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July 15, 2011
Taking the Next Step
Marcus Thornton

by Sebastian Pruiti

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Last year over at NBAPlaybook, Sebastian Pruiti took a look at players who had some success and identified what they needed to do to take the next step. This year, Sebastian is bringing the series to Basketball Prospectus.

After taking some time to get started, Marcus Thornton put together a very solid rookie season for the New Orleans Hornets and looked to be a valuable piece for the Hornets' future. However, after playing just 16.1 minutes in 46 games last season, Thornton was traded to the Sacramento Kings. In Sacramento, Thornton got the big minutes for the first time as a pro (38.1 per game) and took advantage by scoring 21.3 points per game with a True Shooting Percentage of 54.7 percent. Thornton seems to be developing into a very good scorer, but if he's going to get playing time on a roster that features John Salmons, Jimmer Fredette, and Tyreke Evans, he is going to have to improve in some areas that drag him down.

What He Did Well

One of the reasons why Thornton was able to put up such fantastic offensive numbers is that he is a very capable shooter. That shows in the numbers and on the game tape. According to Synergy Sports Technology, two of Thornton's most efficient play types on the offensive end were the shooting categories "Spot-Up" and "Off-Screen." Spotting up, Thornton shot 42.2 percent (eFG% of 54.8) and posted a points per possession (PPP) of 1.082, which put him in the top 20 percent of the league:

The first thing that you notice when watching Thornton shoot the basketball is his quick release, though he delivers the shot without looking like he is rushing. Thornton is able to get a good shot off because he is not sacrificing form for speed. This is important because in the NBA, you have long, elite athletes closing out on your shot and you have to get it off before they can alter it. If you can do that and still have a smooth release, you are going to be a very good shooter.

Thornton isn't just proficient on the catch-and-shoot. He is also very good shooting on the move coming off of screens. Thornton shot 43.3 percent (eFG% of 50.0) off screens and posted a PPP of .968, which put him in the top 30 percent in the NBA:

Much like he does on spot-ups, Thornton still has that quick release, even though it is something that is harder to replicate coming off of screens. What Thornton does so well is that he gets squared up to the rim before he makes the catch as the ball is coming to him. So instead of catching and then turning--allowing the trailing defender to catch up to him--Thornton is already facing the rim as he makes the catch. The only thing he has to do is release the basketball and not worry about his lower body.

What Needs To Change

While Thornton can light it up from the outside, there are a few things he needs to improve upon if he wants to stay on the court this upcoming season for Sacramento. The first thing is that he needs to become a better decision maker in pick-and-roll situations. It became obvious that the Kings wanted Thornton to do some ball handling, and the fact that Thornton was the ball handler in pick-and-roll situation 15.7 percent of his total possessions (third highest play-type behind isolation and transition) backs that up. The problem is that he wasn't very good in those sets, scoring just 71 points on 91 possessions and turning the ball over 14.3 percent of the time:

As good as he is when looking to create his own shot, Thornton just isn't a good facilitator at this point in his career. It's something that he never had to do up until this point and it is pretty obvious that he is uncomfortable doing so.

In addition, despite being a very good shooter off the catch, Thornton isn't a good shooter off of the dribble. When he took a dribble jumper coming off of screens, he shot just 28 percent, posting a PPP of .720 (bottom quarter of the league in terms of PPP). Naturally, teams started going under screens where Thornton was the ball handler, leading to misses:

For someone who has such a compact shooting motion when he shoots the ball off the catch, it is weird to see Thornton do things so differently off the dribble. First, he tends to jump higher on his jump shot when shooting off of the dribble than when shooting off of the catch. In addition, Thornton's lower body gets very loose. He doesn't jump straight up and down and he starts kicking out one leg. If he can tighten those things up, he should be fine.

So can Thornton take the next step to become an even better player? It's an interesting question considering the Kings' roster at this point in the offseason. Thornton is playing with three other players who do similar things so he may not get the playing time that he got towards the end of next season. If he wants that playing time, he is going to have to do something to differentiate himself, and maybe that something is becoming a better facilitator. If he can do that, he can find his way onto the court for Sacramento.

Sebastian Pruiti is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Sebastian by clicking here or click here to see Sebastian's other articles.

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D-I's Top 100 Players (07/14)
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Premium Article Taking the Next Step (07/08)
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Premium Article Taking the Next Step (07/22)
Next Article >>
Premium Article Making Moves (07/18)

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