When center Jahlil Okafor and point guard Tyus Jones arrived at Duke last year as one of the most heralded package deals ever, it seemed likely Okafor would spend only one season in college. Less predictable was the future of Jones, a five-star prospect who nonetheless didn’t project as a NBA draft lottery pick. Yet over the course of the season, as Jones knocked down clutch shots and facilitated the Blue Devils' development into an offensive juggernaut, a jump to the professional ranks became more realistic. By the end of the season, after he had guided Duke to the national championship and earned Final Four Most Outstanding Player honors along the way, Jones had solidified himself as one of this year’s top point guard prospects.
A formal announcement that Jones would join Okafor and wing Justise Winslow in the NBA draft came last week. While his decision did not come as a huge surprise given the way he performed, it left the Blue Devils with a significant hole to fill, because they did not have a point guard lined up for 2015-16. Potential options for how Duke would have handled the position included a by-committee approach involving rising sophomore Grayson Allen, rising junior Matt Jones and incoming freshman Luke Kennard, as well as the possibility of the Blue Devils tapping the transfer market. Villanova guard Dylan Ennis, for instance, had become available. Earlier this week, a better solution materialized, when Derryck Thornton elected to reclassify and commit to Duke as a member of the class of 2015.
Thornton,a 6'2", 160-pound guard, had been considered a five-star prospect in the class of 2016. He spent his last two seasons at national powerhouse Findlay (Nev.) Prep after transferring from Sierra Canyon (Calif.) High following his freshman year. As a junior, Thornton averaged 17.0 points, 6.2 assists, 3.4 rebounds and 2.3 steals per game while shooting 48% from two-point range and 34% from beyond the arc, according to MaxPreps.
Observers recognized Thornton’s potential from an early age. According to Rivals.com, he had already garnered scholarship offers from several high-major programs by the end of his freshman season in 2013. But it wasn’t until the NBAPA Top 100 camp last June that Thornton provided glimpses of his potential, said Eric Bossi, a Rivals.com national analyst who first saw Thornton play before he began high school.
"He went into the camp as a guy that everybody knew was a high-end point guard, but he really shifted his game into an entirely new level that week," Bossi said. "He was dynamic as both a scorer and playmaker." Duke offered Thornton a scholarship last October, joining a list of suitors that by then included Arizona, Kentucky and Louisville, among others. But the Blue Devils didn’t ramp up their pursuit of Thornton until after Jones declared for the draft on April 15.
Thornton hosted the Blue Devils for an in-home visit on Monday, and reports of his decision surfaced early Tuesday afternoon. Now the question becomes: What can Duke expect from Thornton?
For starters, he does not have the same skills as Jones. While Jones, who averaged 11.8 points, 3.5 rebounds and 5.6 assists per game, drew praise for his sound decision-making and composure, Thornton projects as a more aggressive, if less polished, scoring threat. He’s also considered a better defender. “I think Thornton is one of those point guards who puts the pressure on the defense,” Bossi said. “He’s an attack guy that likes to get into the lane, and make plays for the others around him. He’s really good in space, and he’s also really tough on the defensive end. He’s a guy that’s going to be able to give you something on the table on both ends of the floor.”
Thornton should compete to replace Jones as the Blue Devils' starting point guard. However, as Duke assistant Jon Scheyer noted in a phone interview on Monday, before Thornton’s commitment was reported, the Blue Devils have several other players who possess point guard-type skills. “With the guys we have—Luke, Matt and Grayson—all three of those guys can handle the ball,” Scheyer said. “And all three of those guys are smart enough players where, even though Luke and Grayson are younger, Grayson has a lot more experience after going through this year. But they’re smart enough where they can share ball-handling responsibilities, too.”
In any case, the insertion of Thornton at point guard should free up Allen, Kennard and Jones to spend more time seeking out scoring opportunities from the perimeter rather than creating chances for others. In the frontcourt, Duke will return senior forwards Amile Jefferson and Marshall Plumlee and welcome in Rice transfer Sean Obi as well as Chase Jeter, a five-star center in the class of 2015. The Devils made another late add to their 2015 class last week when 6'11", 240-pound enter Antonio Vrankovic verbally committed to them. As a senior at Pine Crest (Fla.) School, Vrankovic averaged 27.5 points, 16.1 rebounds and 3.2 assists, according to MaxPreps.
