There's no question Draymond Green is the leader of this team. Everyone and their grandmother knows that.
But there was a moment against Purdue that stuck out. After a whistle, the five Spartans were huddled around on the court — and Green wasn't saying a word. Instead, Austin Thornton was talking to each player, and Green was deferring to his fellow senior. Green has been the outspoken leader of the team, but Thornton has been right there as another important leader.
Given that this is Thornton's fifth year in the program, the former walk-on guard has seen it all and earned respect. And recently, his on-court play is matching up with off-court leadership. Coming off a career-high 17 points at Purdue, Thornton has hit multiple shots in three of the last four games, and Tom Izzo is starting to run plays for him.
Thornton passed up scholarship opportunities to walk-on at MSU in 2007. A big reason he chose MSU was to stay close to his son, born in 2006 (please read that story). Tom Izzo gave out three scholarships to guards in the 2007 recruiting class — Kalin Lucas, Durrell Summers and Chris Allen — leaving Thornton and Mike Kebler as walk-on players, and little room for playing time.
But when Maurice Joseph transferred in the summer of 2007, Thornton was given a scholarship — temporarily. He redshirted in 2007-08, and Kebler won MSU's walk-on award, although he only played nine games. Thornton went back to walk-on status for the 2008-09 season.
In the summer of 2009, both Thornton and Kebler were awarded scholarships. Toward the end of the 2009-10 season, Kebler found a niche (and playing time) as a defensive stopper, but Thornton averaged less than six minutes per game. While they didn't get much playing time, don't say the pair weren't a vital part of the back-to-back Final Four runs. Izzo will be the first to tell you his tournament-successful teams have had great scout teams. Still, there wasn't much playing time in games.
With the dismissal of Allen before the 2010-11 season and suspension and transfer of Korie Lucious in January 2011, Kebler once again answered the call, starting the final nine games of the season and adding a little bit of offense to his defensive role. Thornton started to see more playing time during the season, averaging 11.1 minutes per game, but he couldn't make a shot — which was supposed to be his niche. On the season, Thornton shot 34 percent (24-for-71) and just 19 percent (6-for-31) from three-point range. He had no confidence when the ball was in his hands. Kebler was defensive stopper, and Thornton was a shooter. Except he couldn't shoot.
He was set to graduate in May, and some wondered if his basketball career at MSU was over despite another year of eligibility remaining. It wasn't over. Thornton was guaranteed a scholarship from Izzo, and with so many newcomers entering the program, it was a good opportunity to teach — and to play.
After going scoreless in the first three games this season, Thornton scored a then-career-high 13 against Arkansas-Little Rock on Nov. 20. Taking away the first three games, Thornton has averaged 5.6 points per game, along with solid defense and leadership in 19.7 minutes per game. For the first time in his career at MSU, he has confidence. He has toughness too. Thornton is MSU's leading rebounder among guards (3.4 per game) despite being third in minutes per game.
It has taken five years, but Thornton has finally found his role. And just like Kebler, it's coming at the most important time of the season. Thornton has started the last five games, and there is no indication of that changing, since the Spartans have won them all.
With four games remaining, MSU needs to win three to guarantee themselves a share of the Big Ten championship. Even the most optimistic Spartan fans couldn't have predicted such a successful season, because the most optimistic fans didn't take Thornton seriously as a possible contributor.
As important as talent is, teams need role players to keep perspective. That's Thornton this year. Purdue coach Matt Painter agreed, saying Friday that championship teams need a player like Thornton.
He wasn't a high school All-American, and he doesn't have an NBA future, but Thornton has been as important as anyone outside of Green this season. He went from walk-on to scholarship to walk-on to scholarship, struggling on the court along the way. But as they always say, better late than never, and Thornton finally is delivering.