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Jump-starting His Career

Clippers rookie Al Thornton is able to leap tall players in a single bound, and the first-round pick could play key role with Brand out

October 16, 2007|Jonathan Abrams | Times Staff Writer

Technically, Al Thornton's high-jump personal best is 6 feet 10 inches, set as a track and field athlete at Georgia's Perry High.

But unofficially, he eclipsed that mark playing basketball for Florida State when he leaped over 6-11 Wisconsin center Brian Butch for a dunk, a la Vince Carter in the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

"I actually just wanted to lay it up, but it would have been a charge," said Thornton, 23. "I tried my best to clear him and that's what happened."

It's that type of eye-popping athleticism that has created a training-camp buzz around Thornton, the Clippers' first-round selection and 14th overall pick in this year's draft.

So far, in three exhibition games the 6-8, 220-pound forward is averaging 17 points, eight rebounds and shooting 49% from the field. And with Elton Brand out for months because of an Achilles' injury, Thornton should get a lot of playing time this season.

Flashiness wasn't the part of Thornton's game that first caught fellow Florida State product Sam Cassell's eye. "He can jump. Everyone knows that, so it's secondary," Cassell said. "He knows how to get his shot off. That's the most impressive thing -- that he's making a lot of tough shots."

But for some missed points here or there, Thornton wouldn't be a pogo-stick leaper awaiting his debut NBA season.

Not basketball points. SAT points.

As a skinny teenager, Thornton wrestled with the idea of playing professionally for a fringe basketball league rather than attending college. "I really started thinking college wasn't for me," he said. "I thought that maybe I should do something where I could get paid."

While awaiting his SAT results, he played an exhibition game against And1 players. Afterward, a representative offered to sign Thornton to the team.

His parents, Alford and Philomenia Thornton, wanted none of it. "I was not going to let my baby go on the road with And1," his mother said. "He needed to go to college."

Still, Thornton told And1 that if his SAT results weren't good enough for college, they had themselves a player.

Then his test scores came. He qualified for college.

Does Thornton's mother recall the date? "Dec. 22, 2002," she said, without missing a beat. "That boy screamed. He jumped. He ran to his bed and leaped a couple of times. We had a very good Christmas that year."

He redshirted his freshman year at Florida State, then worked to hone his craft, each year improving a different facet of his game. Conditioning. Weight lifting. Ball-handling.

"He's a gym rat," Florida State Coach Leonard Hamilton said. "In four years, he never had a bad-effort game or practice. There are very few youngsters you can say that about."

Thornton, who nearly accepted a track scholarship from Georgia, became known for his jumping ability.

After scoring 37 points in a loss to Duke his junior season, Blue Devils Coach Mike Krzyzewski labeled Thornton "one of the best players in the country."

Said Thornton: "I started playing the game how I practiced. That's what made the biggest difference."

Thornton also popped out of his social shell. In Perry, an hour outside Atlanta with a population of about 10,000, everyone knew him as a bashful kid.

Tallahassee was a much bigger city and, at first, he shrunk from the big-man-on-campus persona his court play created. Then he took a public speaking class. His shyness fell as he became more at ease.

And his parents tailed him, routinely making the three-hour drive for games. Philomenia missed only one home game. "I was thinking of him as my baby and going to college and worrying about that, but after seeing him play, it was like, 'Wow, my boy is good,' " she said.

Thornton contemplated the NBA draft after his junior year but returned to school to boost his status. His numbers improved, as they had every year, and as a senior he led the Atlantic Coast Conference in scoring (19.7 points a game) and tied for seventh in rebounding (7.2).

He was knocked for being a bad passer -- Thornton averaged less than one assist a game his senior year. "I think it would have been foolish for me to have him spending all his time passing the ball," Hamilton said. "He's a more than adequate passer. There is only criticism because people haven't seen him pass too much."

The Clippers tracked him as a top-10 pick and didn't bother bringing him in for a workout. Coach Mike Dunleavy called Thornton before the draft, telling him that if he dropped, the Clippers would scoop him up.

"I prayed he'd be on the board at 14," said Dunleavy, who thought Thornton would go either No. 8 to Charlotte or No. 12 to Philadelphia.

At training camp in Santa Barbara, Dunleavy said the rookie did something spectacular every day. General Manager Elgin Baylor labeled him already the team's second-best finisher behind Corey Maggette, and Maggette himself said Thornton was full of "abracadabra plays."

"I just really have a desire to be perfect," Thornton said. "I know that's impossible. But I want to chase it anyway. That's what drives me."


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