate ways. One of the rivals in the area was Maryland Select, which was coached by Todd Bozeman, the head coach at Morgan State now. He always wanted me to come play with him. So when our team broke up, I decided to go play with him for a year. He was getting ready to move on and basically handed us over to the DC Assault.”
During this period, Thornton made the transition from post player to wing to point guard.
“I was basically the best all-around player on my middle school team,” he said. “That’s where I honed my guard skills. That’s when I made my transition.”
Thornton was scheduled to attend South Lakes High School, where Grant Hill played. But his parents wanted him to attend a more academically rigorous institution.
“They asked me what other schools I would consider,” he said. “At the time, I loved going to Potomac School. Still, I would go to see high school games and I’d see St. John’s with Chris Wright and DeMatha and Gonzaga and O’Connell. Those were all the schools that had the most recognition for basketball in our area.
“DeMatha was pretty far from our house. It basically came down to me applying to St. John’s, O’Connell and DeMatha.”
In the end, Thornton elected to play for Coach Steve Turner at Gonzaga College High School, the oldest educational institution on the District of Columbia, even though it meant a long train journey every day from his family home in suburban Reston to the prestigious prep school in the city.
But the choice paid off as Thornton emerged as an excellent student (3.38 GPA) and the anchor for a powerhouse basketball team. He was a starter and a third-team all-conference pick as a freshman, then earned first-team all-met honors as a sophomore, leading Gonzaga to a 34-1 championship season.
Over the next two seasons, Thornton battled an elite crop of area point guards, including O’Connell’s Kendall Marshall (signed with UNC), St. John’s Markel Starks (signed with Georgetown), and Quinn Cook and Josh Shelby at DeMatha (although Shelby left DeMatha midway through his junior year). He repeated as an all-met selection and beat out his rivals to become Gatorade Player of the Year as a senior.
“He’s a point guard in the truest sense,” said Gonzaga head coach Steve Turner when the award was announced. “He does it all. He leads the ship for us and runs things. He’s our No. 1 defensive player. To me, he’s a coach on the floor. He doesn’t need to score points. Every time he’s been challenged – every time somebody says, ‘He doesn’t do this’ – he does it.”
Despite his prep success, Thornton arrives at Duke as the lowest rated freshman in his class. Unlike Irving, who was a consensus first-team prep All-American, and Hairston, a third team Parade All-American, Thornton didn’t make any prep All-America teams and wasn’t listed as a top 100 prospect by the RSCI (which averages recruiting ratings).
How come the D.C. player of the year – a winner at every level – missed so many prep honors?
“It all depends on your type of game and what the recruiting services look for,” Thornton said. “They like to see a little bit of flash. They like to see a little bit of showboating. They say they don’t want it, but they want to see guys try to put up numbers in the scoring column. That’s never really been my game. I just basically wanted to do whatever it took for my team to win. That’s what I’ve done since day one. That’s what the coaches here appreciate about me.”
That’s what his rivals appreciate too.
“Tyler is just a winner,” the UNC-bound Marshall told the Washington Post. “He’s a great defender who makes big plays down the stretch.”
Thornton insists that he’s not bothered by the lack of prep recognition.
“After I made my decision to come here, [concerns about rankings] all that basically went out the window,” he said. “It’s great to play in all-star games and on TV, but at the point you’ve made that decision and the coaches are happy with that decision, rankings at that point mean nothing.”
Making the Choice Thornton didn’t begin the recruiting process dreaming of playing for Duke.
“I actually grew up a Carolina fan,” he said. “I started my recruitment early. I visited a lot of schools early and formed relationships with certain coaches after my freshman season and going into my sophomore year. I had made my way down here numerous times to watch Nolan [Smith, the stepson of DC Assault coach Curtis Malone]. I was able see the other schools that were recruiting me, through AAU trips or on my own. At that point, I pretty much had all the offers on the table that I wanted. If you have too many options, things get overwhelming. So at an early stage, my parents and I cut my list down.”
Thornton trimmed his list to Duke, Georgetown, Stanford and Villanova.
So why Duke?
“Duke, it was a lot different,” he said. “This area is a lot different than back home. Up in the city, it is so fast-paced. Everybody is always on the go. Basically, I had been going to school in the city for four years and I was already used to that life. I wanted to try something different.
“Plus, Coach K and all the assistants are great coaches and I wanted to learn from them. One of my goals, after my playing days are over, is to be a coach one day. So it behooves me to learn from Coach K. He’s the kind of guy who looks after his ex-players. I saw that as an opportunity to get what I wanted.”
It didn’t hurt that Andre Dawkins, one of his friends on the AAU circuit, picked the Blue Devils late in the summer of 2008. And it was helpful that Josh Hairston, his best friend on the DC Assault, was also considering the Blue Devils.
“It wasn’t a package deal,” Thornton said, echoing Hairston’s version of events. “Through the success of our AAU teams, a lot of the same schools courted us. There were only a few select schools that presented it as a package deal to us. That wasn’t really important to us. We just wanted to go to a school where we both felt comfortable – either with each other or without each other. And we both came down here for our visit and we both felt the same way about the school and the opportunities that were here for us.”
In the end, Hairston and Thornton committed within minutes of each other.
“He went up and had his meeting with Coach and came down and told everybody,” Thornton said. “I went up and had my meeting with Coach and talked to my parents and decided this was the place for me. Andre had committed earlier that summer. He was actually here when we visited. He had been telling us to come for a long time.”
Now Thornton shares a room with Hairston and Irving – nicknamed “The Trio.”
“We’re all lighthearted guys, so we kid around with each other all the time,” he said. “There’s never a dull moment when we’re together. That’s what I appreciate about these guys – off the court, everything’s jokes. When we get on the court, everybody’s trying to take care of business. Going after each other, trying to make each other better.”
Thornton is battling the player he helped recruit for playing time this season. With so much depth and talent in the backcourt, it’s easy to project Thornton as the odd man out of the rotation.
But don’t forget Coach Turner’s warning, “Every time he’s been challenged – every time somebody says, ‘He doesn’t do this’ – he does it.”