No one is ever going to pity the life of an NBA player. Especially a player in the middle of a four-year, $31 million deal like Sacramento Kings’ starting shooting guard Marcus Thornton. When you get paid handsomely to play a professional sport, you are expected to perform.
Be it lack of confidence, a lack of opportunity or something more, Thornton looks like a broken player this season. His numbers are down across the board, he lost his starting job and then regained it by default. He’s a shell of the player that Kings fans have become accustomed to, that is, until he dropped in 42 points on the Indiana Pacers Friday night.
Glimpses of the old Marcus Thornton were on display, and it all started with a hot-shooting first quarter. The former LSU star scored 26 points on 9-of-12 shooting in the game’s first 12 minutes. He had a spring in his step and his perimeter shooting was spot-on.
“It feels great to go out there and see a couple of shots go in,” Thornton told Cowbell Kingdom following the Pacers game on Friday night. “Next step is just try to keep it going.”
With DeMarcus Cousins and Rudy Gay down with injury, coach Malone turned to his veteran guard for some assistance. And for one of the few times this season, the 26-year-old Thornton rose to the challenge.
“I told Marcus Thornton tonight, I said, ‘Listen, I don’t care if you miss every shot that you take but I’m going to be pissed off if you don’t shoot the ball tonight,’” Malone told reporters following the game. “I needed him to be aggressive. I didn’t care if he missed four or five in a row as long as they were big shots.”
This is the third time in 42 games this season that Thornton has scored more than 20 points in a contest. Shocking for a player who led the Kings in scoring just two seasons ago at 18.7 points per game.
What’s worse, Thornton is widely known for his ability to score, but not much else. He can rebound a little bit and make an occasional pass, but he has made his name in the league for his ability to put the ball in the basket.
To say that Thornton was struggling is a colossal understatement. The Kings were virtually playing four-on-five every night.
Before Sunday night, Thornton had scored a combined 33 points over his previous nine games as the Kings’ starting shooting guard. During that stretch, Thornton shot just 27.7 percent from the field, 19 percent from long range and averaged just 3.7 points in 23.9 minutes per game.
Thornton points to his role with the team as a reason for his struggles. He is no longer a primary scoring option for coach Michael Malone. In fact, he might not even be a fourth or fifth option at this point.
But that’s the way the 2013-14 Sacramento Kings are designed. Isaiah Thomas is the primary ball handler. The ball runs through Cousins on almost every possession, and Gay is the second option.
More than the reduction of shots, the lack of basic touches has thrown Thornton into a tailspin.
“It’s a routine,” Thornton said. “I play off my teammates. So just getting the ball, not even having to shoot, just being able to touch the ball and facilitate gets me in my rhythm.”
Thornton has to figure out where he fits into that plan and he’s not the only one who has faced such a challenge. Jason Thompson and Derrick Williams both found the transition to tertiary player difficult. But they eventually adapted, where Thornton has not.
Sacramento no longer needs the old 19-point-per-game Thornton, but it does need a reliable 3-point shooting scoring threat to space the floor. The Kings need teams to defend all five players on the floor, and it would really help if Thomas didn’t draw the opposition’s best perimeter defender every night.
While the Kings are besieged with injuries, Thornton is getting his chance to hit the reset button on a disastrous season.
“With Rudy and Cuz out, somebody had to step up,” Thornton said. “So I took it up on my self to be that guy. Like I said, just getting an opportunity to get a rhythm and get things going. That’s been the whole thing for me.”
And when the stars return, Thornton has to acclimate and he has to rise to the occasion. He has to find a way to be productive, regardless of the situation.
“I have to find it someway,” Thornton said. “Someway, somehow. It’s not going to be easy, so I’m going to have to find a way.”
Opportunity is the easy answer, but it may not be the only or even correct one.
One of the more sensitive players in Sacramento’s locker room, Thornton struggles mightily with uncertainty, be it with playing time or potential player moves. The stress of the trade deadline visibly weighs on the fifth-year guard every year and his performance on the floor conforms to his mood off the court.
With the complete overhaul of the Kings’ franchise, the only thing that is certain, is uncertainty in Sacramento. Trade season began in November when general manager Pete D’Alessandro pulled off his first major trade, and it will continue until the clock strikes 12 p.m. on Feb. 20 – the 2014 NBA trade deadline.
It is not a surprise that Thornton’s recent struggles coincided with rumors that he was offered to the Denver Nuggets in a trade for veteran point guard Andre Miller. But Sacramento pays Thornton to play basketball, not worry about rumors.
For one night, Thornton showed that the skills that landed him a lucrative four-year deal are still there. It’s time for him to shake off all of the distractions and insecurities and just play ball.
Scoring 42 points doesn’t make the previous nine games or even 41 games disappear. If anything, it shines the light brighter on Thornton and what kind of player he should be for the Sacramento Kings.