Behind The Scenes With Derryck Thornton

Before he headed to Duke on Monday morning, five star point guard Derryck Thornton and his father, Tank, sat down with TDD to discuss the recruitment, when he knew it was going to be Duke, a package deal that nobody knew about, and what he's hoping to see with the class of 2016.

So now that Derryck is heading to Duke, how are you feeling?

Tank Thornton, father Derryck Thornton:  I’m just so happy and proud for him.  He gave up some big things to do this. He gave up McDonald’s, he gave up Jordan Brand, he gave up his senior year of high school. 

Initially I was leery, but he really wanted to do it. I think he was probably a little bit frustrated with high school, so I wanted to make sure that he wasn’t making the decision out of frustration.  I wasn’t going to let him make what I would consider a bad decision as a parent. I also wanted him to be able to make the decision you know what I mean?  It’s tough because as kids when they are growing up, you have to really allow for them to have rope to make mistakes, you just don’t want them to make a decision that could cost them in the long run. 

Before Coach K and those guys even came, I just tried to lay out both sides and we would get into his head and just made sure he wasn’t making a decision out of frustration.  I wanted to make sure he was coming out of a place of “I’m just excited and I know I can handle it and I want it.  I’m ready to run maybe the best team in college basketball and play for the best coach in college.” 

So I was sure that that was where his head was and I knew that he could do it, so I went ahead and blessed it.

With you becoming comfortable with the idea of Derryck re-classifying, was that based on his attitude towards the situation that you just shared?

I’ve coached and trained Derryck since he was baby. If you ask any dad who is a coach and who knows what he’s doing, he’s always going to be the toughest and you will see all the things that he should work on.  I mean he leaves on Monday for Duke and we’re going to go back to the gym tonight because he was playing against Kyle Lowry earlier in the day and there were some things that needed to be fixed. 

I know with Coach K there is going to be a lot of fixing as well, but I just wanted to prepare him as much as possible for Coach K. There was no one thing…it was me telling him that we are speeding up the process 12 months.  That we’ve got 90 days this summer to work on some things along with what needs to be done academically to finish up with SAT wise and taking the classes in summer school that you need to take, so this is going to be a very busy time. He was up for the challenge and he never wavered, he would get up early, do what he needed to do and he would start knocking those things out which helped build my confidence.

How did you see Derryck grow as a person and a player this summer during that process?

Well he gained 10 pounds by working out which is not easy to do. He gained 10 pounds of pure muscle and there will be times where I’ll be like “Man, you have to do this, this and this”, and he’ll be even tougher on himself than I could ever be.  

Here’s the thing, when the child is little, it’s your dream for him.  Then as he starts to grow up, it becomes both of your dreams together and then when he starts to become a young man, it becomes his own dream and that’s what I see.

So with that—what’s it like seeing your son fulfill his dream of going to Duke?

It’s exciting, you know?  It’s very, very, very, very exciting. How do I even put into words?  I know Coach K is going to be tough, and I know he’s going to be honest.  He’s going to be tough, and he’s to do all he can to teach my son everything that he knows and he’s done it with so many other people’s children that you can trust in that.  Not too many guys fall the through the cracks with him, especially the guys that are supposed to be really good. Guys that go there get better and you know how to trust in that. Any man that has his whole staff filled with guys of former players, that says 10 million times about who he is as a person. I admire that man. 

Has there been anything in your interactions with Coach K or the coaching staff that has been really memorable for you personally?

Here’s the thing, I’ve been around Derryck and Coach a bunch now.  When Coach K is with my child I’m not there. Scheyer’s not there.  Capel’s not there.  James is not there.  He’s just talking and teaching my son always. We’re at lunch, we’re at dinner, we’re just hanging out watching the game, whatever it may be, their relationship is taking off and I understand that when you are the point guard, you are basically the coach on the court. So he’s got to be able to put into you him and I’m watching him do that with Derryck. I’m watching them talk and it’s just crazy to see.

How much were you looking at how Coach K related to Tyus and Quinn last season as it related to Derryck’s relationship with Coach K?

You know, here’s the thing man.  Quinn Cook is a leader.  I don’t know if he came in a leader, but he left out a leader.  Tyus is ultra-talented, so they kind of formed this two-headed monster.  But Derryck’s not going to have that.  There’s no senior guard, so you have to be able to communicate and lead like Quinn did from day one.  I think all of us are looking to see how Derryck grows with that because we all know that freshmen don’t naturally talk a lot.  So when he’s playing pick up here, I’m always making sure that he’s talking and he’s communicating constantly on the court.  

