Making strides

After Trent Johnson tied up all of the loose ends for the 2008 signing class, the first-year headman broke out all of the game film from LSU's 2007-08 season to see what he had to work with. One of the things that he realized very quickly was that he had someone who could light up a scoreboard.

“When I looked at tape on Marcus (Thornton), I saw that this kid was very talented and very capable,” Johnson said.


Talented would be a good way to describe Thornton, who took a roundabout way to get to LSU.


Thornton played his prep ball at Tara High School, which is across town from LSU. When it came time for him to take the next step and choose a college, the options weren’t as abundant as one would assume.


It wasn’t that college coaches weren’t interested, but it simply came down to a matter of getting him into school and meeting NCAA academic requirements.


In 2005, when Thornton realized that he would need to take an alternate route to fulfill his dream of playing major college basketball he opted to sign with Kilgore Junior College.


Thornton made an instant impact at Kilgore by averaging 13.8 points and knocking down 65 percent of his shots from the field.


The following year, the Baton Rouge-native finished third in the country in scoring at 26.6 points a game and was a first team All-American selection.


When the time had come for Thornton to decide where he would spend the next two years of his life he had suitors from all over the country that expressed interest.


After he took an official visit to Kansas State and Kansas, though, there was one saying that came to mind.


“Home is where the heart is,” Thornton said during LSU Media Days. “I knew I wanted to come back home and play at LSU, so that was an easy decision for me.”


Thornton’s first year was a success for the Tigers as he finished second in the Southeastern Conference in scoring at 19.6 points a game.


The 6-4, 205-pound guard provided plenty of scoring for the Tigers, but in Johnson’s system he had to do more than just put points on the board.


“We wanted him to cut harder, take better shots on the offensive side of the basketball and defensively, exert some energy because I think he has a chance to be a very complete basketball player and make his teammates better,” Johnson said.


Johnson let Thornton know that right off the bat and even told him that the transition will likely have some bumps in the road. But if he and his teammates bought into the new way of doing things then the results would be different from the previous year when LSU finished 13-18.


“Basically, he was telling me about the transition and how a little adversity may set in, but as a team we can get together and overcome anything,” said Thornton. “We had numerous conversations about the same thing how he was going to come in and bring his system in, and if we buy into it then we’ll win games.”


The Tigers are winning and although the schedule has been much less difficult than a year ago they enter Wednesday’s matchup with Nicholls State undefeated at 7-0.


Part of the equation to LSU’s success has been the play of Thornton, who leads the Tigers in scoring at 17.3 points a game and is eighth in the SEC in field goal percentage, knocking down 46-of-92 shots on the year.  


Thornton is quick to point out that Johnson gets some of the credit for his scoring output because unlike last year he’s no longer a one-man show.


Through seven games last season, Thornton had taken 105 shots and hit 47 of them for just under 45 percent. Out of those shots from the field, 52 were from behind the arc and he nailed 20.


This season, he’s taken 13 fewer shots from the floor overall and 16 fewer from 3-point land.


“Really it’s plain and simple,” Thornton said. “If you run it [system] you get open shots and open looks, and you get your teammates involved. As a team, that’s what we need to do to win games is play team ball with each other.”


Thornton has gone inside and attacked the basket more than he did a year ago, and his shot selection has improved according to Johnson.


Another area that he had to improve on if he was going to see significant action for Johnson was on the defensive end. Johnson stated from the very beginning that Thornton would have to work on that facet of his game and the work has paid off.


“It’s my senior year and he [Johnson] prides himself on defense so I just try sell out to what he’s saying and just do everything possible to help him win and to help our team win,” Thornton said. “My team needs me to play more defense, so that’s what I’m trying to do.”


The coaches recognize that Thornton is putting more into playing defense as well as his teammates.


“Defensively, it’s been in him because he’s so physically gifted,” said Garrett Temple. “He’s so quick and strong, and he can be the best defender in the SEC, I believe. It just took coach Johnson to get it out of him.”


Before Johnson even begun to stress the fundamentals of basketball to Thornton, however, there was something more pressing that needed to be addressed.


Thornton had always placed a larger emphasis on basketball over academics. But before a young man can succeed on Johnson’s basketball team he must first take care of business in the classroom.


After starting out the school year “kind of sluggish” as Thornton put it, he now has a different mindset towards hitting the books.


“It’s getting down to crunch time now and I’m getting closed to graduating and that’s one of everybody’s goals is to graduate from college,” he said. “I know my mom and family would be proud of me so I think about that when I’m taking tests and in class. That’s the main goal is to graduate because basketball is going to play out after a while and I can have a degree to fall back on.”


Temple said that he sees a lot of changes in Thornton from last season to now, on and off the court, which will help him long after his days at LSU have ended.


“He probably has as good a chance as any to be in the NBA, but he also realizes that basketball is going to come to an end and he’s going to have a degree to fall back on which is what people will be very proud of,” said Temple. “I see a lot of maturity in this short period of time from last year to now.”


In today’s day and age of college athletics, getting wins and building a program are vital to a coach’s success.


However, sometimes the victories off the court mean just as much to a coach.


It’s early, but if Thornton continues on the same path then he and Johnson will both be victors.  

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