Sindarius Thornwell made a surprising request before the Clippers played their first Summer League game here Friday against the Lakers.
Thornwell, drafted 48th by the Clippers after he capped his four-year career at South Carolina by leading the Gamecocks to their first NCAA Final Four appearance, wanted the responsibility of defending Lakers forward Brandon Ingram, the best and most experienced player on the Lakers' summer squad. Knowing that Thornwell sought a tough assignment in his first game in a Clippers uniform gave Sam Cassell, their Summer League coach, considerable insight into the 6-foot-5 guard's fearless mind-set.
"You don't ask to guard the best player on the opposite team. He asked for the challenge," Cassell said. "To see him go out there and put forth the effort and take on the challenge to guard a guy like Ingram was huge. So that is good."
Ingram and Thornwell tied for scoring honors that night with 26 points each, but Thornwell won raves for his aggressiveness — he shot 18 free throws — and for his determination on defense in 32 minutes' work. After playing only about 18 minutes in a rout of the Utah Jazz on Sunday he came back with another strong effort Monday, playing more than 27 minutes and adding to his resume an 18-point, five-rebound, two-steal performance in the Clippers' 100-93 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks at Cox Pavilion.
"The pitbull," Cassell called Thornwell on Monday, after the Clippers completed their third straight come-from-behind victory in Summer League play. "He's vicious."
Thornwell took that as high praise. "I like that," he said. "I'm aggressive. I'm not waiting for anybody to attack me. I'm going to attack them."
Thornwell, voted the Southeastern Conference player of the year as a senior, was the first South Carolina player since 2006 to be an NBA draft pick. His good ballhandling skills are complemented by his ability to create space with his physicality. He averaged 21.4 points, 7.2 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game as a senior but missed six games after being suspended for an unspecified violation of team policy. The Gamecocks were 7-0 before his suspension and 3-3 without him. He returned in time for SEC play and had a key role in their run to the Final Four as they beat Marquette, Duke, Baylor and Florida before they lost to Gonzaga. His performances raised his profile before the NBA draft and made him attractive to the Clippers, who bought the 48th pick from Milwaukee for cash.
"He embraces contact. When you get to the free-throw line 18 times, you have to embrace contact," said Lawrence Frank, the Clippers' executive vice president of basketball operations.
But that's only part of what he can do.
"He can score. But what I like more about him is his toughness," said coach Doc Rivers, who sees Thornwell as a shooting guard or small forward. "He can defend. He's a scoring defensive guard, he can play the two and the three. He's probably a tweener, so he can do both. His in-between game is amazing. And he makes threes. When you see them, they don't look good but they go in."
That's all that matters.
"He has a very good feel for the game," Frank said. "He's not necessarily a knock-down shooter but he just knows how to play the game, and that toughness and that competitiveness, I thought that's what stood out to me. He embraced trying to guard Brandon Ingram, who's one of the better young players in the league, and that's what you love. You embrace someone who just kind of embraces competition."
Thornwell said he volunteered to guard Ingram in game against the Lakers not because it was Ingram but because he likes that role. "I've always guarded the best wing throughout college and so I felt like I should have been on him," Thornwell said. "When he got going, that's when I stepped up and took the challenge. It was good."
Thornwell hit only seven of 16 shots Monday but made several timely plays and hit the layup that put the Clippers ahead for good at 77-75 early in the fourth quarter. Montrezl Harrell led the Clippers with 21 points and Jamil Wilson scored 18 off the bench.