Making Thornton Tangible In 2012

Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski says Duke just plays better with the sophomore guard on the floor. He's some statistical proof.

After Duke's exhibition game against Bellarmine, coach Mike Krzyzewski praised Tyler Thornton's contribution.

"He gave us a boost. When he's in the game, we just play better," Coach K said.

Looking at the box score, it seems to be a surprising statement. Thornton only had five points. Five of the 11 Blue Devils that played had more. He had two rebounds. Only two players had fewer. His three assists were third best on the team.

"He's our best defensive player, hands down" Krzyzewski said. "He's just an energizer. When he's in, we have better order."

In other words, Thornton provides intangibles that can't be measured on a stat sheet.

Which raises a natural question: How can we measure them?

Look at Coach K's first statement—When he's in the game, we just play better. We can steal a statistic from another sport that might help prove this statement.

Hockey is full of intangible-type guys, and Carolina Hurricanes fans are probably familiar with the Plus/Minus statistic. It keeps track of how the team's score changes while a player is on the ice. If the team consistently gets more goals than they give up when a player is on the ice, even if he's not the one scoring, it will show up in Plus/Minus.

So who were Duke's Plus/Minus leaders for the Bellarmine game?

The Blue Devils outscored Bellarmine 50-23 with Austin Rivers on the floor. His +27 was best on the team. Next best on the team was Miles Plumlee, who was a +24. The only other Duke player with better than +20? Tyler Thornton, who was +22.

Here's the rest of the roster's Plus/Minus numbers

You can also look at Plus/Minus for rebounding. Duke was +19 as a team for the game, so everyone is on the positive side of the rebounding stat. And again, Thornton ranks near the top. With him running the show, the big men can crash the boards.

Rebounding +/-

  • Seth Curry +15
  • Miles Plumlee +14
  • Tyler Thornton +13
  • Mason Plumlee and Austin Rivers +12
  • Ryan Kelly +11
  • Andre Dawkins +7
  • Alex Murphy +5
  • Quinn Cook +4
  • Michael Gbinije and Josh Hairston +1

Points per possession is another way coaches measure a team's efficiency. Looking at that when a player is on the floor should help to measure his contribution.

With Thornton in the game, Duke had 1.21 points per possession. That was higher than when any other player was isolated. Duke shot .583 and had a 1.4 assist to turnover ratio when Thornton was in, also best of any player's iso.

Name -- pts/pos

  • Thornton -- 1.21
  • Miles Plumlee -- 1.16
  • Dawkins -- 1.14
  • Rivers -- 1.13
  • Kelly -- 1.07
  • Curry -- 1.05
  • Mason Plumlee -- 1.00
  • Hairston -- 0.93
  • Cook -- 0.88
  • Gbinije -- 0.85
  • Murphy -- 0.79

It's an old saying in basketball that a good point guard makes other players better, and Thornton's effect on Seth Curry was amazing. Curry is learning to run the team this season, but he's clearly more comfortable coming off screens, catching and shooting. When Thornton's in the game, he gets to do that.

Presumably, when Quinn Cook is in the game, Curry should get to do that as well, but looking at the different lineups, that doesn't seem to be the case.

Lineup Plus/Minus Points/Poss Team FG% Asst/TO
Curry/Thornton +19 1.25 .567 2.2
Curry/Cook -5 0.33 .333 0.0
Curry Alone +1 0.91 .500 0.43

That's half the story. Like Coach K said, Thornton also has an impact on the other end of the court. Here's a look at how Bellarmine did against the different guard combinations

Lineup BU's Pts/Pos BU FG% BU A/TO
Curry/Thornton 0.81 .417 0.6
Curry/Cook 1.4 .750 0.0
Curry Alone 0.95 .471 1.3

Obviously, it's just one game, and an exhibition at that, but it seems evident that, with 900 wins to his credit and counting, Coach K just might know how to evaluate a college player.

We'll keep an eye on the effectiveness of individual players and different lineup choices as the season goes on.

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