Sophomore guard Marcus Thornton can make amazing basketball feats seem almost effortless. A devastating crossover, a wild finish at the rim and even a contested three are all followed by the same emotionless look that makes a spectator wonder – is he even breaking a sweat?
Of course, it’s never effortless. Thornton’s ability to make things look so casual is as deceptive as the seemingly disinterested expression he wears while playing. Anybody who knows him will tell you that it’s been anything but easy. Not because of a lack of tools — Thornton has talent in spades — but because the work he puts in to improve is very, very hard. And the detached look on the court? He’s anything but detached, hiding a level of competitive fire and confidence that so many of the best have.
“He obviously had explosiveness that a lot of kids don’t have in high school,” William and Mary head coach Tony Shaver said, reflecting on recruiting Thornton during his junior and senior year at Bishop McNamara High School in Forstville, Md. “But what he really had was a work ethic that a lot of kids don’t have in high school. He loves the game, and his summers and off the court time was really spent getting better at basketball.”
Since getting to college, none of that has changed. Thornton spent last summer working with D.C.-based trainers Keith Williams and Brian Inge, former college standouts whose former clients include the likes of the Oklahoma City Thunder’s Kevin Durant and the Sacramento Kings’ DeMarcus Cousins.
“The workout over the summer is very rigorous,” Thornton said. “I basically go two sessions a day. … It’s just about repetition, getting better every day little by little. … I feel like repetition is the main key thing to getting better.”
So far, the work appears to be paying off. As a sophomore, Thornton is putting up numbers you’d expect to see from a senior. He’s the second-leading scorer in the Colonial Athletic Association, averaging 18.6 points per game. He leads the league in three-pointers made and three-point percentage at 43.6 percent, and he is tied with senior guard Matt Rum for eleventh in assists per game. He recently scored a career-high 32 points at Old Dominion.
But this shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to those who followed Thornton at McNamara. He was a late bloomer of sorts, playing on the freshman team his first year and junior varsity as a sophomore before finally reaching varsity as a junior. But by graduation he was a star, averaging 23.4 points during his senior season and winning the Maryland Gatorade Player of the Year award.
How a player like Thornton wound up at the College, whose basketball program is not known for landing blue chip talent, was as much a result of loyalty as anything else. The College showed interest early, making Thornton feel like a priority when other teams had less committed attitudes. With offers from Delaware, Old Dominion, Mt. St. Mary’s and Holy Cross (as well as a brief offer from Richmond that was later rescinded), Thornton signed a letter of intent to the College before his senior season. Even though he had already committed, it was hard for bigger programs not to take notice when the worry-free senior began to dominate the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference. Rumors started to swirl that he could find a way out of his commitment and jump to a power-six conference team.
“It was just something I heard because I had officially signed, so I didn’t know if there was much to do anyway,” Thornton said. “But being a high schooler and hearing I could go higher [than the CAA] definitely sparked my interest a little bit, but I didn’t give it much thought. It was a credit to William and Mary. I wasn’t upset about signing because they recognized it early, and I appreciated that. They spent the time to get to know me and I just thought of it like, ‘Well, other schools lost out [for] taking so long to figure it out.’”
Once with the Tribe, the adjustment to college-level basketball wasn’t easy for Thornton. Besides dealing with a higher level of physicality and talent, he had to figure out his role in the Tribe’s motion offense. Thornton can break most defenders down with his quickness and explosive first step, but the offense doesn’t lend itself to as much one-on-one play. Completely buying in to the system was a challenge, and his freshman year — while showing off his incredible talent — was plagued by inconsistency.
This season, a lot has changed for Thornton, both in terms of attitude and consistency. The star guard hasn’t scored fewer than 10 points in any of the Tribe’s 27 games.
“His attitude’s gotten a whole lot better … toward the game, toward the team,” junior guard Brandon Britt said. “Defensively he’s gotten a lot better, and the way he just approaches things … he’s progressed a lot from last year.”
At the behest of coaches, Thornton’s quiet on-court demeanor has begun to abate as well. He’s more vocal now, especially on the defensive end, but he is still more of a silent leader than anything.
Standing in stark contrast to that is his personality on Twitter. Thornton is an incessant tweeter and the unofficial all-time school record-holder in tweets sent, totaling 94,086 as of press time. He says almost everyone in his hometown of Upper Marlboro, Md., and at his high school has a Twitter and that he was surprised to find out it wasn’t as ubiquitous here at the College.
“He loves Twitter… it’s like a hobby with him,” Britt said with a laugh. “He stays with that phone.”
Thornton says he’s like your average college student. He enjoys going to parties on occasion and hanging out with friends. But it’s easy to tell from talking to him that his focus is basketball.
Even on the court, rather than celebrating or lamenting what just happened, it seems like Thornton’s always thinking about the next play.
He’s one of the best in the league and only a sophomore, so really, everyone is wondering the same thing: What’s next?