Cowboy Al, The Unsung Hero
What’s that buzzing in your ear? Or rather, what ‘s that wondrous melodic tone?
That’s people singing the praises of John Wall, who achieved his first career triple-double, in front of Magic Johnson no less, and led his team to a 98-91 victory over the Houston Rockets on Wednesday night.
Wall totaled 19 points, 13 assists, 10 rebounds, six steals and only one turnover, and perhaps Wizards fans should thank John Stockton for that, who was not in attendance at the Verizon Center for the game. Flip Saunders said he recently gave Wall a 45-minute tape of Stockton and that he’d been watching it over the past couple days.
“All he came back talking about was how John [Stockton] was so deliberate, and how he played more under control, and I think John [Wall] tried to make a more conscious effort to do that tonight,” said Saunders.
Wall certainly played his most controlled game as a pro, and that was reflected in the play of his entire team. Well, except for Gilbert Arenas (5 points, 3 assists, 2 turnovers, 1-7 FGs) and Kirk Hinrich (10 points, 3-9 FGs, 6 turnovers, 2 assists). Without much help from them, Wall showed he could maneuver the offense and carry his team without two-thirds of what’s been touted as one of the best backcourts in the NBA by team management.
But while the praises of the ‘Game Changer’ keep ringing in your ears, there’s an unsung hero you should be paying attention to, one who is responsible for the absence of the three-guard lineup.
“Al [Thornton], right now, no one’s talking about him. He’s kind of the silent guy. But from the beginning to the end, he’s probably been our most consistent player,” praised Saunders. “You know, the other day, he’s in there after we had the two practices, he goes back down to the gym and shot another 35-45 minutes. So he’s seeing that the hard work is paying off for him.”
Against Houston, Thornton had 20 points on 7-13 from the field with six rebounds, three assists and one turnover. Not the most intimidating stat line, but also one the Wizards don’t win without.
Saunders made the point about Thornton working hard that should serve as an example to others who cause Groupon ads for junk food to show up on this site. Thornton was able to lose a lot of weight this summer, as he was asked to do during his exit interview after last season, mostly because he changed his diet, striking chicken, beef and pork from his stomach’s record. For a Georgia boy who loves his barbecue, that’s no small feat, that’s a motivated man.
But diet isn’t the only switch that flipped for Thornton, he also trained hard, and Flip Saunders and his staff were there to make sure he followed through. Saunders visited Thornton in Los Angeles this summer, also sending out his son, Ryan, a Wizards assistant coach, to train him. The Wizards also worked with Thornton’s personal trainer, monitored his progress when he showed up in D.C. for the rookie & free-agent mini-camp in early July, even though he didn’t have to, and they worked Thornton out when he joined the team in Las Vegas later that month. Again, even though Al didn’t have to be out there.
“They did a great job in terms of checking on me the whole summer, and make sure I was on my game, make sure I was losing the weight. And I really appreciated that,” Thornton told me, indicating that he never received the same treatment from Donald Sterling’s Clippers organization. “It’s the most important year of my career, and they did a great job checking on me each and every day.”
Through six games this season, Thornton is averaging 16 points on 54-percent shooting. He’s grabbing 2.7 offensive rebounds per 36 minutes and 6.7 total rebounds per 36, both career highs. Thornton has made his mark running the floor and playing at the rim. Against Houston, he could be seen doing all of this and more … from grabbing offensive boards, to mixing it up in the paint with Rockets center Brad Miller, to being the available trailer for John Wall to find on the break during a late-game run.
According to HoopData, Thornton is averaging 12.3 field-goal attempts per game this season, 4.7 of those come at the rim and an additional 1.5 attempts per come from inside 10-feet. Thornton hasn’t seen that type of inside work since 2008-09, his sophomore year in the league when he averaged 5.3 and 1.3 attempts per game from those respective spots on the floor. That year, Thornton averaged 2.5 more total FGAs per game and had a PER of 12.6. Through six games this season he has a PER of 17.9.
“When we came out of camp, I talked to him — I remember him when he was a rookie, and coming out of Florida State was that the best thing he did was attack the rim, both off the bounce, dribbling, and rebounding-wise — and I said, ‘That’s you’re strength. Play to your strength.’,” noted Saunders. “So he’s come back and made a very conscious effort of doing that … great on the offensive boards, great at both ends.”
“I played the four in college, so I’m used operating down low, crashing the glass,” said Thornton. “I’m used to doing that. Basically, I’ve just been more focused on being aggressive in boarding the basketball.”
With just over a minute left in Wednesday night’s game, the Wizards, once down 85-84 to the Rockets at the 5:50 mark of the fourth period, were looking to build on an 8-0 run that started with a Thornton transition layup assisted by Wall. The fourth straight bucket in the run came courtesy of an Andray Blatche 16-foot jumper, his third field-goal in a row. Of course, Blatche’s score was of the turn-around, spin, pump-fake and fade-away variety — pretty much the worst shot he could have taken with a five point lead and 90 seconds left in the game, much to the chagrin of Saunders.
On the Wizards’ next offensive possession, holding a 92-85 lead, Blatche took another 16-foot jumper, and missed. The game wasn’t over. Houston’s Kevin Martin, who had 31 points on the night, grabbed one of his seven rebounds at the 1:08 mark and looked to make something happen quickly in transition.
John Wall and Al Thornton looked to make something happen as well. As Martin went to make a move, Thornton poked the ball away, Wall gathered the steal and shuttled it ahead to Al streaking down the court. At first it looked to be another one of the young Wizards’ careless mistakes. The pass from Wall went down the floor much too fast and it didn’t look like Thornton would be able to get to it, making it a costly team turnover.
But for an instance, Thornton put his head down, found a burst of speed deep down, gathered the ball and laid it in, giving the Wizards a nine point cushion with 60 seconds left.
After the game, I asked him if the old Al Thornton would have gotten that ball.
“No, the old Al probably would’ve been like, ‘hey, forget that’,” he said with a relieved chuckle. “With the pounds, there’s no way I would’ve been able to get to it. That’s why I shed off the pounds and I’m a little lighter, playing more explosive.”
From ‘Old Man Willie’ because of his old school game (and because his real first name is Willie), to ‘Juice’ because he evidently has an O.J. Simpson walk (whatever that means — that nickname is courtesy of Sam Cassell from their days as Clippers), to the latest of ‘Cowboy Al’ (thanks to the WizzNutzz), Thornton has plenty of nicknames to suffice.
But I think he’ll be just fine assuming the role of quiet, unsung hero.