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2017-18 Clippers Exit Interviews: Sindarius Thornwell

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Thornwell struggled with consistency, but proved his NBA potential during his rookie campaign.

NBA: Cleveland Cavaliers at Los Angeles Clippers Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

Name: Sindarius Thornwell

Age: 23

Years in NBA: 1

Key Stats: 3.9 points, 1.9 rebounds, 0.9 assists, and 0.7 steals per game in 15.8 minutes per game in 73 appearances as a Clipper (17 starts).

2017-2018 Salary: $815,615

Future Contract Status: Guaranteed $1.4 million salary for 2018-19, and non-guaranteed $1.6 million salary for 2019-20.

Summary:

Sindarius Thornwell was one of college basketball’s premier players in 2017—in fact, he may have been the best player in the nation his senior year—but as a senior who didn’t cleanly project into an NBA position (he has great size for a SG but not the handles or shooting ability), his draft stock was understandably low. NBADraft.net projected Thornwell at 41, and he ended up being available to the Clippers with the 48th pick, when they bought into the draft to select him.

Thornwell’s rookie season was supposed to be somewhat of a redshirt year: the Clippers had Patrick Beverley, Milos Teodosic, Austin Rivers, and Lou Williams at the guard positions, overfilling available guard minutes. In case of emergency, the team had a solid, experienced SG option available via two-way contract in C.J. Williams. Sure, Thornwell would get a few opportunities when there were injuries ahead of him, and he’d get some garbage time minutes, but he was set to spend most of the season with the Agua Caliente Clippers, getting reps to prepare for a role down the line.

It didn’t quite go that way. Milos Teodosic, who was the opening night starting shooting guard, went down in the second game of the season with a nagging plantar fascia injury that would hamper him all season long, causing him to miss a total of 37 games. Not too long after, starting point guard Patrick Beverley went down, missing 71 games. At that point it didn’t matter that Austin Rivers (61 games played) had a normal season injury-wise and Lou Williams (79 games played) stayed healthy—Thornwell was guaranteed to get serious playing time. Not only did he appear in 73 games, but he reached double-digit minutes in 51 of those appearances.

Still, Thornwell had to compete for minutes. Between fellow second-round rookie Jawun Evans, two-way contract players C.J. Williams, Tyrone Wallace, and Jamil Wilson, and disappointing veterans Sam Dekker and Wesley Johnson, there was plenty of competition at the end of the Clippers roster for the minutes that became available due to injuries. All three of the two-way players had stronger seasons than Thornwell, but their limited days on the NBA roster restricted them from interfering too severely with his playing time. Still, at times, Thornwell struggled to contribute consistently and found himself behind the underwhelming Wesley Johnson in the pecking order. At other times, his defense and slashing ability changed games in the Clippers’ favor.

Strengths:

Thornwell didn’t bring a ton to the table during his rookie season that couldn’t have been anticipated based on what he displayed during college. What was crucial, though, was that his strengths translated well to the NBA. While he struggled with consistency throughout the season (which is to be expected for rookies thrust into rotation roles), his defense and athleticism really impressed at the wing positions. Size-wise, Thornwell is probably best considered a shooting guard long-term, but his already-elite strength and wingspan make him a viable option at small forward in three-guard lineups. He’s capable of defending both positions and we saw flashes of defensive ability that was more than just capable: if he can continue improving, develop and all-around game, and perform consistently, Sin actually has a shot to be a really strong NBA defender.

Weaknesses:

If Thornwell’s strengths translated predictably from college, then so did his weaknesses. He’s not an unskilled offensive player, but the transition to the NBA was rough coming from playing forward positions at South Carolina in a system built around getting him elbow jumpers. He shot 42.9% from the field on the season, which isn’t horrendous but is unimpressive for a player who was very selective offensively. Similarly, his 37.7% from deep on the season is a solid mark, but at under 2 3PA per 36 minutes, he doesn’t provide much spacing. A lot of times, Thornwell would pass on open threes, causing the offense to stall. He also produced more than his fair share of airballs and ugly misses, and a slow, disjointed release gives defenders time to close out. The bright spot of his offensive game is his finishing ability around the rim, where elite strength and long arms allows for strong finishes in traffic—but a lack of on-ball explosiveness limited him to transition opportunities. Late in the season, Thornwell’s offensive confidence seemed to progress, and he at times dribbled with purpose to get to comfortable spots on the floor. Continued success in that area and significant improvements with the jumpshot will determine Thornwell’s utility as an NBA player.

Future with Clippers:

Sindarius Thornwell is a viable NBA prospect on the court, but he’s 23 years old, and he’ll turn 24 during next November’s pre-season. There are only 30 teams in the NBA, and each of them only gets 15 roster spots—the clock is constantly ticking on every young player, and 24 is pretty old for a prospect. Keeping Sindarius certainly has value—the last 800 words discuss what he brought to the Clippers last season, and can bring in the future—but the Clippers have difficult roster decisions to make. The Clippers have 8 players under contract for next season, plus three players who are likely to accept player options, two first-round picks, a non-guaranteed decision to make on C.J. Williams, restricted free agency for Montrezl Harrell and Tyrone Wallace, free agency for DeAndre Jordan and Avery Bradley, and their full mid-level exception. That comes out to 19 players—only 15 can be on the roster on opening night. And that’s before any unexpected moves, not counting additional signings, etc. Somewhere, at least 4 names have to be trimmed from that list. There are tons of ways that it can happen (players leaving in free agency, a draft-and-stash or trading up, an unexpected trade, cutting roster players), and there’s no need for Thornwell to be casualty of it. If he makes the team next season, he’ll be on unstable ground and have to really work to prove himself—a reminder of the fierce competition for roster spots in the NBA.