Superman. Unsung. Consistent. Wild. Overshadowed by John Wall highlights and Gilbert Arenas bylines, Al Thornton is getting it done for the Washington Wizards this season. The 6’8″ small forward out of Florida State defines “gym rat,” clocking countless hours to get back to his old ways. And when he’s on the court, the practice shows.
Thornton is averaging 12.5 points and 5.2 rebounds this season after a small dip in production due to an abdominal tweak suffered last Friday. Al played through the pain but had to eventually sit against Charlotte. Then Washington traveled to Chicago, on a back-to-back, and Al still wasn’t 100%. But over the last two games — keeping in mind the Celtics ended up shooting 65% from the field as a team — Thornton is back in rhythm entering tonight’s contest against the visiting Memphis Grizzlies.
Thornton began pushing himself as early as Training Camp, as the Wizards practiced on campus at George Mason University, in Fairfax, Virginia. The Patriot Center acted as Washington’s playground, and things went smooth until Day 5, when the lights inexplicably went out. When the lights came back on, Thornton decided to stick around, and shoot. Wizards Head Coach Flip Saunders talked to the media about the lights-out practice, called Al “Superman” — regarding Thornton’s ordeal with a student driver — and Thornton was still shooting. Flip left the building to join the rest of the team and the janitors started to clean up the Patriot Center — Thornton was still shooting. About an hour later, Thornton stopped shooting, and spoke with the anxious media still lingering around.
Thornton’s dedication has helped big man JaVale McGee anchor Washington’s defense this season, and Al provides the Wizards with some relief as they enter halfcourt situations on offense. While Washington has guys that can knock down threes on paper, the Wizards have struggled to find halfcourt offense. One of the reasons for this discrepency is Arenas (ankle/knee), as well as Andray Blatche (foot/knee), are both strengthing up their bodies. Arenas has expressed that he feels he is not as “explosive” as he would like, while Blatche has talked about not having the jump he used to have.
While ‘Dray and Gil train up, Al has been the guy that finds the easy — and sometimes not so easy — halfcourt opportunities. He isn’t hitting shots from the perimeter as well as he would like, but he also isn’t living out there. Al finds a way to knock down tough, momentum-changing jumpers, and he doesn’t shy away from contact or tough match-ups. A perfect example was Wednesday in Boston. Paul Pierce might have gotten the upper hand with the one-sided W, but Thornton went right to him, and scored 15 points on the night. Al is a leader by example, and hard work, which should trickle down to Washington’s young reserve bigs this season.
Last Friday I had the opportunity to talk with Al one-on-one before the Wizards hosted the Bobcats. I asked Al about his work ethic this season, his thoughts on the early praise from Coach Saunders, and the introduction of the nickname “Wild Thang,” as coined by user cuppettcj of Bullets Forever after a postgame comment by Shane Battier of the Houston Rockets.
George Panagakos: “During Training Camp the Patriot Center had a blackout. Most of the players packed up but you stayed out there for about an hour. Following Monday’s (cancelled) practice Coach Saunders talked about you getting back out there. Do you feel like you’re pushing yourself more this season, or is it just another season for you?”
Al Thornton: “I think I’m pushing myself a little more. I’m getting back to my old ways. Last year I was conditioned poorly. I didn’t play well, and it had a lot to do with my lack of work effort.”
GP: “Flip Saunders has called you an ‘unsung’ (hero), he’s called you ‘the most consistent Wizard’ — are you able to take that praise or do you still feel like you have a ways to go?”
AT: “You take it and you feel good about your play. But you still want to continue to be consistent. That’s been one of my goals coming into this season, is being consistent on both ends. To hear it from your coach, it does make you feel good about your game, but I still think there are areas I can get better in and I can keep improving.”
GP: “On Wednesday, Shane Battier said postgame: ‘Al Thornton upholds his reputation of being the wildest player in the league.’ How do you feel about Al ‘Wild Thang’ Thornton?”
AT: “That’s a good one. I have plenty, but I like that.”
GP: “You have plenty? What do you prefer right now?”
AT: “You have AT, you have Juice, you have OJ, you have Cowboy, you have Old Man Willie, Willie Cones, and Wild Thang, that last one you just came up with. I have a lot of nicknames, man.”
GP: “From college or–“
AT: “–College, the NBA, just from the way I play.”
When Thornton goes “wild” and grabs 5 or more rebounds, Washington is 3-4 this season. When Thornton plays 30 or more minutes Washington is 3-2 this season. If you’re a Wizards fan and want to consider a 2011 NBA All-Star write-in this season, look no further than Al “Wild Thang” Thornton.
Washington will host the Memphis Grizzlies tonight at 7:00 p.m. ET.