Over the weeks leading up to the 2017 NBA draft, we'll be making cases for the Sixers to draft several prospects. Our series will kick off with options at No. 3 (or trade ups/downs) followed by second-round possibilities. The 2017 NBA draft will take place on June 22 at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York.
School: South Carolina
It was a March (and April) to remember for Thornwell. After South Carolina's perfect 8-0 start came to an end in mid-December, Thornwell spent much of his senior season in relative obscurity — playing in a weak Southeastern Conference, the Gamecocks faced top-25 opposition just three times between December and the start of the NCAA Tournament.
Off the radar, however, Thornwell set career highs in nearly every category. He averaged 21.4 points, 7.1 rebounds, 2.1 steals and shot 44.4 percent from the field en route to SEC Player of the Year honors, and when March Madness came around, the South Carolina star was a big reason why the Gamecocks made their first trip in program history to the Final Four.
With consistent offense and the skill set of a tenacious defender — he was named to the conference's all-defensive team each of his last two seasons — Thornwell could fill a pair of roles the Sixers desperately need. But will they take him with one of their four second-round selections?
The case for Thornwell
Although the offensive numbers are certainly gaudy, the first thing you notice when watching Thornwell is his incredible ferocity on the defensive end. The guy might not be the fastest on the floor — Thornwell ranked fifth-to-last in the three-quarter spring and in the middle of the pack in the shuttle run among guards at the NBA Scouting Combine, respectively — but he can stick with pretty much any guard in the country.
I watched him absolutely smother Duke guard Luke Kennard as South Carolina's zone forced 18 turnovers in the second-round upset of the Blue Devils. And for the season, Thornwell led the Gamecocks in steals and finished second in blocks, despite his smaller stature. Last season, the Sixers had just two players among the NBA's top 145 in defensive win shares.
All the while, Thornwell scored and scored and then scored some more. He improved as a shooter in each of his four seasons, both from the field and at the charity stripe, and set a career high with 44 points in a four-overtime thriller vs. Alabama in February. Excluding Jerryd Bayless, the Sixers didn't have a single guard last season average double-figure points and your team leader? Nik Stauskas, with a meager 9.5 points per night.
And although most second-rounders are still developmental prospects, Thornwell is experienced. He was a four-year starter at South Carolina and at 22 years old and seven months, the Lancaster, South Carolina, native is one of the oldest players in this year's draft class. For teams looking to fill the end of their bench with a battle-tested player, Thornwell could be a strong choice.
The case against Thornwell
Despite what we've seen from him defensively, it's fair to question whether Thornwell's defensive skills will translate to the NBA. He wasn't all that quick in college and at the pro level, opponents are going to only get bigger, faster and stronger. And that same lack of speed could impact him on the offensive end — Thornwell loves to drive right at the rim.
His game also doesn't totally align with the NBA style. Thornwell does well in transition (especially when he steals the ball right out of your hands) but struggles going one-on-one from beyond the three-point arc. Although he could very well excel as a defensive stopper, the Sixers really need to find consistent offense from the guard spot.
To that point, his ball-handling skills still need improvement and with an awkward shot that features a lot of side spin, defenders will have a bit of advantage on Thornwell. Certainly, these can all be improved but there are also plenty of second-round options that would provide Brett Brown's team with a higher upside.
The Sixers will have plenty of options at pick No. 3 and ultimately, that could impact the direction in which they go when they go back on the clock, starting at 36. If it's Josh Jackson or Jayson Tatum in the first round, expect them to choose at least two true backcourt players in the second round. If it's De'Aaron Fox, Malik Monk or Lonzo Ball, it could be fewer.
Either way, Bryan Colangelo needs to give his coach some new weapons at the guard spot. Thornwell could clearly fill at least two roles — one offensive, the other defensive — but with plenty of versatile guards available in the second round, the Sixers could look in the direction of someone younger such as Duke's Frank Jackson or Thornwell's former Gamecock teammate P.J. Dozier, as projected in DraftExpress' most recent mock draft.
It's possible we've seen Thornwell at his peak, but there also might be more to see here.