Me and Nate James were just talking about that yesterday, just making sure he’s really verbal all the time. There’s a lot of things that we’re looking forward to seeing and I’m sure he’s going to have those things come out at Duke.

You also of course want to see them win a national championship. You want him to be a leader and contribute in scoring and rebounding and of course he better lead in assists, haha. I don’t really believe that everything has to all revolve around you because there’s so much quality there. You want your guys to have confidence in you and for them to feel that as long as you are on the court, we’re going to be ok.

What are your thoughts on the team that Derryck is going to be a part of this year?

We’re young.  Brandon is awesome, but he’s young.  Luke’s awful young, and Chase is going to be a good player and he’s going to bring energy as a freshman.  So, we’re pretty young but we also have some seasoning where we need it.  Our bigs are mature man and they are adults.  Marshall Plumlee, that’s a grownup there. Jefferson is a grown up, and those guys are men, you know what I mean?  If I’m a freshman guard or forward and I know that I can lean on those guys and Matt Jones, older guys, some four year guys who have seen it all, there’s a lot of comfort in that. 

How much are you planning on traveling and seeing Derryck play versus watching him on TV?

I don’t think I’m going to see one game on TV.  I’m planning on going to all the games. Being a music producer and all that, I can travel at my own schedule. 

You mind if I ask what the thought process is going to be in evaluating the pro option for Derryck? Have you guys already started thinking about that?

I’m going to be honest with you, if you remember earlier when I talked about how I view it as there’s always something he can be working on?  That’s what’s in my head with that.  I’m not thinking about anything else.  My son doesn’t come from a place where we have to make any decisions, and it’s his dream, but he lives a good life and I’m in no hurry. I don’t need him to do anything, so, all those decisions will be made by me and him, and Coach and there is no hurry on this side.  

I work with NBA guys, I train NBA guys and I see kids already who its over…they are in the D-League and it’s over. I’d rather him finish his education than get into that type of situation. I want to make sure he’s 100% prepared in every way. 

Ok, let’s switch back and take a look at the Duke in-home visit. How would you characterize what the situation was with you guys before the in-home visit versus after it? 

So before the in-home visit, in speaking with Derryck about a week before the Duke in-home visit, we went and spoke with the coaching staff at Findley Prep.  We had a new coach before and now we have another new coach.  So we walked out of there and Derryck tells me, “Man, I’m really thinking about going there.”  

At this point we’ve got a like a week or so before Duke comes in, so let’s look at the pros and cons. We wrote down our list and Derryck really wanted to be coached, he really wanted to start to advance his IQ, different things like that.  So we talked about those things, I talked with him about being away from home.  We knew that he was going to Duke, and we knew Kentucky was out, and we knew Louisville was out but he hadn’t even announced anything…no Top 5 but we knew those schools were out.  We knew he wanted to go to Duke and we said ‘OK, now it’s about when’. 

Probably three days before they came, we sat down again and I said “If you really feel like this is what you want to do, then I have your back.”  I told him “Yeah and if you are really talking about doing this, then I’m ready too. I believe in you so much and I know how hard you are going to work to get whatever is in front of you, you are going to work your butt off to get it done and I doubt don’t that at all son”. 

When Coach K and those guys came, I’ll be honest, I talked to Scheyer constantly, he’s like my little brother and he’s just a great kid.  So they show up, we’re just laughing like 99% of the time, just hanging out, watching videos, we were doing the recruit thing but more than anything else, we were just kind of hanging out and my son is just kind of feeling it. He’s not feeling out Coach, he’s just feeling “how do I fit”, “does this feel natural”, and similar.  

I know everyone’s perception of Coach is one thing, but man, he is such a good person and normal and funny and sarcastic and he will crack on you in a second and he is just a really good person. It’s fun to be around him and even when he was at my house, he wouldn’t address me as much, but he would be talking with Derryck a lot, which was good. He’d say “This is what I see, I want this for you, you make your decision when it’s time”.

