By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 1, 2010; 12:55 AM
The deadline to receive a contract extension will pass at midnight Tuesday and Al Thornton isn't upset that he never got so much as an offer from the Washington Wizards to avoid being a restricted free agent next summer. He wasn't expecting one, nor did he want one.
After arriving from the Los Angeles Clippers at the trade deadline and being thrust into a foreign system and environment, Thornton didn't have much time to leave an impression on the Wizards. And, unfortunately, the reputation he left in his short stint wasn't what he would like to use as a means to set his market value.
"I had a bad year last year and I got a bad rep and I feel I have to prove myself all over," Thornton said after matching his high with the Wizards on Saturday by scoring 24 points in a 99-95 loss to the Atlanta Hawks. "I just need to show people that I can be one of the top players in this league at my position. That's my whole thing. I love the game and I just want to be recognized as one of the top players in the game, period."
With Gilbert Arenas sidelined with a right ankle injury and Josh Howard still working his way back from left knee surgery, Thornton has been given the opportunity to start, and he has responded by averaging 16.5 points on 58.3 percent shooting while leading the team at seven rebounds through the first two games.
Thornton scored 15 points in the first half against the Hawks, helping the Wizards (0-2) take an early 27-16 lead after taking a pass from John Wall and dunking on a fast break and burying a 19-foot jumper. He made powerful drives to the basket, hit turnaround jumpers and snuck inside to rebound a Cartier Martin miss in the second quarter, then went back up for a strong layup inside.
"That's what we looking for from our three man - somebody that can make shots and rebound," Wall said. "I hope we can get that out of him every night. You can tell that he's been working hard every day."
Coach Flip Saunders was equally impressed with Thornton's effort on the defensive end, taking time to congratulate him with a high-five after he pressured Hawks all-star guard Joe Johnson into an air ball, leading to a shot clock violation.
Growing up in Perry, Ga., Thornton once drew comparisons to Hawks legend Dominique Wilkins because of his similar build and aggressive, attacking nature on the floor. Wilkins, now a commentator for Hawks broadcasts, said he has observed Thornton since he was in high school and always thought highly of his game.
"He's a flat-out scorer, athletic, explosive," Wilkins said about Thornton. "You see his progress. I thought he was going to be a great player in L.A., but certain situations don't work out for certain guys. So you have to start over somewhere else. Maybe this is the spot for him, but it's up to him to see how far he goes."
Thornton was his own worst obstacle last season, as he was inconsistent and poorly conditioned, which led to some lingering injuries that stunted his progress. He averaged a career-low 10.7 points, more than six points fewer than the year before.
He had only been in the league for three seasons, but he already started to hear troubling comments from his father, Alford, his uncles and others who have been observing him for a long time. "My dad, he told me I didn't look right," Thornton said. "People started telling me I was losing a step."
Hearing about slippage at age 26 may have been hard to accept, but Thornton couldn't deny their claims after he got on a scale and noticed that he had ballooned to 245 pounds. "I was always accustomed to eating what I wanted to eat and getting by, but it caught up with me last season," Thornton said. "That's when I said, 'I've got to make a change. This is my career at stake.' That's when I went about the eating habits, working out more."
Saunders delivered a similar message to Thornton, advising him to get in better shape if he planned on playing for him in the upcoming season. Thornton hired a personal trainer, limited his meat intake to mostly fish and dropped nearly 20 pounds in the offseason. "I always say, 'Never let your conditioning take away from your talent,' " Saunders said. "I think in the past that maybe happened. He has made a real commitment to himself. . . . He is giving himself a chance to succeed. He's able to play both at the level he wants to play and needs to play."
The weight loss has contributed to Thornton regaining his explosiveness. "I'm back to being my old self," said Thornton, who displayed that burst in the season-opening loss in Orlando, where he dunked over Dwight Howard with both hands while getting fouled. Thornton finished with nine points and seven rebounds in just 24 minutes and Saunders credited him for being one of the few bright spots in that terrible opener.
"The one question we had a week and a half ago, because Al was still hurt a little bit, was who are you going to have at the three?" Saunders said. "That was our best position."
Saunders said he does surveys to get his players' opinions of their teammates. "And on almost every one [Thornton] got more votes as the hardest worker on the team. I'm hoping he's going to have a breakout year and do a lot of good things for us."