The Thornton way

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In the current Philippine Basketball Association (PBA) Commissioner’s Cup, NLEX Road Warriors import Al Thornton stands out with his remarkable scoring prowess. Just last Friday against Barangay Ginebra, the explosive former NBA All-Rookie First Team collected a mind-blowing 50 points in a 114-112-overtime victory. He also scored ten markers during the extra period. Though the PBA enjoys a talented crop of imports this conference, Thornton is in a class of his own.

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His credentials are phenomenal. It’s not often that we get to see an NBA first round pick in the PBA. Thornton was selected 14th overall in the 2007 NBA Draft by the Los Angeles Clippers, averaging a respectable 12.7 points per game (ppg) in his rookie year. In his second season, Thornton started to make waves for LA, posting prolific numbers of 16.8 points, 5.2 rebounds and 1.5 assists per game, and an astounding 45% shooting clip. In the same year, Al sizzled with a 39-point performance against the Memphis Grizzlies, where he dropped 20 markers in the payoff period to help the Clippers snap a ten-game skid. Also in the same season, he registered a double-double of 30 points and eleven boards in one game. In four NBA seasons, he averaged 11.9 points on 45% shooting, 4.2 rebounds and 1.2 assists. Clearly, Thornton belongs to the elite class of PBA imports.

Today in the PBA, we rarely see imports scoring over 40 points. This is also a testament to the way the sport is played locally, having more emphasis now on team play rather than individual talent. Filipino coaches are among the best in the world in terms of scouting opponents and preparing for games. Defensive strategies are more scientific and carefully planned more than ever. Without a doubt, this is good for Philippine basketball in general, as the level of competition has made a huge leap from the days of isolation plays.

But for many PBA fans, gone are the days of exciting imports that leave them breathless and open-mouthed. They miss the Tony Harrises, Billy Ray Bateses, Larry McNeils and Carlos Briggses. Thornton somehow brings to life those old days, even with today’s highly technical defenses in the PBA.

It has not been a plain sailing journey for Thornton however after his stints in the NBA. He played pro in Puerto Rico and China before being invited by NLEX last year. But at 32, Al’s quickness and athleticism have started to sag. A knee injury a few years back also hampered his explosiveness. Last year, NLEX management had second thoughts of bringing in the former Florida State star due to his reported injury. But they took a gamble and Thornton did not disappoint. He also had a number of high scoring games last season that prompted the Road Warriors to welcome him back again in the present campaign.

What’s Thornton’s secret in fighting off the wear and tear in the sport? It’s his commitment to play his best even when he is not yet 100%. Before coming back to Manila, Al spent a large sum for stem-cell treatment in the US to speed up the recovery of his injured knee. NLEX now provides for his therapy and it seems the sacrifice is paying off.

NLEX chief bench tactician Boyet Fernandez could not be happier with his prize import. “Al is a true professional. He comes to practice earlier than most guys, takes extra shots, does his therapy diligently, works hard in practice, and spends more time shooting after practice. Then he goes straight home to rest and never goes out late. He is a very positive guy and we can see that he is doing what he can to help the team win. He has a perfect attitude and that’s why the team loves him,” relates the former PBA champion coach.

If Thornton’s condition continues to improve, the Road Warriors can look forward to a breakout season, especially if he catches fire often like he did against Ginebra. All that’s needed now is for the locals to provide the scoring support when Al draws all the defensive focus.

It looks like Thornton has found a home in the PBA. And the fans are not complaining.

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