It was just really good stuff and by the end of the evening, I had already told Scheyer before that he’s coming, we just don’t know when. By the end of the evening, Coach K said, “Listen, I’m getting calls from fifth year guys” and I knew that he was and there were some other guys that hadn’t committed yet that were still going to reclassify.  Coach K told us, “Listen, I want you to come, if it’s next year, I will walk out of here happy because we’re getting you next here and I will be happy because we will know what we’re getting. But listen, I want you this year and I know you would be successful. You are going to be better than you think you can be.”

He definitely exudes confidence in his guys and by the end of the evening when he asked, Derryck told him, “I’m ready, I’m ready to come.” 

It’s so funny because I don’t know if Coach K thought I was going to say something, but when Derryck said that, he jumped on me and held me down like he was saying that’s it, he said “Yes!”.  I fell out laughing and I told him that there’s no way I could say no. It was hilarious man but that’s basically how it went and it was really cool and we hung out for awhile longer and just talked everything over and it just went great man.

How were you feeling in that moment when you heard Derryck tell the staff that he was ready to come to Duke?

I knew he was going to say that halfway into our meeting. I knew that I wanted him to come and I’m telling you man, Coach K is good, he’s real good when he’s sitting in your living room. I told them that I have a team of guys around here that I trust, his trainers, AAU coach and I said to them, when Coach K was talking, when Derryck was talking, I said to them, he’s gone, he’s out of here, I’ll be looking for an apartment in Durham. 

You mentioned earlier that you guys knew even before the in-home visit with Duke that Derryck was going to go to Duke. When did you guys really know that and what were the factors that led to having that feeling?

You know, I looked at a lot of things. I watched Coach and listened to Coach talk to his guys, I listened to how he communicated with them. I talked with Chuck Okafor for a while and just kind of talked with some of the parents.  Every kid is different including with my son with how he goes, what makes him different, stuff like that. 

It all just fit. Not that the other schools didn’t, Kentucky is a great school, Miami is a great school, Michigan is a great school, all these schools are great schools but man, that situation fit his character and his personality better than anything else.  So we went on our visit, had our dialogue and communication with the staff and with players and parents of guys who have been there. I think it was the most comfortable position for him. 

We knew that he enjoyed the visit but we still had our whole season going on, we would refer back to that, we’d ask what did you like about the staff at Kentucky and he would say I really liked this but ultimately it just kept coming back to which one are you most comfortable, which one feels most like home because whether you are there for one year or four years, I want you to enjoy it. This place fit for him and he said I think this can feel like home for me. 

What was the feedback like that you received from Chuck Okafor and the other Duke parents that you spoke with?

Oh man, like from DeMarcus Nelson, we actually talked with DeMarcus today - he works out here at Impact.  

Dahntay Jones is another guy that works out of here. 

Chuck told me, “look, it’s going to be tough but you can rest assured that they are learning, and they are safe.” As a parent you know, those are two really huge things. He’s learning on and off the court and he’s in a great location and he’s safe and he’s around other people that are like him. Same personality, same drive, same sort of mentality and goal, and that felt great. 

Did that counsel play a major role in the consideration of Duke?

It made an amazing impact, it played a major impact in me giving his the blessing to go there early.

Just to refresh the memory, once Derryck committed he had the extra academic requirements that had to be fulfilled…what were those exactly?

There were two classes he took in summer school. He took one class online and then took one class at Findley Prep. He was really close when he was at Findley Prep and one of the classes was a state required class for Nevada and the other classes were, the other two classes were twelfth grade classes like English and another class. So he enrolled in summer school and he got A’s in those courses. 

He was accepted into Duke two Monday’s ago officially. He had to finish out and do a good job in his classes. Duke’s a tough school to get into, you have to have the grades. So he had to finish out those classes and do well which he did, he kept his GPA in the mid to high 3’s. His SAT scores were already good and once everything was submitted, he made it through and got the word.

So how were you feeling as a parent once the official word came through that he was a fully admitted Duke University student?

Just ok, man, we’re good and that was a big major thing that we’re good and now let’s start focusing on the season some more and let’s start getting you prepared to be on your own. 

Does he already know who his roommate or roommates are going to be?

I think he’s rooming with Brandon Ingram.  We knew, when we were out there in May and they took us to the dorms, he knew then when they told us. They were showing us “this would be your side and this would be Brandon’s.” 

How much of a friendship does Derryck already have with Brandon and you with Brandon’s parents at this point? 

I actually haven’t met them yet. It’s funny, when we were at our in-home visit, Brandon called Derryck and was like “Hey, if you go then I’ll go”.   He told Derryck that “if you re-classify up and if you go to Duke, I’m coming”. 

