Already in Select Company
Tuesday, January 30, 2007
Florida State forward Al Thornton awoke on Selection Sunday last year believing he was destined to play in his first NCAA tournament. But by day's end, after the Seminoles were excluded from the field, he was left with a gut-churning feeling that prompted him to boycott watching the tournament on television.
For Florida State, the only good thing to emerge from the team's exclusion was that Thornton took it so hard he decided to return to school for his senior year and place his NBA dreams on hold. Thornton has never attended an NCAA tournament game as a fan, much less as a player, and has been determined to make his first trip this March.
"Every game, we're motivated by" last year's exclusion, Thornton said. "Watching film, practicing, playing games, it's constantly on our minds. When we're doing anything that has to do with basketball, it is constantly on our minds."
The benefit of returning to school has been twofold. It has given Thornton the opportunity to finish requirements for his social sciences degree and improve his comfort level with the media. On the court, it has allowed Thornton to refine his game and cement his status as one of the nation's best players.
"He is an all-American, I don't think there is any doubt about that," said Maryland Coach Gary Williams, whose Terrapins (16-5, 2-4 ACC) will play Florida State (15-6, 3-4) tonight at the Donald L. Tucker Center. "We all watch a lot of games, and I don't see anyone more complete at that six-foot-eight size than Thornton is."
At 230 pounds, Thornton is big enough to post up but also quick enough to catch the ball in transition and attack the basket. No one has been more proficient offensively in ACC play and his 22.4 points per game average in conference games is the best of any ACC player. Thornton also has made 54.8 percent of his field goal attempts and over the last six games has made 60 percent of his three-point shots.
Maryland's D.J. Strawberry said Thornton is the ACC's most talented player offensively, adding, "With his height and athletic ability to take [forwards] out on the wing and smaller players down in the post, the things he does for his team, I think he is the most valuable player for his team."
During the summer, Thornton worked with Andy Enfield, the renowned shooting instructor who was hired as a Florida State assistant, to improve his shooting stroke. Thornton said he used to tightly grip the ball, but Enfield helped him relax before he releases the shot. An improved outside touch has made Thornton even more difficult to contain, prompting Boston College Coach Al Skinner to say, "There is no really stopping him."
Thornton said he models his game after three versatile NBA forwards: Paul Pierce of the Boston Celtics, Shawn Marion of the Phoenix Suns and Josh Howard of the Dallas Mavericks.
Skip Prosser, the Wake Forest coach, recalled Howard willing a group of young Demon Deacons to the 2003 ACC regular season title and sees the same quality in Thornton. He called it a "lion's heart."
"I want to be a lottery pick" in the NBA draft, Thornton said. "I think I am taking the steps."
One of the most significant transformations Thornton has undergone occurred off the court. Success came gradually for Thornton in college -- he did not average double figures until his junior year -- but when he began to thrive he was uncomfortable with the attention. He would sneak out the back of classrooms to avoid curious students. He would wear a hood to avoid people who regularly asked him questions about the NBA and at times caused him to be late for class.
"When I first got here, I hated" the attention, Thornton said. "I'm better with it now."
This year, the school has launched a Web site that celebrates Thornton's accomplishments and has a link where fans can ask him questions. Thornton enjoys the interaction now.
Last summer Thornton met at least twice a week with a media expert who prepped him for the heightened publicity he was about to receive as an all-American candidate. He said it has helped him be humble and more natural during interviews. In fact, he said his favorite course was a public speaking class in which he had to make a speech.
His subject: cellphone etiquette.
Thornton said experiences like that have been particularly beneficial for his growth. They also represent another step toward satisfying his mother's wish for him to get his degree. The one remaining goal is the NCAA tournament.
"It's very important," Thornton said. "I've never been to a game as a player or fan, so I didn't want to miss out on that."