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Unsung hero, at last

The list of things that have gone right for Michigan State so far this basketball season is a long one (look at ALL THAT GREEN). Nearly every player in the rotation has met, if not exceeded expectations, and received corresponding praise by the media and fanbase. Perhaps overlooked in the early success have been the contributions of one Austin Thornton.

Over the last couple years, I've been skeptical about Thornton's potential to be a regular positive factor on the court (despite my wife's affection for him, and walk-ons generally). While no one could question Thornton's effort level, his proclivity to turn the ball over on offense and foul excessively on defense, to me, signaled a fundamental problem in terms of matching up physically with good Division 1 competition. On top of that, he's never been able to show any of the shooting ability that defined his (very, very good) high school career.

So, entering his fifth season in the MSU program, I expected that, if anything, his playing time would decrease, as players like Russell Byrd and Brandan Kearney emerged as alternatives off the bench. To the contrary, however, Thornton has earned a regular spot in the rotation as one of the first options off the bench, playing between 12 and 24 minutes in every game but one (the Florida State game).

A look at Thornton's major tempo-free indicators over the last three seasons is after the jump.

2009-10 2010-11 2011-12
Minute % 13.1 27.3 42.1

Offensive Rating 83.7 92.8 107.9
Possession % 14.7 14.3 14.2
2-Point % 38.7 45.0 42.1
3-Point % 20.0 19.4 22.2
Free Throw Rate 9.8 21.1 81.1
Free Throw % 100.0 93.3 86.7
Assist Rate 8.8 11.5 11.9
Turnover % 27.1 23.4 22.2
Off Reb % 8.6 9.0 6.8

Def Reb % 12.3 13.0 16.3
Steal % 0.9 0.8 2.7
Fouls Created/40 6.8 4.9 3.2

Thornton remains a limited part of the offense, but he's been much more efficient with the possessions he does consume. This hasn't been a function of improved field goal shooting (although those numbers have improved of late--he's shot 4-8 from beyond the arc over the last 7 games). Rather, he's found ways to take advantage of his stellar free throw shooting ability, getting to the line at a higher rate than anyone else on the team (just ahead of Adreian Payne). Meanwhile, his ball-handling numbers haven't been stellar, but they've been acceptable.

The frequency with which he gets fouled is almost certain to decline in Big Ten play--a number of the fouls to date have been in loose ball situations where Thornton just beat his man to the ball. And he's only scored a total of 2 points in MSU's 5 games vs. quality opponents. But, overall, Thornton is making some strides on offense.

It's on defense where the improvement has really been sizable. Thornton has managed to do two things that are normally at odds with one another--dramatically increasing his steal rate while dramatically reducing the frequency with which he fouls. (And that's not just a function of weaker nonconference opponents--he has 4 steals and 4 fouls in the 5 games vs. quality opponents.) Plus he's bumped his already impressive defensive rebounding numbers up a bit.

In short, Thornton has been able to position himself in the role traditionally reserved for walk-ons at MSU: defensive stopper (Tim Bograkos, Matt Trannon, Mike Kebler). And he's showing versatility in that role. Wednesday night, Tom Izzo put him in the 4 spot for several key possessions in the second half, and he held an otherwise very hot Christian Watford scoreless.

It's been a long road to get here, but the preferred walk-on spot Izzo gave to Thornton four-plus years ago--and the work Thornton has put in over that time to improve his game--is paying significant dividends now.