Duke's Derryck Thornton Finding Little Time for Growing Pains Under Coach K

Jason King@@JasonKingBRSenior Writer, B/R MagDecember 1, 2015

DURHAM, NC - OCTOBER 30:  Derryck Thornton #12 of the Duke Blue Devils against the Florida Southern Mocs during their game at Cameron Indoor Stadium on October 30, 2015 in Durham, North Carolina. Duke won 112-68.  (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
Grant Halverson/Getty Images

For anyone antsy to analyze the play of Duke point guard Derryck Thornton, the freshman's father has one request.

"Ten games," Tank Thornton said the week before Thanksgiving. "Temper your expectations for 10 games and give him time to figure everything out. After that, I think he'll be fine."

It turns out Thornton didn't even need that long.

Less than three weeks into the season, he appears to be finding a comfort level on the court with the Blue Devils, who improved to 6-1 Sunday with an 85-52 victory over Utah State. In his first start of the season, Thornton scored 19 points in a win over VCU before following that up with 14 points in a triumph over Georgetown. He went a combined 10-of-17 in the contests and averaged 32.5 minutes.

"Eighteen years old, his first two starts…are you kidding me?" Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "The kid just isn't afraid."

Thornton can't afford to be. No player is as vital to the Blue Devils' success as the 6'2", 175-pound Thornton, who arrived at Duke under a unique set of circumstances.

He was originally a member of the 2016 class, but Krzyzewski convinced Thornton to reclassify in April, as Duke was in dire need of a point guard after Tyus Jones left school early for the NBA draft.

Thornton averaged 17 points and 6.2 assists last season in leading Findlay Prep to a 29-3 record.
Thornton averaged 17 points and 6.2 assists last season in leading Findlay Prep to a 29-3 record.Gregory Payan/Associated Press

Instead of coasting through his senior season at Findlay Prep in Las Vegas, Thornton is being depended upon heavily as the only point guard on Duke's roster. Becoming the on-court leader of a team fresh off an NCAA championship would be a pressure-packed task for any player, but it's especially daunting for a guy who arrived on campus just three months ago.

Then again, Thornton's fearlessness is the main reason he's made it this far in the first place.

"I'm pretty mature for my age," Thornton said. "I'm confident in everything I do."

Before he ever arrived at Duke in August, Thornton had impressed Blue Devils coaches with his work ethic and determination—most of it occurring off the court.

In order to reclassify and graduate high school one year early, Thornton had to spend his summer taking multiple online courses as well as classes at a local junior college. He also hired a private tutor to help him achieve a qualifying score on the SAT.

While most of his new Duke teammates spent May, June and July relaxing and developing chemistry, Thornton showed up in Durham worn down from a taxing three months.

While his teammates spent the summer improving their team chemistry, Thornton (No. 12) used the time finishing his high school studies a year ahead of time.
While his teammates spent the summer improving their team chemistry, Thornton (No. 12) used the time finishing his high school studies a year ahead of time.Lance King/Getty Images

"It took a lot for him to even get here," Tank Thornton said after Duke's early-season loss to Kentucky. "It was a ton of work—a ton of work. He didn't have any downtime.

"Then he got to campus and everyone was already going full bore with school and basketball and social life. Everything was happening so fast. Derryck was like, 'Man, let me get my feet wet.'"

There wasn't any time.

Ideally, Krzyzewski would've been able to exhibit patience with a freshman such as Thornton, easing him along as an understudy to a veteran guard who could serve as a mentor. But that situation doesn't exist at Duke. Not this year.

Along with Jones—the Most Outstanding Player of the 2015 Final Four—the Blue Devils also lost starting combo guard Quinn Cook, whose senior leadership last season was invaluable.

Duke returned shooting guards Grayson Allen and Matt Jones and signed another wing in Luke Kennard.

"But Thornton is the only true point guard on the roster," said ESPN analyst Jay Williams, one of the top point guards in Duke history. "For Coach K, it's always been imperative to have a point guard he could build a rapport with and have a relationship with and trust.

"That's what [Thornton] is going to have to become. He's going to have to be a coach on the floor."

