Remember back when we thought Devan Downey was the definition of a good basketball player?
Those were the days, right?
But, maybe that’s a little too harsh for Downey. After all he’s a USC Hall-of-Famer and will forever live in South Carolina basketball lore after dropping 30 on John Wall’s No. 1 Kentucky team in one hell of an upset win.
However it’s that same lore and nostalgia that makes it easy to forget Downey shot 9-29 from the field in that game and Wall/Eric Bledsoe combined to shoot 8-23.
As fun as Downey was to watch, he was as tall as your neighbor Bob and wasn’t the most efficient shot taker of his day. Yes, he had a 24.9 PER (player efficiency rating) and averaged 18.0 ppg at a 45.6 eFG percentage his senior year.
But in the span Downey was at South Carolina the team was 50-44 and on the road to no where special. He was a fine player and should be remembered as one, but when that’s all you have to show for in nearly 20 years it’s not a great indicator of success for your basketball program.
Downey is the only All-American South Carolina has produced since Y2K, and it’s shown in the season-by-season results of the program that there’s been a serious lack of legit hoops talent in Columbia.
Between Dave Odum and even more so Darrin Horn, neither coach was able to wrangle in the kind of talent necessary to make South Carolina a nationally relevant basketball program.
There’s only two necessary components for college basketball success: talent and coaching. It seems obvious and cliche, but just look around. It rings true for Villanova, Duke, UConn, Louisville, Kentucky or any of the other national champions over the years.
Odum was certainly a good coach, but just never brought in the top-tier talent to take South Carolina anywhere beyond NIT success. Horn didn’t have either, and the proof was in his 60-63 record.
Now in steps Frank Martin, who not only has the coaching acumen to win but has now brought in and developed the talent to match.
Look no further than his first recruiting class of Mindaugas Kacinas, Laimonas Chatkevicious and Michael Carrera. Carrera was an undersized small forward who could put back offensive rebounds and dunk when he came on campus in 2012, and by the time he left he was a legit wing player who could space the floor and produce double-doubles in the same game.
In Carrera’s first three years he shot just 89 three-pointers and made just 29 percent of them. However his senior year he shot 126 three-pointers and made 40 percent of them, on top of shooting a career high 45 percent from the field and a senior year PER of 23.5.
Even better examples of Martin’s ability to develop players are the two Lithuanians. Neither were very coordinated players coming out of prep school and as a matter of fact I’ll never forget watching a shootaround before a game against Florida in 2014 when Martin yelled quite loudly at Kacinas “I don’t want to play you but I have to!”
Both Kacinas and Chatkevicious grew from barely playable rotation players to contributors on a 2015-16 team that won 25 games and were the No. 1 seed in the NIT. Both went from having PER’s under 13.0 their freshman year to both being over 17.0 by the time they were juniors.
Those examples of how Frank Martin was able to take early sub-par talent and turn them into the nucleus of a team that SHOULD have gone to the NCAA tournament. The next step Martin needed to take following the 2012 class was finding the next tier of talent necessary to make consistent runs at the NCAA tournament.
It didn’t take long for Martin to assemble that class, because the very next year he assembled the best recruiting class South Carolina has had in over 20 years. The 2013 crop was the 21st ranked class in the country by 247Sports and the 5th best class in the SEC.
Of the eight players in that class only three are still on the team, but those three are Justin McKie, Duane Notice and Sindarius Thornwell.
McKie’s been a reliable role player over his career and Notice was the SEC’s 6th man of the year. Even if Notice’s performance has dropped off slightly this year as he’s become a full time starter, both he and McKie are the caliber of player necessary to sustain success in a power conference in basketball.
However of all the recruits who’ve come through the door in Columbia over the last 20 years — maybe even 40 years — Thornwell may be the most important one of them all. South Carolina simply isn’t the program they are now without his talents and what he meant in terms of recruiting.
