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Breaking down Thornton’s Game – Is he Untouchable?

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Published: August 27, 2010

When I put together the Taking Offers for Paul post, there was a behind-the-scenes discussion with Henry Abbott of Truehoop about just how talent-bereft I thought his offer was.  I opened it by saying that as soon as I saw Marcus Thornton involved in the trade, I didn’t even really care what the Hornets were getting back, the deal was dead in my mind.

The question, though, is whether I’m not just a little nuts to think that way.  There is a lot of sentiment amongst Hornets fans that Marcus Thornton is untouchable.  But should he be?  Let’s break him down.

General Stats

Taking his season as a whole, Marcus Thornton graded out to be a bit above average.  If you look at his monthly stats, he did clearly have an generally upward trajectory(after a dismal December) but it’s probably better to take his season as a whole to set a basis for what to expect next year.  Larger sample size and all that.  Here are his advanced stats, and the average stats of a shooting guard in the league who played 20 games and at least 15 minutes a game.

Player Usage TS% Ast Rate TO Rate Reb Rate NBA Efficiency WP48 PER
Marcus Thornton 25.3% 55% 9.8% 6.6% 6.6% 18.28 .092 17.4
League Average 20.2% 54.3% 16.3% 9.8% 6.6% 15.89 .087 13.7

That is fairly solid production, and it’s better than any Hornet shooting guard has produced since Eddie Jones. (apologies to David Wesley)  I still worry at times, however, that my pleasure of seeing the ball in Thornton’s hands is more because I was starved of good wing play than anything spectacular on Thornton’s part.  So, let’s dissect his game, and and see if Thornton is a truly exceptional player.

Shot Selection

My favorite part about Thornton’s game is his perpetual motion and ability to cut to the basket, receive and finish in traffic.  One of the main reasons West’s assist totals doubled was purely due to Thornton receiving that bounce pass from the high post.  But was he exceptional at this?  Indeed he was:

Marcus Thornton took 6.8 shots per 40 minutes at the rim.  That ranked him second in the league amongst all guards, behind only Dwayne Wade and Tyreke Evans.  However, unlike either of those two players, who were only assisted 32% of the time, Thornton was assisted on fully 61% of those shots.  With half those shots looking to be fast break baskets(another nice thing), that means that Thornton scored at the rim off of moving without the ball three times per game.  That’s fairly extraordinary.

Thornton’s forays to the hoop aren’t his only special quality as a scorer.  In general, there are two types of shots that are the most efficient in the game: At the rim, and behind the three point line.  At the rim, an average NBA guard receives 1.17 points per shot.  Behind the arc, an average NBA guard earns 1.09 points per shot.  By way of comparison, shots taken 1-10 feet from the rim only earn 0.88 points per shot, shots from 10-15 feet get 0.81, and shots 16-23 feet earn 0.8.  All of those are, of course, modified by free throws earned, so players probably earn a bit more at the rim or 1-10 feet from the rim, but the rest of the ranges probably don’t get much of a boost.  Regardless, it’s clear which shots are most efficient, and it’s also clear Marcus is aware of it:

An average guard in the NBA takes 56% of their shots at the rim or beyond the three point arc.  Marcus Thornton takes 72%.  In a game where the average margin of victory is just a few points, that matters.

Shooting

Thornton’s focus on efficient types of shots does highlight a weakness in his game:  Thornton is a terrible mid-range shooter. An average NBA guard shoots 40.2% from mid-range. (11-23 feet away)  Marcus Thornton shoots 34%.  Yeah, that’s bad.  It could be why Marcus has told people he’s working on that part of his game.  Personally, I’d prefer he leave it alone and keep taking the threes and layups.

Or dunking on Gerald Wallace’s head.

Ahem.  I still love that.

The rest of his shooting is solid, if not spectacular.  An average NBA guard shoots 58.3% at the rim, Thornton shoots 59.2%.  An average NBA guard shoots 44.8% 1 to 10 feet from the hoop, Thornton shoots 49%.  From the three point line, 36.3% . . . and Marcus shoots 37.4%.

Passing

Buckets doesn’t really believe in passing too much.  He had one of the lowest assist rates in the game, posting numbers close to half the league average for a guard.  In particular, Thornton displayed a very limited ability to drive and kick.  Most NBA guards get 66% of their assists by driving and kicking to mid-range or three point shooters.  Marcus only got 35% of his assists that way.  If Marcus logs time as a point guard this season, don’t expect him to create many baskets for his teammates.

Handling

Like I said earlier in the off-season, Thornton posted the highest usage and lowest turnover rate by a rookie guard in about 20 years.  Among players that got significant time last season, Thornton placed third overall in turnover rate, giving up the ball a measly 6.6% of the time.  That sort of number is almost exclusive to a spot-up shooting specialist like Peja, not someone who consumes 23% of his teams offense when he’s on the floor.  If Marcus logs time as a point guard this season, don’t expect the other team to break the game open due to ball-handling mistakes.

Rebounding

Thornton is exactly average as a rebounding shooting guard, snagging 6.6% of available rebounds.  However, Thornton is an excellent offensive rebounder, grabbing nearly double the average.  This meshes with my personal observations – as Thornton frequently blitzes the baseline for rebounds in traffic, bringing the home crowd to their feet.  The reverse, however, is also true – he’s a good bit below average at snagging defensive rebounds.  Of course, his role last year was to take off as soon as a shot went up, looking for an easy basket in transition.  That does tend to limit defensive rebounds.

Defense

By every statistical measure Thornton was a sub-par defender last year.  He was below the league average for guards at steals, blocks, and charges drown.  The Basketball Prospectus states that players that faced him produced 8% more than they normally did.  Shooting guards that faced him posted above average PERs.  Not a bigger PER than he himself produces, but still above average.

This also agrees with the eye test.  If you watch his defensive plays, Thornton is frequently completely out of the picture if a player runs off two tight screens.  His one-on-one defense is also pretty weak, as he hasn’t mastered the ability to anticipate where a player is going to go, and ends up too often on the hip of his cover, rather than in front of him.  He tries, but he looks . . . almost like a somewhat undersized rookie!  I’m shocked.  I’m dying of not surprise.  You?

Career Arc

Here’s the rub.  It’s tough to send out a rookie – because they are a rookie, and you have no idea what their eventual ceiling is going to be.  Watching Collison go out that door was very tough for me.  He has the potential to be exceptional.  So we have the same issue with Thornton.

In general, player production peaks at age 24 and 25.  Marcus Thornton turned 23 this summer, and by most scales I’ve seen, we can probably expect him to produce about 5% more this year, and another 5% more after that.(this isn’t a hard and fast rule, it could be more, it could be less).  If Thornton does improve that much, by the time Thornton is 24, he’ll be posting a PER around 20.  That makes him elite, and considering his likely salary even if he blows up this year, it’ll also make him a bargain.

To me, that makes him untouchable in trade for all but the most consistent of superstars.  I’d just rather have Marcus Thornton for the next 5 years or so with a salary artificially depressed by his draft position.  That’s why I had a really hard time putting him into a trade for Carmelo Anthony.  On the face, it seems ridiculous, but Carmelo will be paid 20 million a year to produce 3 more points of PER.  I don’t think that’s worth it, and if I’m barely willing to put him into a trade for the league’s 3rd leading scorer, then I’d apply the untouchable tag.

What do you think?  Untouchable?

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