One looming personnel question is whether the Blue Devils will add to their '15 haul by landing Brandon Ingram, a five-star small forward from Kinston, N.C., who is set to announce his college decision on Monday and lists Duke as one of his six finalists. Even if Ingram chooses another program, with Thornton in the fold, Duke is better positioned to withstand the loss of three key players to the NBA from last season’s national championship team.
• One of the top junior guards in the country reopened his recruitment last week. Sacred Heart (Conn.) High standout Mustapha Heron decommitted from Pittsburgh, according to reports. Heron, the No. 23 player in the class of 2016, initially pledged to the Panthers while Barry “Slice” Rohrssen was serving as an assistant under coach Jamie Dixon. Rohrssen left Pittsburgh for Kentucky prior to last season, and departed the Wildcats earlier this month for a position at St. John’s, which recently hired Chris Mullin as its head coach to replace Steve Lavin.
"It's a close tie to him for sure," Heron said of Rohrssen on Saturday, according to Rivals.com affiliate Red Storm Report. "I get along with him great and my family has known him for many years. I want to be comfortable with wherever I end up." Mullin and his staff also are pursuing 2016 four-star Christ the King (N.Y.) High guard Rawle Alkins, who plays with Heron on the NY Rens AAU program.
• Less than a week after failing to land one of the top centers in the country, UCLA added a less heralded big man to its 2015 recruiting class. Ikenna Okwarabizie has signed his National Letter of Intent, the Bruins announced on Monday. According to the Sioux City Journal, Okwarabizie, who grew up in Lagos, Nigeria, focused on soccer until 2010. He moved to the United States in 2012 and spent his junior year of high school at St. Louis Christian (Mo.) Academy before transferring to East High in Des Moines, Iowa, for his senior year.
Okwarabizie’s coach at East High, Ras Vanderloo, told the paper that Okwarabizie wanted to enter college as a member of the class of 2014, but he reportedly had not been deemed eligible by the NCAA. Okwarabizie then spent one season at Tyler (Texas) Junior College, where he averaged 6.5 points, 7.0 rebounds and 1.2 blocks per game on 43.9% shooting. Okwarabizie will add depth to a UCLA frontcourt that returns center Tony Parker and sophomore Thomas Welsh but loses Kevon Looney to the NBA.
• Two players ranked in the top 20 of the Rivals150 will announce their college decisions over the next week. On Friday, shooting guard Malik Newman will choose from among Kansas, Kentucky, LSU, Mississippi State, N.C. State and Ole Miss. On Monday, Ingram will pick from among Duke, Kansas, Kentucky, North Carolina, N.C. State and UCLA. Meanwhile, five-star big man Cheick Diallo reportedly has completed all of his in-home visits and tweeted a message thanking coaches who recruited him. No decision date has been set for the 6'9" forward.
• Small forward Dominic Green tweeted last week that he has requested to be released from his National Letter of Intent at Arizona State. Green’s announcement comes about a week after the Sun Devils hired Bobby Hurley to replace Herb Sendek as their head coach. Green was expected to bolster a rotation that loses seniors Bo Barnes, Jonathan Gilling and Shaquielle McKissic. Green, the No. 144 player in the class of 2015, according to Rivals.com, reportedly will play with the Northwest Panthers at the Adidas Gauntlet event in Indianapolis this weekend. Arizona State’s current lone ‘15 signee is four-star junior college guard Andre Spight.
• Tulane secured an important commitment last week from Kipper Nichols. The three-star small forward had reportedly drawn offers from Butler, Clemson, Maryland and Xavier, among other programs, according to Rivals.com. Nichols averaged more than 18 points and four rebounds as a senior at St. Edward (Ohio) High after helping the Eagles win a state championship the previous season.