First of all, under Darin Horn a player like Thornwell simply doesn’t go to South Carolina. He was a homegrown product from Lancaster, SC who wound up finishing his prep career at basketball powerhouse Oak Hill Academy — Alma Mater of NBA players like Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Durant and Rajon Rondo.
When Thornwell committed in October of 2012, it sparked excitement across the recruiting landscape that Martin was serious about not only signing the best players in the state but going after the best players in the country as well.
Thornwell was one of the reasons McKie committed to South Carolina in the first place. While his Dad being a star at the school and growing up in the shadow of the University were surly factors too, he specifically mentioned Sindarious being a factor in his recruitment in this article written by The Big Spur.
“It means a lot that we are both from the state,” he said. “Sindarius is a very good player, I think I am a pretty good player. Our talents together on the wing will be pretty good and being two kids from the state going to play at South Carolina will be really good.”
Duane Notice would commit later on in March, and even though there’s only the three players left from the 2013 class it’s Thornwell’s initial recruitment that’s opened the door for other top level recruits to find peace of mind in making Columbia their home.
The most obvious of those top-level recruits is PJ Dozier, another home-grown product from Columbia who also grew up with the Gamecocks in his life. His dad, uncle and sister all played for South Carolina — making it seem like an obvious place to go — however in an article by Sports Illustrated he made it clear this wasn’t the case.
"South Carolina wouldn't be in the mix if I didn't feel like they had the players and coaches to [turn it around]," Dozier said. "I'm definitely excited to play along with them and get this going.
That’s code for if Thornwell and Martin weren’t in place, Dozier would have wound up at somewhere other five-star recruits go like Georgetown, Michigan or Louisville. If trends keep up, Dozier won’t be the last five-star to make Columbia his home, and Thornwell’s commitment back in October of 2012 made it all possible.
By now it should be more than obvious Thornwell’s impact extends further than the hardwood for the trajectory of South Carolina’s program going forward. However, his impact on the court is obvious.
Sindarius on the court
Thornwell started from day one at South Carolina, scoring 14 points in an 82-44 win over Longwood. He would start all 34 games his freshman year, averaging 13.4 ppg on .737/.386/.370 splits. Decent numbers for an 18 year-old who was the most talented player on an unimpressive 2013-14 roster.
Even with the teams limitations, Thornwell produced seven separate 20-point games and led all SEC freshman in conference scoring and assist averages (15.6 ppg, 4.0 apg).
Those conference play numbers bested future NBA players Julius Randle, Bobby Portis and James Young — all with whom Thornwell would share a spot with on the All-SEC freshman team that season.
However the following season it appeared Thronwell had taken a step back in his development. Even as South Carolina produced its first winning season since 2009, Thornwell’s numbers took a hit.
His splits dropped to .716/.340/.268 and was only scoring 11.1 ppg, second of the team to Notice. Perhaps a significant drop in his usage rate from 27.6 percent his freshman season to 24.1 percent the next year can parse some of the blame, but it doesn’t fully illustrate why his percentages took such a hit.
One thing to point at is the amount of three’s he took his sophomore year. His three-point attempt rate skyrocketed from 28.6 percent to 42.4 percent — not a great formula for success for a guy who’s a career 32.8 percent shooter from deep.
Why Thornwell tried so many deep balls is still unclear, because his two-point percentage has consistently improved from his freshman year on. Just look:
Thornwell through the years
It’s pretty clear somewhere along the line Thornwell figured out when he cuts back on three’s he’s a much more efficient basketball player, and the proof is in the advanced stats.
Thornwell’s PER dipped from 15.7 to 13.7 in his sophomore year, but came back up to 17.0 his junior year. His eFG% also took the same trajectory, going from 43.6 percent to 39.7 percent and then back to 44.3 percent his junior season.
Another factor to throw in as to why his performance dipped in 2014-15 was Ty Johnson being the primary ball handler, forcing Thornwell out to the wing and become a spot-up shooter.
We now know Thornwell is much better with the ball in his hands bringing the offense up the court, and the proof is in his assist numbers. His assist percentage went from 23.9 percent to 16.3 percent his sophomore year and back up to 22.4 percent when Johnson graduated.
