Senior Duke guard Tyler Thornton may be the most annoying player in the ACC, and that’s a compliment. He’s a tough defender and a player who routinely gets under the skin of his opponents and harasses them to the point of blackout, undirected, frenzied play; this is the type of basketball that costs teams critical possessions to the point of losing games. Players lose their head when he guards them, but only when he can stay on the court with his persistent rough defense. Duke fans often bemoan his defense and call fouling his forte, yet Thornton pesters opposing players and forces critical turnovers, badgering teams into ill-advised passes or shots because of his denial defense rendering Blue Devil fans’ concerns moot.
However, his offense is inconsistent and he’ll go games without scoring until hitting a three in a critical situation. Before Austin Rivers hit his buzzer-beating three against North Carolina in 2012, Thornton had started the comeback with a corner bomb with only a couple minutes remaining. In the Maui Invitational tournament final against Kansas in November 2011, Thornton hit two critical threes late in the shotclock to help Duke hang on and win.
Teams don’t have to game plan for him like they do for Andre Dawkins and his known penchant for hitting 25 foot shots, but Thornton is the most obnoxious guy on the court in those late-game, stressful situations when he inevitably comes up with a soul-crushing three-pointer. Offense is far from his strength, but there he is late in games, coming up with winning plays.
Coach Mike Krzyzewski loves winners, and Thornton is a winner. Coach K loves tough guards, and Thornton is one of the toughest guys on the court. His freshman year, he drew the assignment of guarding North Carolina forward Harrison Barnes. While Barnes had roughly a half foot advantage on the 6-foot-1 guard, he still struggled with his shot enough to allow Duke to win against their hated rivals.
Thornton’s rough-and-tumble defense is being punished this season with the new emphasis on calling fouls and reducing overly-physical play. It’s cost him minutes — but not his starting spot — and if Rasheed Sulaimon can regain his freshman form, his role could dwindle even further. But for the most irritating defender in the ACC, there will always be a role. Defense wins championships, and sometimes, it’s the greatest pest who leads the defensive last stand.