The New Orleans Pelicans picked up third-year veteran Sindarius Thornwell on Monday in a substitute capacity to join the team in the Orlando ‘bubble.’
You may remember Thornwell as a former 48th overall pick who played in 137 games between 2017-19 as a member of the Los Angeles Clippers.
Thornwell initially showed promise in his first season, serving most notably as a situational stopper on the defensive end while also hitting on 23 of 61 three-point attempts (37.7 percent). However, his offensive limitations bogged down his impact in 2018-19 as well as the offseason acquisitions of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Jerome Robinson followed by the midseason deal that brought in Philadelphia 76ers’ guard Landry Shamet. Then in the summer of 2019 the Clippers added rookie guards Terance Mann and Amir Coffey, spelling the end of his time in Los Angeles.
After three preseason games as a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers, Thornwell found himself outside of the NBA to start this season and so he latched on with the Houston Rockets’ G-League affiliate, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers. In 40 games (26 starts), Thornwell posted averages of 9.2 points, 5.3 rebounds, 4.5 assists and 1.2 steals.
Wanting to learn a little more about the Pelicans’ newest addition, I phoned Devan Blair, assistant coach for Rio Grande Valley Vipers and previously offensive strategy and video coordinator for Houston Rockets. Blair helped to reveal how a rookie who averaged 16 minutes in 73 games as a rookie fell out of the NBA so quickly and how he made his way back.
“He has that NBA experience and you realize that right away,” Blair said upon meeting Thornwell. “He holds himself a little bit differently. He came in with a chip on his shoulder because he thought he did everything it took for him to make the team in Cleveland.”
Thornwell may have earned that chip from the blue-collar style those 2017-18 and 2018-19 Clippers brought night in and night out before acquiring two superstars this past summer. Playing alongside tenacious backcourt defenders in Avery Bradley and Patrick Beverley probably played a role in that.
Or, it may have stemmed from his time in college where Thornwell led the South Carolina Gamecocks to their best single season performance in team history, leading them to their first Final Four appearance in 2017. His efforts would see him named SEC Player of the Year.
Regardless, it’s likely the Pelicans took a flyer on Thornwell for one of two reasons.
Number one: Familiarity
The defense of the Rio Grande Valley Vipers is reflective of their parent franchise — one that was installed by former associate head coach Jeff Bzdelik. In addition, the offensive structure is directed by head coach Mike D’Antoni, the former mentor to Pelicans head coach Alvin Gentry.
“Defensively, he’ll fit right in,” Blair said. “Offensively, he should too. Gentry is from the D’Antoni tree and that’s what we ran as well. Defensively, it’ll be easy because we used the same system Bzdelik did in Houston. We switch 1-5 primarily. I know New Orleans doesn’t do that exclusively. They’re a little more traditional but they still put in a lot of 1-4 switching.”
Number two: Perimeter defense
Still, it isn’t enough for Thornwell to be familiar with the Pelicans system. He may have to fill a need. He could be tasked with defending some of the best perimeter players in the world should he be forced into action in Orlando. The Pelicans first four matchups come against Donovan Mitchell, Paul George, De’Aaron Fox and Ja Morant. Naturally, Thornwell probably won’t be asked to defend them, but those teams are littered with blue-chip quality depth. He’ll be tested both physically and mentally.
“Sin’s super smart when it comes to basketball IQ,” Blair said. “That’s what puts him a step ahead of a lot of guys.”
The Pelicans frequently struggled with longer wings throughout the 2019-20 campaign. As Oleh Kosel wrote on May 26th:
In case you failed to pay close attention, the Pelicans struggled much more than usual against all the longer, super-talented scorers in the league.
His speed in the open floor makes him valuable in live turnover situations and the Pelicans turn it over more than most with their style of play on the offensive end. Having someone with Thornwell's motor will help in mitigating those opportunities. pic.twitter.com/SYrVJTjesS— Preston Ellis (@PrestonEllis) July 8, 2020
Thornwell could be an option off the bench for Gentry thanks to his extensive size (6’5” with 6’10” wingspan) and frame (215 pounds). He played 66 percent of his minutes at the 3 in 2017-18 and 86 percent in 2018-19 (Cleaning the Glass).
“He’s primarily a defender, right?” Blair said. “‘Sin’ can guard 1-4 for sure, 1-5 depending on the matchup. Honestly, there might be a few 1s who are a little too fast for him, but he’s physical enough, strong enough, smart enough to move his body and cut off those angles. He’s smart enough that he’ll be able to pick it up right away.”
According To BBall Index, Thornwell graded in the 91st percentile versatility defending different offensive roles in 2017-18. Classified as a ‘Wing Stopper,’ Thornwell finished with a D-PIPM in the 91st percentile.
