Thornton remains uncertain of what role he'll be playing

Al Thornton, who had 13 points against Cleveland on Thursday, stays close to Jawad Williams.
Al Thornton, who had 13 points against Cleveland on Thursday, stays close to Jawad Williams. (Tony Dejak)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 11, 2010

In one of the more bizarre training camp incidents, Al Thornton managed to hurdle a car traveling about 20 mph on George Mason's campus and came away relatively unscathed, with Coach Flip Saunders jokingly calling him, "Superman." But Thornton couldn't avoid getting hurt on Sunday after grabbing a rebound during the Washington Wizards' grueling three-hour practice and landing on JaVale McGee's foot.

Thornton hobbled up the stairs afterward with an ice pack covering his sprained left ankle. He doesn't expect the injury to keep him from playing against the Atlanta Hawks on Tuesday, but Thornton isn't quite sure what his role will be whenever he is back on the court. He entered training camp as the favorite to emerge as starting small forward, with Josh Howard still recovering from left knee surgery.

"Supposedly. That's the plan," Thornton said, when asked near the end of training camp if the starting job was his. "I want to say, 'Yeah.' "

But through the first three preseason games, Saunders has decided to take an unconventional approach and started his "three little guys" - point guards Gilbert Arenas, Kirk Hinrich and John Wall - along with Andray Blatche and McGee. Although none of the guards stands taller than 6 feet 4, the Wizards have actually been competitive with that trio, with Hinrich tenaciously defending opposing small forwards. They've also been able to limit turnovers with three capable ball-handlers on the floor. And, the Wizards' use of zone defenses has also helped them from getting worn down.

Saunders said he is experimenting with different lineups and hasn't "made any decisions" about the group he plans to trot out for the season opener in Orlando on Oct. 28.

"We want to see if we can play those guys together, because they are three of our top five guys," Saunders said about Arenas, Hinrich and Wall. "What you'd like to do at some point is get your best players on the floor as much as you can. Kirk has an ability to play against bigger guys. I don't know if we'll be able to play a lineup like that steady, but we'll be able to play them at times."

He joked, "It wouldn't be right to put that group out there, and one of those guys has to play LeBron James. That wouldn't be fair. They might put me in jail for that."

Saunders said that, ideally, he is looking for a small forward who can finish at the basket, consistently knock down open jumpers or prevent opponents from scoring. Hinrich said he "was a little shocked" when Saunders decided to pick him as the initial starter, "but I'm just happy to be out there."

Thornton emerged as the starter at small forward when Howard tore his anterior cruciate ligament last February, but was later hampered by a groin injury. In their final meeting last season, Saunders told Thornton that he needed to get in better shape and provide more than occasional flashes on the defensive end.

Thornton arrived in the best shape of his career, losing 20 pounds with the assistance of a trainer. He had a decent camp, closing out the final open scrimmage at George Mason with the game-winning runner, but was admittedly surprised when Saunders decided to go small against Dallas.

"A little bit, to be honest with you. He's the coach, it's his decision," Thornton said. "I think Flip is changing the lineup around a little bit. Kirk Hinrich is a veteran, brings leadership. I think it's gone well for us."

Thornton is trying to make the most of his time on the floor, saying that he just wants to be ready when his name is called. He sat for the entire first half against Cleveland, but scored 13 points in 15 minutes in the second half of the Wizards' 97-83 win. "I'm still trying to figure everything out, find my way, find my role. I think it's an ongoing process," Thornton said. "I'm trying to come out and bring it on both ends of the floor. Bring energy. Be a playmaker and make things happen for me when I have the opportunity."

Nick Young also was expected to contend for the starting job, but he has played mostly shooting guard off the bench this preseason. After struggling the first two games, Young bounced back to score a team-high 18 points in the 107-96 loss in Chicago, but he was most proud about taking a charge on Bulls reserve center Omer Asik.

"Got my confidence back more, just showed I can't be limited to being a spot-up shooter. There is more to me than that," Young said. "Coming off the bench, I've got to bring energy and score. I can't be anybody else out there, just be myself."

Saunders said that over the next two weeks, there will be opportunities for both Thornton and Young.

"Al's been really good here lately. He's played really well. I like what he's done," he said. "Nick, he can really make shots at times. We've just got to his concentration up, defensively. And make shots in key situations. I think sometimes, he makes shots, maybe when the game is not as close because he doesn't feel as much pressure. He's got to make those shots in pressure situations.

"You want to have flexibility to that spot. We've got some guys who can bring something different, so it's really a matter of where we're at," he said. "We'll have to see."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company