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On Derryck Thornton's Departure

Bottom line: Thornton saw his role very differently than the coaching staff saw it, so it's probably best that he pursue it somewhere closer to home.

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Jan 13, 2016; Greenville, SC, USA; Duke Blue Devils guard Derryck Thornton (12) dribbles against the Clemson Tigers forward Donte Grantham (15) in the first half at Bon Secours Wellness Arena
Jan 13, 2016; Greenville, SC, USA; Duke Blue Devils guard Derryck Thornton (12) dribbles against the Clemson Tigers forward Donte Grantham (15) in the first half at Bon Secours Wellness Arena
Dawson Powers-USA TODAY Sports

It was not really a surprise Sunday when Derryck Thornton announced that he was leaving Duke. His transfer had been internet fodder for weeks and although Coach Mike Krzyzewski and his staff had hopes that Thornton would change his mind and stay, the only real suspense was the timing of the announcement.

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Thornton is not the first player to leave Duke early and he won’t be the last. But he does represent one of the more disappointing departures.

It’s not that Thornton’s absence will create a huge void in next year’s roster. Indeed, the expectation was that the 6-2 point guard would have played a minor role next season as a backup. It’s true that Duke now won’t have a traditional point guard on the roster in 2016-17, but so what – Krzyzewski still has guards who can handle that role, including veterans Grayson Allen, Matt Jones and Luke Kennard, along with incoming freshman Frank Jackson.

Indeed, that’s one of the reasons that Allen is returning – to polish his playmaking skills.

Coach K has had numerous teams that played without a "true" point guard – the 2010 Blue Devils won a national championship with wing guard Jon Scheyer handling the point. A year later, Duke started with brilliant freshman Kyrie Irving at the point. But when he was injured eight games into the season, senior wing Nolan Smith – a failure at the point in 2009, when he was a sophomore – took over the playmaking duties and led the Devils to an ACC championship and a No. 3 ranking in the final AP poll.

Even last year’s team went most of the way without a traditional point guard. True, Thornton played substantial minutes, but his point guard skills were still undeveloped. Allen, Jones and Brandon Ingram initiated the offense more often than Thornton. That team pretty much maximized its potential – the big limitation on the 2016 Blue Devils was frontcourt depth, not point guard play.

So, I’m confident that next year’s Duke team will prosper without Thornton.

But I’m still very sorry to see him go – and I guarantee you that the staff feels the same way even if it does open up a scholarship for potential big man recruit Marques Bolden.

The truth is that Thornton is a young player with tremendous potential.

He reclassified out of high school to come to Duke a year early. His game was still in a developmental stage. But looking at his freshman numbers shows how much potential is there. He started 20 of 36 games, averaging 26.0 minutes, 7.1 points and 2.6 assists a game (with 1.6 turnovers). He shot 39.0 percent from the floor and 32.5 percent from 3-point range.

Compare that with the freshman numbers of some other successful Duke point guards:

  • Quinn Cook (2012): Four starts, 11.6 minutes, 4.4 points, 1.9 assists. He shot 40.5 percent from the floor and 25.0 from 3-point range. He did have just 0.6 turners per game.
  • Sean Dockery (2003): No starts, 10.5 minutes. 3.3 points, 1.0 assists (1.1 turnovers). He shot 41.9 percent from the floor and hit 4-of-11 3-pointers.
  • Chris Duhon (2001): 10 Starts, 27.8 minutes, 7.2 points, 4.5 assists (1.6 turnovers). He shot 42.4 from the floor and 36.1 on 3-pointers.
  • Will Avery (1998): No starts, 19.3 minutes, 8.5 points, 2.5 assists (1.7 turnovers). He shot 42.7 from the floor and 29.6 from 3-point range.
  • Steve Wokiechowski (1995): 15 starts, 19.3 minutes, 4.0 points, 2.9 assists (1.5 turnovers). He shot 34.3 from the floor and 35.5 from 3-point range.
  • Jeff Capel (1994): 28 starts, 26.4 minutes, 8.6 points, 3.2 assists (2.0 turnovers).

Just a note: I was in the Duke basketball offices recently, filming a segment for the upcoming E:60 feature on Bobby Hurley (I’m not sure I made the final cut). As I was leaving with the director, we were joined in the elevator by Coach Capel. I joked to the director that he should talk to Capel, "the guy who replaced Hurley at the point for Duke." Then I said to Jeff, "At least I’ve always thought of you as the point guard in ’94. Who was the point, you or Chris [Collins]? His answer: "Grant [Hill]."

I would argue that Thornton’s freshman season compares favorably with the players listed above – better in some areas … worse in others – but comparable.

