FSU's Thornton Still Blossoming


Oct. 13, 2006

By Douglas Kroll




Doug Kroll is an editor for CSTV.com, focusing on baseball.
E-mail here!

Sometimes, highly recruited high school players don't pan out at the next level.  Sometimes, they explode into superstars and don't stay at the collegiate rank for very long.


But on the other side of the spectrum, there are those high school players who are barely recruited at all that turn into the superstars.  It's what every college coach looks for; that diamond in the rough. 


For Florida State head coach Leonard Hamilton, it's something that isn't new to him.  Going back to his years as the head coach at Miami, he's been bringing in good talent with every recruiting class, leading the Hurricanes to the NCAA tournament before departing for the NBA.  But Hamilton came back shortly thereafter to the state of Florida, this time about 500 miles north in Tallahassee.  One of his first finds was Al Thornton.


Thornton is one of those athletic freaks that every coach licks their chops for.  The 6-foot-8 senior has a wide wingspan and poses a problem for every opposing coach, with his quick footwork and burst of speed that can get by big defenders.  Add that to his ability to post up against smaller players, and one can see the matchup problems that give visiting coaches headaches.  Thornton is ready to propel Hamliton's Seminoles to the next level: the NCAA tournament - somewhere FSU hasn't been since 1998 when they lost in the second round to Valparaiso. 


Many believe, including all of Seminole country, that the 'Noles should have made the tournament a season ago, when they went 20-10 and had their signature "big win"- a 79-74 win against top-ranked Duke.  That win, came nearly a month after a heartbreaking overtime loss in Durham to the Blue Devils in a game that saw Duke perhaps get some hometown calls.  It was in that game that Thornton made a name for himself, in a big way.


The Perry, Ga. native dropped 37 points on the Blue Devils, grabbed 15 rebounds and also added five assists.  After the game, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski called Thornton one of the best players in the country- not bad coming from a guy that coached Team USA this past summer at the FIBA World Championships in China.


"As far as overall performance, that was the best game I've ever played," Thornton said of his game at Duke.  "I'm just in awe, since Coach K is one of the greatest coaches of all time.  It makes me feel great [that he said that]."


It was quite the honor for a kid out of Perry High School, who didn't have a lot of coaches calling him, even when he was averaging 27 points, 11 rebounds as a senior, and is the all-time record holder for points at the school.  Looking at these numbers, it shouldn't come as a surprise that Hamilton jumped at the opportunity to grab Thornton. 


"I started to develop a passion for basketball," Thornton said.  "I played football, but I started to grow and started to develop a love for basketball when I was about six-four, six-five.  Not to be recruited left a bitter taste in my mouth.  I saw myself playing college ball, and not to be recruited raised a lot of doubts by my family a friends."


It was "coach Ham" who finally came after the sprouting star during his first recruiting period as coach at FSU. After a few conversations with him, Thornton knew it was the right place, after all, FSU sat 150 miles to the south so it met some of Thornton's criteria: it was close to home, it was Division I, and they wanted him.


"When we first saw Al, we knew that he was a good athlete; a good athlete with good hands and good footwork who had the ability to become a good basketball player," Hamilton said. "He had been a successful football player in high school and had the leadership qualities on the field that we liked.  And he had the desire to be good.  He had the desire to improve and has worked at improving since he became a member of our team.  Al still has that desire today whenever he comes to practice or plays in a game.  He not only wants to plays well but he wants to get better and continue to improve his game."


Thornton has put together an impressive list of accolades already, and many feel that he is still getting better.  In '05-'06, he led the Seminoles with 16.1 points per game, finished second with 6.9 rebounds, and was third in shooting percentage (51.8%).  He earned second team All-ACC honors and first team All-District honors. 


The 2006-2007 season could bring a new team into the upper echelon of the ACC, and if Florida State is able to get there, the main reason will be Thornton.  He has steadily improved each season since arriving on campus back in 2002.  His biggest jump last season, with his scoring jumping seven points per game, and the reasoning behind it isn't too difficult to understand.


"It was a maturity thing for me; me coming into my own," Thornton said.  "It was me correcting my form on my shot, and realizing when I can take shots and recognizing situations."


For Thornton, he just wants to get his team to the Big Dance, so his preseason honors of being a candidate for the All-America team, National Player of the Year, and ACC Player of the Year, mean a little bit to him, but only if they do well as a team.  Without big man Alexander Johnson in the paint, the Seminoles may struggle to grab rebounds, but one thing's for sure: Thornton's athletic prowess will certainly win them some ballgames - perhaps a lot of ballgames.



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