Sounds a little like Josh Hart, right?
So, we know what Thornwell brings to the defensive side of the floor, but it won’t be enough if he can’t add at least some value on the other end. After a promising rookie campaign, Thornwell took just 49 shots in 2018-19, shooting a dismal 34.7 percent from the field and 20% from three.
“He was better offensively than I anticipated,” Blair stated. “But ultimately, he’s going to be 3-and-D. If he can hit an open 3, that’ll be a plus for him. He shoots it a little better than people think, especially if he has his feet set in the corner.”
But in Rio this year, his performance failed to improve significantly as he shot 29.1 percent on 3.4 three-point attempts per game across 40 contests. However, his confidence ended on a good note as Thornwell began to find his touch late in the season thanks to consistent work with the Viper’s coaching staff.
“We try to encourage him to take the best shots possible,” Blair said. “When he started doing that, he started doing much better in terms of his percentage.”
Thornwell made his presence felt in a variety of different ways though, proving to be an underrated playmaker (4.5 assists vs 2.4 turnovers) and a good rebounder (5.3 boards).
He can really pass! We played him at PG some games.— Devan Blair (@Devblair) July 8, 2020
“(He’s) strong enough to get downhill, not quite as athletic as he was, but still strong enough to go down and finish through contact.”
I followed up with the concern and Blair emphasized Thornwell’s grit and also suggested that he could regain some lost explosiveness just in time for Orlando.
“He tweaked his ankle with us a couple of times,” Blair said. “It just nagged him all season. I think it was our first scrimmage of the year, he rolled his ankle pretty bad. He’s such a tough guy, that he wants to play through it. All year, I don’t think he got fully healthy on that ankle. He wanted to keep playing, he wanted to keep proving himself to get that call-up. I think it nagged him a little bit more than he would let the coaching staff know. I think that hurt his explosiveness. It definitely got better towards the end of the season. There were a couple of dunks at the end that (more resembled) the old ‘Sin’.”
Want to learn a bit more about Sindarius Thornwell's game (@Sin_City_803)?— Preston Ellis (@PrestonEllis) July 8, 2020
Thornwell does a bit of everything. With deceptive length (6'10" wingspan) and athleticism that can surprise opponents, he can jump off the screen. pic.twitter.com/ed5PLD6QKB
Going back to his time spent in Los Angeles, the Clippers got to the line more than anyone else during the 2018-19 season. They graded in the 100th percentile that year when Thornwell was on the floor, after having graded in the 84th percentile in his rookie season (Cleaning the Glass). In transition, the Clippers were one of the very best with Thornwell on the floor in 2018-19, grading in the 95th percentile in points per 100 transition plays (Cleaning the Glass).
These indicators and his acclaimed defense could be a welcome find for the Pelicans in Orlando, especially if he can rediscover the explosiveness from his rookie campaign. The biggest question, of course, can he adjust back to NBA speed in some of the most critical games of the season amid the coronavirus epidemic and social justice movement?
“I think the adjustment level is less than it used to be,” Blair stated. “Me being a first-year assistant, I didn’t really know that until I got into the trenches. The speed of the G-League obviously isn’t as high, but it’s getting pretty close now. G-League players are borderline rotation players in the NBA now. I think Sin’s going to be fine in that regard. Has he been able to get in the gym (recently) while following the guidelines to stay ready? I think it’ll be easy for him (if so) to jump back in (due to his NBA experience).”
Before I let Coach Blair go, I had to get a personal anecdote in order to learn a bit more about Thornwell off the court.
“‘Sin’ loves candy,” Blair said. “He has a sweet tooth. He loves junk type of food. He would always give (the other) guys a bunch of grief. He’s the polar opposite. He doesn’t eat meat; he’s super healthy about what he does with his body. And then ‘Sin’ will grab a bag of Cheetos and sour patch kids. Our last road trip of the year, the coaching staff wanted to have a little bit of fun with him. So, we went in and bought ‘Sin’ like a two-pound Sour Patch kid. We presented it to him after the game.”
Though it looks like Thornwell likes to have a bit of fun off the court, it’s nothing but business once he steps onto the hardwood. That kind of energy and relentless could marry nicely with this group of Pelicans in Orlando.
“He’s a good guy,” Blair said. “He like to have fun. He likes to joke around. The great thing about him, he’s always the same. It doesn’t matter if he played bad, or on the verge of a call-up which happened a lot this year. We’d get phone calls from teams asking about him. He’s always the same. He just loves to play. He said being with our staff was some of the most fun he’s had in basketball. He’s a good guy, likes to have fun, but when you get in between the lines, he’s going to work his butt off.”
Thanks for reading, but a big thank you to Devan Blair for contributing greatly to this article.