Weight: 216 pounds
Age: 23 (turns 24 in November)
Position: shooting guard/wing
NBA Experience: 1 year
Key stats: Played 73 games and started 17, averaging 3.9 points, 1.9 rebounds, and 0.9 assists per game. Shot 42.9/37.7/67.0 percent on 3.2 field-goal attempts, 0.8 three-point attempts, and 1.2 free-throw attempts per game (per Basketball Reference).
Contract status: Year 2 of a 3-year, $3.8 million contract.
Sindarius Thornwell faced an uphill battle in the 2017-18 season. As a late second-round draft pick (he was taken 48th overall), Thornwell’s likeliest path was to never play an NBA minute. Maybe he would catch on with the Agua Caliente Clippers, but it seemed unreasonable that he would have a place on a big-league roster, especially for a team that was trying to make the playoffs.
But a special set of circumstances—essentially, injuries to nearly every player on the Clippers—created an opportunity for Thornwell to not only find a spot in the rotation, but play the sixth-most minutes on the LA Clippers.
That’s not to say that Thornwell was an effective player in his time with the Clippers. His shooting splits (shown above) were below average overall, and he was a poor free throw shooter. Although Thornwell shot relatively well from three, he only took 24 percent of his shots from distance, compared to 27 percent from midrange. (At media day, Thornwell acknowledged that NBA 2K thinks of him a shooter from every spot on the floor, though he willingly concedes that isn’t correct.) Overall, that resulted in Thornwell being a net negative on offense, even though the Clippers had a higher free-throw rate and offensive rebounding percentage with him on the floor.
That hustle translated well on on the other side of the ball. Most rookies are objectively bad at defense, but Thornwell rated as a positive defender. The South Carolina product came in the league with a reputation of being a tough-nosed player, bolstered by a Final Four run in his senior year, and he delivered on that potential almost immediately. The Clippers forced more turnovers, allowed fewer offensive rebounds, and forced opponents to shoot worse when Thornwell was playing. He had a high block and steal rate for his position, though he was far too aggressive and had one of the worst foul rates among wings. On a very basic level, when you search for pictures of Sindarius Thornwell, he is always on defense—contesting a shot, getting up in a ball-handler’s air space, or diving on the floor for a loose ball.
The mathematics of the Clippers roster mean that Thornwell might not be on the team when the season starts, even though he so clearly embodies the spirit of toughness and determination that the players were preaching on media day. Thornwell has already gone through the ringer and emerged stronger because of it. Like so many other college stars, Thornwell had a crisis of confidence as a rookie while adjusting to be a role player in the NBA, but he worked his way through it.
“When you’re a younger guy coming in, and you’re not used to not being that guy, you have to learn to accept the role and accept the job,” Thornwell said Monday. “And you can’t lose your confidence in accepting a role that you’re not comfortable with. I think, with myself, I lost confidence in myself because I wasn’t used to playing the role that I was playing, and you can’t do that.
“My worst experience ever was when we were at Phoenix, and we were up like 30 the whole game, and I didn’t get in the game till the last 10 seconds. I never wanted to feel like that no more, so I took everything more seriously. I came in and started to act like a pro, and it translated when I got my shot again, I finished the year pretty strong.”
Thornwell is also fighting to stay in the NBA to avoid having to play in the G League. He only played one game for Agua Caliente last season, a pretty remarkable feat for a second-round pick, but that lone contest was enough to scare him into never wanting to come back. As one of the only guys on the court who had made it in the NBA, Thornwell was the unwelcome target of other G League players eager to show off against him.
“I went down for one game and I thought I was going to do numbers,” Thornwell said. “I’m down here, I can do whatever I want to do, but then I was getting my tail busted.... When I came back up, I’m like, I’m not going back down there, it’s a bunch of wolves down there. I think what helped me was I didn’t want to be down there, so I did everything I had to do up here so I wouldn’t be down there.”
It may take a wolf-like mentality to make the current Clippers squad. The roster is stacked with guards of intense competitive nature, and Thornwell’s defensive capabilities aren’t exactly unique when compared to Patrick Beverley or Avery Bradley. He will have to improve on offense to earn minutes. Nevertheless, it would be foolish to bet against Thornwell’s tenacity. He has already overcome the odds on the basketball court once, and he is ready to do it again.
All stats are courtesy of Cleaning the Glass unless otherwise noted.