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What Went Wrong with Derryck Thornton & Duke?

Duke Basketball Derryck Thornton
Photo: Anthony Gruppuso-USATSI

News broke over the weekend that freshman guard Derryck Thornton would be transferring from Duke.

Despite starting 20 games this past season and playing in all 36 of Duke’s games, averaging 26 minutes, the 6’2”, 175-pounder from California has elected to continue his playing career elsewhere.

Thornton averaged 7.1 points and 2.6 assists in his lone season as a Blue Devil.

The transfer means Duke will be rather thin at the point guard position next season, with incoming freshman Frank Jackson being the only player who has experience operating as a point guard. However, even Jackson is viewed by some as more of a combo guard who excels at scoring more than facilitating for teammates.

How did Duke get to this point? What led to the departure of Derryck Thornton?

It’s a combination of factors that go back to before Thornton ever became a Blue Devil.

Tyus Jones Was Better Than Anticipated

This is where Duke fans have to appreciate the greatness of Tyus Jones and the incredible success of the 2014-15 team. When Jones arrived as part of the 2014 class, it wasn’t likely that he’d be a one-and-done player at Duke. Many thought he would stay at Duke at least two years and there were questions about his ceiling as a draft prospect. Yet, Jones likely hit that ceiling with his performance in the national championship win over Wisconsin and rode that momentum to the 2015 NBA Draft. I’d say the 2015 National Championship was worth it, but it meant losing the player who was supposed to be the point guard for this past season’s team.

Duke Didn’t Pursue a Point Guard in the 2015 Class

Once it became apparent that Tyus Jones would declare for the draft, the Duke coaching staff scrambled to find a point guard for the 2015-16 season. Unfortunately, targeting a point guard in the 2015 recruiting class hadn’t been a high priority, which meant the Blue Devils had to get creative and consider alternative options, such as seeing if any of its 2016 targets would be willing to reclassify.

Derryck Thornton Reclassifying Put Him Behind Schedule

Derryck Thornton’s decision to become part of the 2015 recruiting class (an idea that was pitched to him by multiple schools, including Duke) accelerated his graduation from high school. Because Thornton had to take summer classes to earn the necessary credits to graduate early, it forced him to miss the summer workout period with the Duke basketball team. Mike Krzyzewski commented in the preseason that Thornton was trying to catch up and get comfortable with his teammates, which has to be difficult for any young player, but especially challenging for the guy expected to be the point guard.

When a few of us from Duke Report attended the Countdown to Craziness scrimmage last year, I remember us commenting to each other after the game that point guard would be an issue for Duke.

There never seemed be a seamless, natural transition with Duke and Derryck Thornton.

There Was a Difference of Expectations

This is the part of the story that’s now getting the most attention, and it’s likely the primary reason Thornton won’t be staying at Duke. According to multiple reports, there was a difference of opinion on how Derryck was being used by the Duke coaches compared to how some thought he should have been used.

Whether that’s Derryck’s father, or people like Mark Edwards, Derryck’s personal trainer (who ranted about the situation on Twitter), believing his skills weren’t being correctly utilized by Mike Krzyzewski and his staff, it created a situation that wouldn’t work for either party moving forward.

Thornton Wasn’t About to Become More of a Feature

I’ve seen comments from people in the media about how Duke recruited over Derryck Thornton by pursuing Frank Jackson and wanted to get Thornton out to create scholarship space for Marques Bolden. I don’t believe either of those things are true, mainly because it’s just foolish to get rid of your only experienced point guard on the roster.

However, if Thornton and/or his camp was unhappy with how he was used this past season and didn’t think he was a big enough part of the rotation, it’s unlikely things were going to get better next season.

Between Grayson Allen, Jayson Tatum, Harry Giles, Luke Kennard, and Frank Jackson, that’s already five players who are better offensive options than Thornton. With Allen, Tatum, Kennard and Jackson all being guys who can create with the ball, it’s hard to see that Coach K would have looked to create a situation where Thornton would operate as the primary distributor.

He still would have had the opportunity to earn significant minutes (keyword being EARN), but it might not have led to the type of stardom that certain people close to him are hoping for.

As a result, Derryck Thornton will be looking for a new opportunity and school where he can showcase his talents. I wish him the best.

For Duke, it’s about moving forward to next season, and hopefully being a little more prepared in the future for how to handle such quick roster turnover.