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The Knicks Wall

2017 NBA Draft Preview

Sindarius Thornwell: The Enforcer the Knicks Need

Defense has been the Achilles’ heel for the Knicks for far too long. It’s time to change the culture.

Photo: Anthony Corbo/TKW Illustration

Contrary to popular belief, the NBA Draft goes deeper than the lottery. It’s easy to get swept up in the hype of the top prospects, but the talent extends well beyond the first 14 picks–especially in the upcoming 2017 draft. The bad teams tend to treat the second round like it’s optional. The great teams use it to hunt for diamonds in the rough.

Paul Millsap, Manu Ginobili, Draymond Green, Nikola Jokic, and Marc Gasol were all plucked from the abyss that is the second round. Hell, Isaiah Thomas went last in 2011, and he’s been the best player on a top five team this season.

To have success picking in the second round, the scouting department must be on its game. Round number two can be a golden opportunity to build on weaknesses at a discount. The Knicks have seen what talent exists in the second round thanks to the success of Willy Hernangómez. This year, they have two second-round picks (44th and 58th overall). With those two picks, the Knicks should have one thing on their mind: defense.

Last season the Knicks’ offense was solid-ish, but the defense was a glorified EZ-Pass toll booth. The team sported an abysmal 108.7 defensive rating, good for 25th in the league. A lion’s share of those points came off second chance opportunities, a category they ranked dead last in, per NBA.com/Stats.

Photo: Steve Helber/AP

Few prospects flexed their defensive chops last season like South Carolina’s Sindarius Thornwell. The 22-year-old is a four-year player and was the initial building block in a now rising South Carolina program built by head coach Frank Martin. Thornwell’s senior season featured SEC Player of the Year honors, as well as South Carolina’s first Final Four appearance ever. Their calling card for that Cinderella run? Defense.

The exclamation point on his fantastic senior year is not just the production, but the progression. Take a look.

via Sports-Reference.com

Check out the sharp improvement on offense. Up until his senior season, Thornwell did not shoot particularly well from the field and he was a roller coaster shooting beyond the arc. He rarely gets lift on his jumper, which is okay if you’re Paul Pierce, but he’s not. That’s a good reason a majority of his highlights are him banging in the paint and getting to the free-throw line.

Thornwell was much more assertive during his senior campaign. He averaged more attempts across the board and shot his best percentages. Despite the improvement, offense will never be his calling card in the NBA. He will be drafted for his defense, which also steadily improved.

via Sports-Reference.com

Frank Martin had a ringing endorsement about his former player’s defensive I.Q.:

“Sin’s just — I haven’t had a guy that completely understands everything that we do since I’ve had Jacob Pullen at K-State — the way Sin understands. He knows every defensive concept from all five spots. I don’t have to practice him at the 5. If I told him to play center, he’d understand everything he’s supposed to do at the center spot.” (via SEC Country)

It’s much easier to explain the steady improvement in defensive efficiency after reading that. Not only did he improve his defensive rating from 105.9 as a freshman to a stout 88.8 by graduation, but his defensive rebound percentage took a quantum leap too. In his first three seasons, his defensive rebound percentage hovered around 12 percent. Last season it shot up to 16.1 percent, per Sports-Reference.

Thornwell is well aware of what his role will be. Here is what he had to say to USA Today:

“I’m not a lottery pick, but I feel like I’m a lottery player,” Thornwell said. “I’m a glue guy. I can come in right away and produce on both ends of the court, but most importantly, the defensive end.”

The “enforcer” role in the league is shifting. It’s fitting he looks like Wee-Bey Brice, one of the classic enforcers from HBO’s The Wire. (If the Knicks were to select Thornwell, I would only refer to him as Wee-Bey.) There are still big men who check you (hello, David West), but when I think of enforcer I think of Tony Allen or Marcus Smart. The tough minded perimeter guys who are not afraid to bang down low have overtaken the title.

Smart completely influenced a Boston Celtics Game 7 victory against the Washington Wizards by, quite simply, being a pain in the ass. He fought for boards, pestered guys on the perimeter, and even knocked down some clutch shots.

Thornwell’s game fits that style. In his NCAA tourney game against Duke, he did a great Marcus Smart impersonation in leading the Gamecocks to victory. To me, the tournament is the greatest litmus test for a prospect. The tournament gives us the best preview of what a player looks like playing top talent in short periods of time. In the tourney, South Carolina thrived, and Thornwell was right in the middle of it:

He did whatever he wanted down low, grabbed boards away from bigs, and scored inside. South Carolina actually trailed in this game, but dominated the second half en route to a 65–51 win:

In the Elite Eight matchup against SEC rival Florida, a game held at Madison Square Garden, Thornwell had himself a game. He totaled 26 points as he had a hot hand from outside, but once again his presence in the paint and perimeter were the biggest skill of his that stuck out.

As mentioned earlier, the Knicks struggled with defensive rebounding last season. They also struggled closing out on the perimeter. With someone like Thornwell, that becomes much less of an issue.

The popular comparison coming up recently has been Malcolm Brogdon of the Milwaukee Bucks. Brogdon was a second round pick who ended up playing a major role as a combo guard. Like Brogdon, Thornwell can play both guard positions, standing at a sizable 6'5".

ESPN’s Fran Fraschilla made the Brogdon comparison, and you can’t say he’s off with this assessment:

“People are going to love Sindarius’ toughness and his versatility, and so that’s what he’s got going for him,” Fraschilla said. “He’ll just have to prove he can guard a little bit quicker type of NBA athlete in the backcourt or at the wing spot.”

Thanks to Brogdon’s versatility, the Bucks were able to survive not having a legitimate point guard all season. The Knicks will likely address their point guard need at eighth overall with Dennis Smith, Jr., Frank Ntilikina, possibly or Malik Monk. If the pick is not Ntilikina, the addressing the defense should become an even larger priority. Ideally, Thronwell would start with the second unit and form a pesky backcourt tandem with Ron Baker. His versatility could get him even more floor time, especially late in games when the team is in need of a stop.

A lot of the games the Knicks lost happened because of their defensive deficiencies. Too many switches were made late and too many open shooters spaced the floor. Given what we seen and heard from Thornwell, he could start to solidify the solution to that problem.

Whatever he gives Jeff Hornacek and the team on offense would be a plus. If the Knicks decide to bring Thornwell in, it will be to toughen up a unit that has played, as only Clyde Frazier could say, “Swiss Cheese Defense” for far too long.

Mike Cortez, staff writer

Follow The Knicks Wall on Facebook and Twitter for more coverage of the team, and listen to the TKW Podcast on SoundCloud! For more information on prospects in the draft, check out the site’s tagged 2017 NBA Draft. This week’s coverage? The Gamecock above, a Finn, and a Bear.

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