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Al Thornton

Jonathon Abrams focuses today's LA Times coverage on rookie Al Thornton.  Al's been getting LOTS of pre-season minutes, and has responded well.  He won't shoot 11 for 15 every game, but he won't shoot 4 for 13 every game either.  And if you want to read further into those numbers, it's maybe understandable that he had some jitters in his first game in an NBA uniform.  All in all, it's hard to ask for more from a rookie, even in pre-season.  Comparing his numbers to the other top picks, no rookie has yet to have a game like Al's 24 points in 27 minutes versus the Warriors.  

We've discussed before the fact that John Hollinger believes Thornton is going to be a bust.  He has said things like "neon warning sign" and "bust-detector into overdrive" regarding Al's age.  It's a simple enough argument - Hollinger is saying that Thornton's numbers at Florida State last year, when he was 23, are the equivalent of a man playing against boys, since much of his competition was 2 or more years younger.

But there's one incredibly obvious point that Hollinger is leaving out - the NBA is a man's league.  If he's so concerned that Thornton had an unfair advantage playing against 19 and 20 year olds, why would he rate two 19 year olds and three 20 year olds as the top five players in the draft?  It makes no sense.  "Younger players have a distinct dis-advantage playing against older players, so therefore 20 year old Thaddeus Young is the 4th best prospect to put on your NBA roster to play against guys 5 and 10 years older than he is."  Huh?  

Oh, and by the way, if we're worried about Al Thornton padding his college numbers against sub-par competition, let's bear in mind a couple of things - (1) he played in the ACC, and led the conference in scoring.  I can understand worrying about Jared Jordan's level of competition in the MAAC, but we're talking about the leading scorer in the best conference in the nation.  Come on.  (2) Hollinger rated Thaddeus Young (Georgia Tech) and Brandan Wright (North Carolina) as the 4th and 5th best prospects in this draft.  They both happen to be 20.  So apparently Thornton was padding his numbers by lighting up these unprepared young pups that John Hollinger thinks were significantly better than Thornton (rated 25).  How's that for tortured logic?

OK, I understand (almost) where he's going with this.  Like so many others, he's bowing down at the altar of 'potential'.  The 19 year olds have it, the 24 year old doesn't.  But the simple fact of the matter is that many 19 year olds don't develop any further, nor is there any specific reason that older players can't develop further (Elton Brand brought a totally new mid-range jump shot into his 7th season at the age of 26).  So unless he's counting on a growth spurt from a 19 year old draft pick (it happens, but not very often), I don't see what the big deal is.  It's as if he's saying "Sure, Al Thornton was better than Thaddeus Young and Brandan Wright in college, but he's older than they are.  They'll get better, and even if they are never as good as Al Thornton, at least they're getting better - that's what matters."  Well, actually, no.  What matters is results.

All of this would make a little more sense if Al Thornton weren't (a) by most accounts the best athlete in this draft class and (b) well-known as a hard worker.  So unless we're getting concerned about early onset arthritis, I fail to see the problem.  His athleticism is virtually limitless - we're not concerned that he needs to develop his body more.  He's done developing his body, and we're tickled pink with the results, right?  As for developing his game, look at his college numbers - they improved significantly every year he played.  Talk to his college coach, Leonard Hamilton - he has nothing but praise for the guy's work ethic.  Al Thornton split his time between track and field and basketball as a high schooler (he was an all state high jumper, no surprise there) and almost went to Georgia on a track scholarship.  In other words, he didn't focus exclusively on basketball until he got to college.  He entered Florida State with an admittedly unpolished game - and he's shown a willingness to get out the Turtle Wax, with great results.  

Hollinger usually has solid historical data to support his positions.  If he says that Andre Miller is going to have a big drop off this year, it's because point guards his size have traditionally declined at about his age.  That makes it all the more strange that he's going all 'intuition-y' on Thornton - your 'bust-detector' is in overdrive?  Really?  Maybe it's just something you ate.  Besides, I seem to recall an All-ACC senior who put up some great numbers in college and turned out fine as a pro.  I think his name was Duncan.

(Of course Clipper fans have an ax to grind with Hollinger right now anyway.  This is the same guy that predicted 20 wins for the team, based partly on his low expectations for Thornton.  Sure, I could be accused of bias hree, but I'm not the only blogger who thinks that 20 wins is way off base.)

It all amounts to age discrimination in the NBA draft.  Part of it is simply a flawed assumption:  if that guy is that good, why is he still in college?  If he was worth a lottery pick, he'd already be in the pros.  Part of it is the old adage, 'familiarity breeds contempt.'  If Joakim Noah had declared for the draft in 2006, he would likely have been taken number one overall - by 2007, he dropped to 10, because everyone noticed, "Hey, he can't shoot."  Well, he couldn't shoot before guys.  You've just had time to get disillusioned, that's all.  

I myself wondered in a post just after the draft if the opposite isn't true.  Shouldn't NBA teams be seeking the older players?  From the standpoint of return on investment, isn't it foolish to draft youngsters?  Hollinger is actually supporting my point with his criticism of Thornton's college numbers.  He's saying that younger players can't compete with more mature players.  So why would you draft them, sign them to a multi-million dollar contract, and then sit them on the bench while you cross your fingers and hope that (a) they'll improve and (b) you'll be able to re-sign them (to much, much more money) when they do?  The Clippers, on the other hand, have a guy that is ready to contribute for four full years on the rookie scale.  

And he just happens to be a freak of an athlete and lighting up the pre-season.  What's your 'bust-detector' doing now, John?