After cutting his high school career a year short to get to Duke early, freshman Derryck Thornton now is in no rush to leave the Blue Devils.
“We’re in no hurry for him to be a one-and-done kid or anything like that,” his father, Tank Thornton said of Duke’s newest point guard.
At one point, Thornton and his dad had talked to coach Mike Krzyzewski about Thornton redshirting his first season on campus. Derryck thought he could use that time to learn and then “destroy” everyone in his first season on the court, Tank said. But that was when Tyus Jones, last season’s freshman point guard, still was on Duke’s roster.
Once the Blue Devils won the 2015 national championship and Jones declared for the NBA draft, that idea was pushed aside. Thornton, a high school junior last spring who was considered one of the top point guards in his class, was good enough, the Duke staff told him, to help the team this fall. Without him, the Blue Devils would have had to play without a true point guard.
“They just told me how much confidence they had in me and how they felt I was ready to run the team this year,” Thornton said of Duke’s message to him. “ Once (Jones) left, it showed me the freedom I could have and how much openness there would be for me this year.”
Before he reclassified, Thornton was ranked No. 11 overall in the Class of 2016 by ESPN. He ended up ranked the 17th-best player in the 2015 class, and the Blue Devils are especially excited about his abilities on the defensive end of the floor.
And because he repeated third grade for reasons unrelated to athletics, Thornton is 18, the age of most freshmen. Freshmen Chase Jeter and Brandon Ingram both are younger than he is despite spending four years in high school.
Most high school juniors are not in a position to graduate in three years and qualify at an NCAA Division I school. But Thornton didn’t go to a typical high school.
Findlay Prep, his alma mater in Henderson, Nev., is a boarding school composed only of the members of the school’s basketball team (last season, there were 11 of them).
They attend classes at Henderson International School, about 20 miles from Las Vegas. The school has about 400 students in its pre-K through eighth-grade levels, according to Findlay Prep coach Andy Johnson.
Its high school is made up entirely of the basketball team, which lives in two dorms about five minutes from campus.
Notable alumni include 2015 NBA first-round picks Rashad Vaughn (Nevada-Las Vegas) and Kelly Oubre (Kansas) and 2013 No. 1 overall pick Anthony Bennett (UNLV). Arizona freshman Allonzo Trier was the other five-star player on Thornton’s team.
Unlike Thornton, it takes most players four years to graduate.
“Our goal here, that we strive for every year, is for our guys to go into college as sophomores and not freshmen, where they are getting college-level practices, getting weights every day, going on the road playing top competition every game, living away from their families and homes, making that transition,” Johnson said. “So when they go into college, they’ve kind of already done college, their freshman year, at the high school level.”
The curriculum at Findlay calls for only NCAA core classes: English, math, natural, physical and social science classes (foreign languages count, too). NCAA athletes must take 16 core classes in high school to qualify to play at the Division I level, and maintain at least a 2.0 GPA and possibly higher, depending on their SAT/ACT scores:
▪ Four years’ worth of English
▪ Three years of math at the algebra 1 level or higher
▪ Two years of natural/physical science
▪ An additional year of one of the above categories
▪ Two years of social science
▪ Four additional years of English, math, natural/physical science, social science, foreign language, comparative religion or philosophy
Thornton transferred to Findlay Prep in 2013 after his freshman year at the more traditional Sierra Canyon High, a private school outside of Los Angeles. After that year and two years at Findlay not wasting time with electives, Thornton was in a position to finish his core classes this past summer after his junior year and join a high-level college basketball program this fall.
Louisville was the first to pitch Thornton on the idea of graduating early. Duke pitched the idea, too, though he was leaning toward staying at Findlay and graduating in 2016. Once Jones declared for the draft, however, the Blue Devils had no traditional point guards on the roster.
Krzyzewski and assistant coach Jon Scheyer again made the pitch to Thornton about coming to Duke early. After an April in-home visit, Thornton agreed he was ready to play in college and would learn best by jumping into the action on the floor instead of redshirting and watching from the sidelines.
Tank Thornton was quick, though, to distinguish that his son wasn’t attempting to fill the point guard hole on Duke’s roster by Jones’ departure and Quinn Cook’s graduation.
“That’s an impossible void to fill,” Tank Thornton said. “You’ve got one four-year guy who had been there under Coach K and was the leader of that team. There’s no way a 17- or 18-year-old kid is going to come in and do what Quinn Cook did for the team, let alone Tyus Jones, who was a one-and-done player.”
Getting a late start
Thornton’s arrival to campus was about as different as possible from that of Jones.
Before arriving at Duke at the beginning of July 2014, Jones had spent years playing USA Basketball with fellow freshmen Jahlil Okafor and Justise Winslow, building a relationship that would fast-track Duke’s development as a team last season and ultimately lead to the national title.
He’s got to catch up in the fact that he wasn’t here during the summer.
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski on Derryck Thornton
Thornton, on the other hand, had to finish high school classes. So he didn’t get to Durham until Aug. 17.
Working out at Impact Basketball in Las Vegas with NBA players such as DeMarcus Cousins, Kyle Lowry and Tayshaun Prince helped prepare Thornton physically, but there was no way to simulate the development of on-court chemistry with his future teammates.
“Yeah, definitely, that was tough,” Thornton said of missing out on watching the team start to develop relationships without him.
At times in the preseason, it was obvious to his Duke teammates and coaches that Thornton had come in later than everyone else.
“He’s got to catch up in the fact that he wasn’t here during the summer,” Krzyzewski said Oct 2, the first official day of practice. “He is. And he is a point guard, and a good one.”
A few weeks later, after Duke’s Oct. 17 scrimmage at its version of midnight madness, Krzyzewski again reiterated patience with the process for Thornton.
“The physicality of the defense is difficult for a freshman to adjust to, and it just takes some time,” he said. “But Derrick is really good, and he’ll be fine.”
Thornton might not start from day one, but he and his father have never been in a hurry.
“He’ll go through some bumps and bruises and some growing pains,” Tank Thornton said. “But he’s going to learn.”
And he’s not expecting to master it all in just one year.