I left Hurley, Jason Williams and Tyus Jones off the list because they were clearly a different level as freshmen point guards. Well, you might also include Johnny Dawkins, who played the point as a freshman, or Tommy Amaker, who moved Dawkins to the wing when he arrived in 1983-84. And, of course, Kyrie Irving in 2010-11 was on pace to becoming the best of them all when he got hurt early.

But the players I listed were the next echelon of Duke point guards and Thornton’s freshman season measures up fairly well with that group as freshmen – especially when you factor in his very promising prowess as an on-the ball defender.

Thornton’s biggest flaw as a freshman was that he had not yet developed as a playmaker. His judgment was somewhat suspect. That was the issue that defined his freshman season – Thornton looking for his shot, while Coach K and the staff urged him to be more of a quarterback.

Indeed, I don’t know for sure, but I believe that conflict was behind the reported January crisis that led to Thornton’s decision to transfer.

I hate the decision for Duke and the kid.

Look, if Thornton returned, he’d have to fight for playing time next season. The Devils will be loaded on the perimeter with the return of Allen, Matt Jones and Luke Kennard and the addition of Jason Tatum and Frank Jackson. That’s not to say that Thornton could not elevate his game in the offseason to the point where he would have to play major minutes. As the only natural point guard on the roster and as a potentially outstanding on-the-ball defender, it’s not farfetched to suggest that even with all the wing talent on hand, Thornton could have turned himself into a 25-30 minute a game player.

Still, that was not likely. The most likely scenario was that Thornton would get 10-15 minutes while he worked to get more mature physically and develop his playmaking abilities.

That would put him in spectacular position going into the 2017-18 season. Jones would definitely be gone … Allen and Tatum would likely be gone … it’s even possible that one or both of Kennard and Jackson would be gone.

If Thornton developed as most Duke players who stick around develop, he would be in position for a monster season in 2017-18.

True, he would have had to be patient through next year, but by transferring he’s got to sit out next season anyway. Is he going to be better off as a practice player at UNLV or Cal or wherever he ends up … or as a contributor – even a minor contributor – on a Duke team that should be a strong contender for the 2016 NCAA title?


There are all kinds of reasons for transfer – but many such decisions are based on misjudgment – either a player’s misjudgment of his own talent or a coach’s misjudgment of the player he recruited.

One of Coach K’s first transfers was Bill Jackman, a celebrated member of the recruiting Class of 1982. The six-man class included Johnny Dawkins, Mark Alarie, David Henderson and Jay Bilas – four players who would form the foundation of K’s first great Duke teams.

But coming out of high school, the 6-9 Jackman was as highly touted as any of them. Nebraska’s Mr. Basketball was touted as "the next Larry Bird." But the Duke coaches learned on the first day of practice that Mr. Jackman was not ready to play at a high level. He was afraid to go inside and rough it up with his new teammates.

Jackson stayed one very forgettable season (3.2 points and 1.6 rebounds a game), then transferred back home to Nebraska University, where he had a forgettable career for a mediocre team.

Whose fault was that?

Did the young Duke staff misjudge Jackman’s talent? Or did Jackman’s ambition outstrip his talent?

To be fair, while Duke has suffered a lot of transfers in the Krzyzewski era, few have found success elsewhere – and their departures have rarely hurt the Blue Devils.

A handful of exceptions:

Billy McCaffrey – the classmate of Bobby Hurley and Thomas Hill, McCaffrey was vital to Duke’s first national title run in 1991. He came off the bench in Indianapolis and earned All-Final Four honors as a sophomore. But the 6-3 shooting guard wanted to play point guard – thinking that was his only route to the NBA. That wasn’t going to happen with Hurley on the team, so he transferred to Vanderbilt.

After sitting out the 1992 season (as Duke repeated as national champion without him), McCaffrey started in 1993 at Vandy. He was named SEC co-player of the year. In 1994, he didn’t have quite as good a year (although he still made some All-America teams).

McCaffrey certainly would have helped Duke in 1993, if he had been patient enough to stick around.

Mike Chappell – A classmate of Nate James and Chris Carrawell, Mike was the first to crack the starting lineup. But as the 1997 season wore down, the slender 6-9 wing played less and less. He started 21 games as a sophomore in 1998, but averaged less than 15 minutes a game on a very balanced Duke team.

Chappell, seeing his playing time shrinking with Chris Carrawell, Trajan Langdon and freshman Corey Maggette in the picture for 1999, bolted for Michigan State. He sat out the 1999 season (with Duke beating Michigan State in the Final Four), then played a minor role for the 2000 Michigan State national champs – averaging about the same 15 minutes and 5.9 points that he averaged at Duke. He played six minutes in the title game.

Chappell played an even smaller role for a disappointing Michigan State team in 2001.

Duke, of course, went to the title game in ’99 without him and finished No. 1 in the nation in 2000 with his classmate Chris Carrawell winning first-team All-America honors.

