Clippers’ Sindarius Thornwell learns on the job during rookie season

Apr 10, 2018 | by Elliott Teaford, The Orange County Register

The game was lost, but Sindarius Thornwell had the ball in his hands and an open highway to the basket late in the fourth quarter Monday at Staples Center. The Clippers guard dribbled toward the hoop, rose above New Orleans Pelicans guard DeAndre Liggins and unleashed a thunderous dunk.

Each stride represented a literal closing of the gap toward a goal. In this case, two of the most spectacular points of his career-high 20. But they also could be viewed figuratively as steps taken from Day 1 of training camp to Game 81 of his rookie season.

Thornwell began his journey tentatively, uncertain of what might be ahead of him. He gained confidence and began to find his comfort zone. There were missteps and setbacks along the way, as there always are for first-year players, but his growth and maturity was impossible to ignore.

His crowd-pleasing dunk was an exclamation point on a 2017-18 season in which he has averaged modest totals of 3.8 points, 1.9 rebounds and 0.9 assists in 15.6 minutes over 72 games, including 16 starts. Well, at least until the regular-season finale Wednesday against the Lakers.

“I think it was all just growing, staying with it, staying consistent with it,” Thornwell said of his rookie season. “Whether I was playing or not, just coming in and working every day, and keeping my confidence, that’s the biggest thing, getting the opportunity and taking advantage of the opportunity. “Stay with it. Keep grinding and wait for my opportunity.”

The Clippers liked his defense. It was why they acquired him for cash considerations after the Milwaukee Bucks drafted him on the second round out of South Carolina last summer. It was why Coach Doc Rivers turned to him early in the season, giving him more and more responsibility.

Thornwell was a regular in Rivers’ rotation, then fell out of and then returned to it.

“He started out great,” Rivers said. “I thought he understood who he was. He was a defensive player and then he got lost a little bit, typical (for a) rookie year. But what I’m impressed with is that he gathered himself. He caught himself. He makes mistakes. He’s young. But he plays hard.

“He’s a tough kid and when you project out (a few seasons), you look at him as a very, very good NBA defender. These vets (Thornwell faces every game), they are smart. They are wise, and the only way you learn is on the job, and he will learn a lot of stuff.”

Thornwell expected to watch and learn from the Clippers’ most experienced guards, especially Patrick Beverley. But when Beverley was slowed by a right knee injury that eventually required season-ending surgery Nov. 22, Thornwell was thrust into a larger role.

“I think being thrown in the fire kind of caught me off guard a little bit,” he said.

Now, he knows what to expect. He’s learned while doing, which is often the best way.

“I learned confidence is everything,” he said. “To be successful in this league, you’ve got to have confidence. Being around the vets and watching them work and play every day and talking to me and working out with them, I learned you keep the confidence and it’ll be a lot easier for you.”

So, does he have an NBA swagger now that his rookie season is all but done?

“Just a little bit,” he said, smiling.

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