It was so funny, we told Coach K about that and he told Derryck, “Man, you are coming.”  It was hilarious man.

How do you feel about Derryck being a part of another top ranked recruiting class that Duke is bringing in? 

It’s exciting.  For me personally I’m looking forward to him going there and getting with those guys. I try to always temper expectations with him. I always say under-promise and over-achieve. It’s an honor to be the number one recruiting class but what that means is the expectations are great. Let’s try to do our best to prepare to do our best.

How much are you and Derryck helping out from a recruiting perspective? Are you guys talking with a lot of players and families that Duke is recruiting?

Oh yeah of course. That was his class you know with 2016. Until April that was the class he was in and we talked all the time with those parents, they were my guys.  Tatum’s my guy man, I knew he was probably going to commit before Coach did.  We’re all friends, we’ve been doing this for a long time. Derryck played Jayson when they were second graders. I know Harry Giles really well too.

How much would you say the conversation with parents like say Mr. Tatum and Mr. Giles and others center around recruiting-related issues versus how much is it just relationship building and talking as friends?

Well the kids are friends already and we’re friends. If I know you’ve been recruited by the same guy that I’ve been recruited by, I’ll ask you about it and they will ask what do you think about so and so.  

I’ll say “I like so and so, they are high on our list” and they will say that they are high on our list too.  

There’s a lot more interaction that maybe people would think. I talk with a lot of people like Harry Giles, Tatum of course, we talk a lot. We all want to see each of our children do well. 

I’ve built a relationship with Dennis Smith, Sr. the last few years from going to camps and our kids being considered the number one point guard in the class depending on what service you looked at. Going against each other and things like that, as parents we knew it was good competition. So you build a relationship like the same way with Derryck being as good and as talented as he is, Dennis Sr knows what it took for me to get him there and vice versa. 

I know how much Justin was in the gym with Jayson (Tatum) working on his fade, working on his one dribble pull up, working on his pull back to his step back. I know what that takes, so you see kids do it and you know it’s not by chance, it’s hours and hours and hours of work which somebody has done and for the most part it’s with these fathers. So there’s this mutual respect amongst all of us and we all want to see each other’s kids make it big.

Parent to parent with you and Dennis Smith Sr., what’s your thought process towards all the discussion at the media and fan level about your two sons?

With Derryck and Dennis and playing together?  Yeah, I don’t care about all that discussion. Here’s the thing, your ultimate goal is to be an NBA player, and so is his. You think when you make it to the NBA one day that there’s not going to be another elite guard on the team?  Of course there will be.  You have to learn how to play with great players, you have to learn to not be concerned with this kid is here or this kid is there.  When it’s your job one day and that’s the goal, at least you are saying that’s the goal, if that’s really your goal then you really can’t be overly concerned with other players coming in, who you are playing with.  You want to play with the best guys that are going to push you everyday and where you will be taught how to win. That’s what I talked with my son about and that’s what he believes and that’s also what I believe.

Is that a source of communication with you and Dennis Smith Sr.? Does that subject get discussed at all?

It’s come up.  And we both have said that they could play together.  Imagine that backcourt man, you know?  It could happen. Dennis has to make the best decision for Dennis and they have to do what’s best for them.  As far as all of us are concerned, if its what best for both of them.  We made our decision, and we’re at Duke and we’re happy about that. If they feel like its the best decision for them to come too, we would welcome it.  I’ve definitely talked about it with Derryck of course and you know, I’ve talked to Dennis those guys and we all say that we could definitely do it, that’s not an issue, so no one is thinking anything negatively about playing with another great player or great players. Playing with Jayson Tatum is playing with a great player, playing with Harry Giles is playing with a great player, playing with Frank Jackson, playing with Luke Kennard and Grayson Allen, they are all great players. They are going to play with great guards and that’s a good thing you know?  If he penetrates and kicks, that guy is going to knock down that shot, you think that doesn’t make you smile?

There’s a lot of fan discussion about the potential to play alongside Jayson Tatum and possibly Harry Giles if they are all at Duke next season—is that hoped for situation with you guys?

Initially when Derryck was in that class, they had talked about that quite a bit. It could easily happen, but we don’t know what the future holds and I don’t want to jinx it. But, it definitely is something that’s been thought about by everyone involved. 

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