Elliot Williams – Duke’s top recruit in 2008, the quick guard spent most of the season buried on the bench. But with the Devils struggling in mid-February, Coach K remade the team. He benched point guard Nolan Smith, moved Jon Scheyer from wing to point and installed Williams at wing guard, where he became a defensive demon.

The new lineup won 10 of 12 games down the stretch, winning the ACC championship and reaching the Sweet 16.

But Williams was still unhappy with his role. In an off-season meeting, he demanded an increased offensive role in 2010. K responded by helping facilitate his transfer to hometown Memphis, where "he could be close to his ailing grandmother."

Williams got an NCAA waiver on that basis to play right away and turned in a solid sophomore campaign, averaging 17.9 points for a 24-win Memphis team that missed the NCAA Tournament.

Duke, of course, won the 2010 national title without Williams.

Michael Gbinije – a classmate of Austin Rivers and Quinn Cook as a freshman in 2012, Gbinije emerged as a second-team All-ACC performer as a fifth-year senior at Syracuse.

Gbinije, a wonderfully athletic 6-7 wing, couldn’t get on the court as a freshman at Duke. The staff tried to convince him to be a defensive stopper – something he was suited to do and something that team needed badly. But Gbinije thought he was an offensive weapon and wouldn’t buckle down at the defensive end.

In a recent interview, Gbinije said that he came to Duke believing that he was a one-and-done player. Obviously failing in that regard, he transferred after his freshman year.

It’s worth noting that even after sitting out a season, Gbinije still took awhile to make an impact at Syracuse. As a third-year sophomore in 2014, he averaged less than 15 minutes a game and scored 3.4 points a game. After a slow start in 2014-15, Gbinije finally began to play effectively for the Orange, finishing the year with an average of just under 13 points a game.

But that would have been his senior year at Duke – and it’s hard to suggest that the 2015 national champs missed him.

Rasheed Sulaimon – After a very promising freshman season that saw Sulaimon start on a 30-win, Elite Eight team, the wing guard from Texas struggled in and out of the lineup in 2014 and through the first half of 2015. He became the first Duke player to be dismissed from the program under Krzyzewski.

Sulaimon graduated last summer and decided to finish out his college career at Maryland. There he averaged 33 minutes a game and was the No. 5 scorer (11.3 ppg.) for a Sweet 16 team. It’s funny, but Sulaimon was statistically almost the exact same player a senior as he was as a freshman.

Duke obviously didn’t miss Sulaimon after he was dismissed midway through last season. And while the 2016 Blue Devils could have used another body in the rotation, the development of Allen and the addition of Kennard meant that the Devils didn’t miss Sulaimon very much on the wing.

That’s basically it. The great majority of transfers in the K era – from Jackman and Greg Wendt after the 1983 season to Crawford Palmer to Andre Sweet (an academic casualty midway through his freshman year) to Michael Thompson to after 2006 to Jamal Boykin to Taylor King to Oleg Czyz to Alex Murphy in 2014 to Semi Ojeleye midway through the 2015 season – have been marginal players whose loss had little impact on the Duke program.

I often wonder if any of those kids would have had different careers if they stayed at Duke. Palmer and Boykin didn’t hurt Duke by leaving, but they did find modest success at their new schools (Dartmouth and Cal, respectively). The jury remains out on Ojeleye, who has yet to play at SMU. The depth-shy 2016 Blue Devils probable could have used hin in the frontcourt rotation.

But what strikes me is the difference between the guys who leave when they aren’t playing and those that stick around and work to get better.

I think of Brian Zoubek, who played seven minutes a game as a freshman and finished his career as the inside anchor of a national title team. I think of Ryan Kelly, who got 6.5 minutes a game in 2010, but emerged as a star player at Duke and wound up in the NBA. I think of Marshall Plumlee, who redshirted in 2012 and played just 50 minutes total in 2013 (about a fourth of what Murphy played). He emerged in 2015 as a key reserve on a national title team and in 2016 as the interior stalwart on a Sweet 16 team.

Most of all, when I think of Derryck Thornton leaving, I think of Nolan Smith, who played 14.7 minutes a game as a freshman in 2008 – more than 10 minutes a game less than Thornton. Smith struggled as a sophomore too – losing the point guard job at midseason.

It wasn’t until his junior season that Smith blossomed as a star. And as a senior, he was an All-American and the ACC player of the year.

I could see a very similar career trajectory for Thornton.

Too bad it won’t happen at Duke.

Believe me, the Blue Devils will be fine without Derryck Thornton. And, I suspect Thornton will have success at his new school, wherever that turns out to be.

But I will always regret what might-have-been if Thornton had elected to gut it out and stay at Duke.