It’s even more evident in the “points produced” metric, where in 2013-14 Thornwell produced 453 points and then in 2014-15 those points dropped to 365. For those who are mathematically challenged, that’s nearly 100 points less.
So what’s the point of zeroing in on why Thornwell’s production dipped in his sophomore season? It’s important to recognize Thornwell’s transformation as a player from his second year to his third year, because if he hadn’t South Carolina most likely doesn’t win 25 games his junior season.
You can make the compelling argument Carrera was the best player on the 2015-16 team, but Thornwell led that team in points produced (471) as the primary ball handler alongside Dozier. The 2015-16 team stands with the 1969-70 team as the only squads in school history with 25 wins, and Thornwell was one of the driving forces behind it.
Thornwell finished that year on the SEC-All defense team and cemented himself as one of the premier players in the SEC. However, it still wasn’t enough for the national media to recognize Thornwell as one of the top players in the country.
CBS, ESPN, The Big Lead and Bleacher Report all left Thornwell off their top-whatever players coming into the 2016-17 season. Whether South Carolina still isn’t a big enough name in the college basketball universe to garner such attention or Carrera’s senior year overshadowed Thornwelll — it’s clear the senior guard deserves to be mentioned in that class of players.
The suspension will blemish his senior season a bit — as it’s pretty clear South Carolina would have beaten both Seton Hall and Clemson had he been on the floor — but it shouldn’t take away what he’s been able to do when he’s been on the court this year.
Right now Thornwell’s PER is 30.9.
Let me repeat that: 30.9.
That’s Anthony Davis territory. Right now Thornwell hasn’t played enough minutes to qualify in CBB references PER rank, but if he did he’d have the 14th highest PER in the country, better than Villanova’s Josh Hart and Washington’s Markelle Fultz.
Thornwell is averaging a career high in points per game (19.6) with the best splits of his career (.835/.449/.439) to go along with the fact South Carolina’s only lost one game this season while he’s been on the court, and he dropped 34 points in the lone loss.
It’s gone without question he’s been South Carolina’s best player this season and is well on his way to being one of the best players to ever come through the school.
What’s left for Thornwell now?
If aliens were to invade Columbia, suck up Thornwell in a tractor beam and take him away forever, he’d still go down as one of the best and most important players in program history.
Since the “points produced” stat started being kept in 2009, only three players in the SEC have produced more points for their team than Thornwell has. No, this doesn’t mean he’s a better player than Ben Simmons or Nerlens Noel. It means Thornwell has consistently produced from his freshman year to his senior year as a four year starter — something of a rarity in the era of one-and-done college basketball.
His contributions to the South Carolina program haven’t been appreciated nearly enough, considering SC was a stain on the grand tapestry of SEC basketball before he got here. Now with Thornwell and Martin at the helm, South Carolina is one of the top teams in the conference and a legit NCAA tournament team.
The only real way Thornwell will get his due credit from the national media or even the local media in the SEC is if he can keep up this stellar senior performance and push South Carolina to their first NCAA tournament berth since 2004 when the Gamecocks were a No. 10 seed.
If Thornwell can help lead South Carolina to its first NCAA tournament bid in 13 years and break the school record for wins in a season — forget a plaque at Colonial life arena. The University would be remiss to not have that man’s jersey hanging from the rafters once he’s long gone from the city of Columbia.
It should be clear now what kind of impact Thornwell has had not only on but off the court for the University of South Carolina. Only NBA hall-of-famer Alex English can argue he’s had a bigger impact on the program as a player than Thornwell, and English graduated in 1976.
So soak him up, appreciate him and watch these remaining games as much as you can folks. In the history of South Carolina basketball there will only be one Sindarius Thornwell, and his impact will last much longer than when he leaves campus this season.
Bonus: If none of that has you convinced, just watch Thornwell dunk on Clemson three times in a row and see if that doesn’t have you singing his praises.