As most point guards find while playing for Mike Krzyzewski, Thornton will find the job requires a lot of personnel management.
As most point guards find while playing for Mike Krzyzewski, Thornton will find the job requires a lot of personnel management.Lance King/Getty Images

Thornton struggled in his first two games, going a combined 3-of-17 from the field in wins against Siena and Bryant. But against a Kentucky team that may be the best in the country, he seemed to find his rhythm.

Even though he only had seven points and three assists in 29 minutes, Thornton hardly appeared overwhelmed by the national television cameras or the sellout crowd at Chicago's United Center. In fact, he seemed to relish the moment, beating Kentucky's future NBA guards off the dribble with his trademark first step and pumping his teammates up in the huddle.

"We're a great team," Thornton said after the 74-63 loss. "We're going to be fine. We have great leaders and great players. We have everything we need to be great."

Three nights later, he was in the starting lineup when Duke played VCU in Madison Square Garden. Judging by his performance in that game and against Georgetown two nights later, the freshman has shown he is capable of handling the role.

"He brought a personality to the court," Krzyzewski said. "He looked strong, and he played that way. Even if there was a mistake, it never rattled him. What he's doing…he's earning the respect and confidence of his teammates. He brings something different to our team."

Encouraging as his play his been, Thornton knows he's not anywhere close to the player Krzyzewski needs him to be.

In high school and AAU ball, Thornton was known as a scoring guard, a guy who could take over a game with his ability to beat an opponent into the lane and either pull up from mid-range or slash into the paint for an easy basket. Sure, there were a few schemes to remember and the occasional scouting report, but for the most part, it was a simple game—and Thornton was good enough to play it the way he wanted.   

Thornton chipped in seven points and three assists in a loss to Kentucky that did little to diminish Duke's hopes of defending its NCAA crown.
Thornton chipped in seven points and three assists in a loss to Kentucky that did little to diminish Duke's hopes of defending its NCAA crown.Lance King/Getty Images

"Now it's so much different," Tank Thornton said. "He's having to completely adjust his game. It's all so much bigger than Derryck now. He's being asked to run a team."

And not just any team.

Duke has won five NCAA titles under Krzyzewski, including two in the past six years. Last season's title had a different feel than the rest, as the Blue Devils captured the trophy using a starting lineup that featured three freshman starters (Jones, Jahlil Okafor and Justise Winslow) who went on to become first-round NBA draft picks.

Still, even though this year's Duke squad features four freshmen in its rotation, expecting the same kind of dominance is probably unfair. Jones, Okafor and Winslow all played together with USA Basketball and had developed cohesion before they ever arrived on campus.

This year's team is just beginning that process with Thornton at the helm.

"You can't compare [Thornton] to Tyus or that whole situation," Williams said. "Playing USA Basketball with Jahlil and Justise went a long way for Tyus. And Tyus had an old man's game. He saw that game at a different level.

"I'm not saying that Derryck doesn't have that same ability. But they're two different players. Thornton is a lot more aggressive offensively. The kid is also fearless. He's not afraid to be on the big stage."

Through seven games this season, Thornton has averaged 2.6 assists in 26.3 minutes per game.
Through seven games this season, Thornton has averaged 2.6 assists in 26.3 minutes per game.Lance King/Getty Images

Williams is uniquely qualified to critique Thornton. Considering he earned National Freshman of the Year honors as a point guard for Duke in 1999-2000, Williams knows all about the pressure that Thornton is facing.

"Being a freshman point guard for Coach K…it's mental hell—especially for a scoring guard," Williams said. "All of a sudden, you're analyzing everything. 'Has Grayson gotten enough touches? Oh no, Matt Jones hasn't gotten a touch in two possessions. Now this guy is pressuring me and Coach K is asking for eye contact. Can I look up? Am I calling the right plays? Am I making sure guys are in the right place? Where are we in the shot clock? What defense are we in? I have to pressure the ball full-court. When is the next TV timeout? How many timeouts do we have left?'

"There is so much happening. You're balancing all of these things while you're trying to play a game. It takes time getting acclimated to all of that."

How much time it takes will go a long way toward defining Duke's season.

"Sit back and get your popcorn ready," Williams said. "It's going to be fascinating to watch."

Jason King covers college sports for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @JasonKingBR.

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