Sindarius Thornwell – South Carolina

Projected draft spot: 49th (Draft Express), N/R (CBS Sports), N/R (ESPN)

Stats: 33.7 minutes, 21.4 points, 7.2 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 2.2 steals, 1.0 blocks, 44.3 FG%, 40.1 3PT%, 82.7 FT%

Strengths: Strong build, Aggressive slasher, Defensive stalwart, Effort warrior

Weaknesses: Top end athleticism, Length for 2-guard, So-So jump shot

Game Time: Sunday v.s. Florida at 12:20 PM MST

What to watch for: All hail the South Carolina Gamecocks.

As a current student at the University of South Carolina, I have had the privilege of discovering up close just how great of a basketball player and overall warrior Sindarius Thornwell is for the Gamecocks. A four-year player born in Lancaster, SC, Thornwell is a local hero, and for good reason.

The story of Sindarius Thornwell is nearly the entire reason to draft him. Growing up in a poor, small town, he was surrounded by potential pitfalls but kept his friends and family even closer. His support system allowed him the opportunities at a big school, while his challenges toughened him up on the basketball court. It took him a full four years, but Thornwell turned in one of the most prolific seasons in college basketball in the last decade. Since 2010, the only players to grade higher than him in College Reference’s Box Plus/Minus statistic in a single season are Anthony Davis, Karl-Anthony Towns, Victor Oladipo, and Denzel Valentine. That’s some pretty solid company: two first overall draft picks, a second overall draft pick, and one of the most prolific college players of all-time.

So why is Thornwell receiving such little recognition? Well, he’s a late bloomer for sure, and he dealt with injury problems during the early part of his college career. He also plays for South Carolina: a program that has been off the map for a long time. With Thornwell and the Gamecocks playing in the tournament for the first time in his career, Thornwell has shown just how valuable he can be. His per game averages during the first three tournament games:

25.7 points, 7.7 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 2.0 steals, 1.3 blocks, 46.8 FG%, 45.5 3PT%, 79.3 FT%.

Thornwell is playing the best basketball of his career right now, and the tools to play at the next level are shining through clearly. If his jump shot is falling, Thornwell utilizes it to draw defenders closer before he slashes to the rim. He has middling touch at the rim, but he draws a high number of fouls, setting the SEC record for free throws attempted with 33 against Alabama this year. He is always looking to be aggressive to the hoop, but it doesn’t stop him from making the right basketball play, as he shows a willingness to drop passes off to his teammates.

That aggressiveness on offense carries over to the defensive side of the floor as well. Thornwell logged at least one steal in 28 of his 29 games played so far, topping out at six steals against Georgia. It’s not just the steals that are indicative of his good defense: Thornwell loves to get into his man offensively and make him feel the pressure. Nowhere was this seen more clearly than South Carolina’s upset over Duke. He only logged one steal himself, but the Blue Devils logged 18 turnovers, their highest total on the year. Heavy ball pressure is the name of Thornwell’s game defensively, and his combination of agility and stoutness allow him to handle guards and forwards alike.

Duke’s Coach K even stated he was “the best, unheralded, great player in the United States” (Campus Insiders). How much more high praise does a prospect need?

For a Denver Nuggets team that lacks the physical intensity in the backcourt to match up with the best guards in the NBA, Thornwell appears to be a great candidate to improve the level of defense Denver needs to grow as a team. The comparison I would make to the South Carolina guard is Marcus Smart, only Thornwell has his head on straight. Thornwell makes winning basketball plays, grabbing loose balls, clutch rebounds, playing defense against the best player, and even scoring a little. Remember that game I talked about against Alabama earlier? He also had 21 rebounds.

Sindarius Thornwell may just be a great college basketball player. That is entirely possible, given the perfect storm of circumstances that have led to an Elite 8 run thus far. He also might be an under-the-radar prospect that very few draft pundits have taken seriously until now. His numbers are incredible. He passes the eye test offensively. Oh, and he can D up. If Denver really wants to test the theory on if Nikola Jokic can turn defense-first players into good players offensively, then the Nuggets should test the waters on Thornwell. I wouldn’t recommend taking him with their first selection, but the Nuggets would be missing an opportunity if they didn’t try to acquire him in the second round.

For now though? Let’s see how far he can take my Gamecocks.