Marcus Thornton / Darren Collison: Rookie Backcourt Of The Year

Paul AugustinCorrespondent INovember 28, 2009

Let's go back to the 2009 NBA Draft. The first backcourt player taken was shooting guard James Harden, drafted third overall by the Thunder.

The next pick was Memphis combo guard Tyreke Evans who went to the Kings. Immediately after Evans, the Timberwolves selected Spanish point guard Ricky Rubio. 

And so on and so on.

Sixteen picks and eleven guards later, the New Orleans Hornets selected point guard Darren Collison out of UCLA.  With all-world point guard Chris Paul on the roster, many fans and analysts alike scratched their heads at the pick.

Collison was too thin to hold up to the pounding of the NBA.  He had an unorthodox outside shot.  He was never going to amount to much more than a second or third-string point guard.

He was a wasted pick.

Twenty-one picks and six more guards later, the Miami Heat drafted shooting guard Marcus Thornton out of LSU. was hot and cold on Thornton. 

In their last edition on shooting guards, DraftExpress Director of Operations Matt Kamalsky writes about Thornton  "... a capable scorer who should benefit from playing a smaller role at the next level."  Read this as, "Thornton can play, as long as he is only a role player."

Kamalsky goes on to write "Only a decent scorer on isolations, off of pull-ups, and on the pick and roll...".  On the positive side, Kamalsky wrote  "... his ability to play without the ball should make him a big asset from day one in the NBA..."

So how have the 14th and 20th guards taken in the 2009 draft performed? According to ESPN writer John Hollinger, Marcus Thornton is the No. 11 most efficient guard in the NBA with a player efficiency rating of 19.62.  Collison comes in at No. 20 for guards with a PER of 18.35

To generate PER, Hollinger uses formulas that return a value for each of a player's accomplishments including positives such as field goals, free throws, three-pointers, assists, rebounds, blocks, and steals, and negatives like missed shots, turnovers, and personal fouls.

The PER, which is thoroughly documented in Hollinger's book  "Pro Basketball Forecast", is adjusted to take into account minutes played per game and the overall pace of a team's play. To qualify for the PER, a player must average at least 6.9 minutes per game.

After watching him dominate SEC backcourts at LSU the past few years and being named  2009 SEC Player of the Year, I was shocked to have seen Thornton drop to the  43rd overall.  I was excited to learn that he had joined the Hornets in the draft day trade.

I must admit that I was concerned that Thornton was not going to make it on coach Byron Scott's Hornets.  Thornton was sometimes a slow starter at LSU, taking awhile to get in a groove and become effective.

Deservedly or not, Scott has a reputation for not being patient with young players who need time to develop.  Two prime examples are Brandon Bass and JR Smith.

Thornton was inactive for most of the time Scott was head coach. One reason given was that Thornton could not pick up the intricacies of the Hornets defense.

Since Jeff Bower has taken over as coach, Thornton has been tremendous. He scored 24 in a one-point road loss to Miami last week and is averaging 17.6 points and 2.6 dimes over the last five games.

Thornton's play to date reminds me of former Detroit Piston Vinnie Johnson.  Celtic guard Danny Ainge gave Johnson the nickname "The Microwave" for his ability to heat up quickly and score points in bunches. 

Thornton has been a microwave with his power setting on high.

When Paul went down with an ankle injury, most Hornets faithful thought that the Hornets would not win another game. Collison has been more than a pleasant surprise.

He is averaging 10.6 points per game on 40 percent shooting from behind the arc and over 92 percent from the charity stripe. Over the past five games, Collison is averaging 14 points and 6.4 assists.

Even though Collison dominated the Pac-10, despite having to split court time with Russell Westbrook and Jrue Holiday, many were skeptical that he could make the leap from great collegian to an every day professional player.

So far, Collison looks like the steal of the draft, performing at least as well as high picks like James Harden and Stephen Curry.  Coach Bower is going to have a good problem when Chris Paul returns to the lineup. He is going to have to figure out how to keep both Paul and Collison on the floor as much as possible.

Even at this early point in the season, I have read more than one article that lists Milwaukee guard Brandon Jennings as the hands down front-runner for NBA Rookie of the Year honors.  In the Hornets recent contest against the Bucks, both Collison and Thornton outplayed Jennings.

It is too bad that there is not a Rookie Backcourt of the Year award.  The combo of Thornton and Collison would be runaway favorites.