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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.

5 comments

  1. It’s impossible for us on the outside looking in to know what happened.  We have our opinions, and I’ll give mine.  Maybe his family thought he is better than K used him for, or maybe Thornton family didn’t like team getting another guard, adding to an already full cupboard.  When Jackson committed, I think the Thornton family decided to take his talents elsewhere.  Thornton was also having to fill some very big shoes in being Tyus Jones’s replacement.  I stated last year after winning the title that Duke fans needed to understand how special the 14-15 team were, and this team with Jefferson was a good team, not great, but without him they were an average team wearing Duke.  So many kids though think they’re better than they are, and he would be better if he’d stayed in Durham.  He should have looked at Nolan Smith and Quinn Cook, and how they benefited, but instead decided to bolt.

  2. Wrong. We do know what happened behind the scenes. A witness reported that Coach K lied and promised Thornton a particular type of offense. He said what he had to in order to get what he wanted. It’s what Coach K does best. Truth is, Duke used Thornton, pushing him to graduate early, even if it wasn’t the best thing for the kid. I wish Thornton all the best, but let this be a lesson for future Duke recruits. Coach K is not what he seems to be.

  3. Davido223, Step away from the kool-aid pal.  Are you still upset over your Tar Holes losing?

  4. Davido223 Please, please, give us your sources about this “witness” if you are referring to his “uncle” then you are doing nothing but just playing out your clear hate for Duke with no evidence to support that theory. All those people in the room with DT made the decision to come to Duke, no one pointed a gun to his head and made him reclassify. Everyone wants to blame the coach and put no responsibility on the player for his decisions. Some kids want everything handed to them. This is the lesson kids need to learn that you have to EARN things in this world.

  5. I agree with Rob Mac. I also think he is hurting himself , as he will sit out a year , before he can play again. Why not stay , play as much as you can , develop , Frank goes pro , and you are the man fir a year or two. Either way , you are waiting a year , and playing against the best will make you better in the long run. Just saying……