No matter how Boston College’s roster has been constructed over the five years Jim Christian has been head coach, Christian always had a guard he could build the team around.
In his first year, it was Olivier Hanlan. The next year, he brought in Jerome Robinson. In 2016, he added firecracker Ky Bowman.
The explosive backcourt ensured that Boston College had firepower in the Atlantic Coast Conference. When Robinson left for the NBA in 2018, it left the Eagles with one weapon. When Bowman left at the end of last season, Christian had to fill a void.
Since the spring, the Eagles had their sights on Derryck Thornton, a graduate transfer from Southern Cal. He came out of Findlay Prep in Henderson, Nev., as a five-star recruit ranked in the top 20 in the 2015 recruiting class.
How the Eagles landed a commitment from the 6-foot-3-inch Thornton on Monday, solidifying another explosive guard to run their offense, is a combination of timing and hoop happenstance.
In 2015, Thornton went to Duke on the hopes and promise of being a transformative starting point guard. Those plans never panned out. He transferred to Southern Cal (sitting out a season), largely on the strength of his relationship with former assistant coach Tony Bland. But when Bland was fired after being charged in connection with college basketball’s corruption case in 2018, the fallout left Thornton once again weighing his options.
He took a visit with BC in May and got a chance to get familiar with Christian and assistants Scott Spinelli, Bill Wuczynski, and Chris Cheeks.
“They’re just terrific people,” Thornton’s father, Derryck Thornton Sr., said. “Of course, Jim Christian’s just a terrific dude, just as a human. A lot of times, when you’re dealing with the basketball stuff, you don’t really deal with great men, you deal with coaches. He’s a stand-up, good guy — transparent, let’s you into his family, what’s going on and that goes for his entire staff.”
When they returned home to California, Thornton started working out at Impact Basketball. As it so happened, Bowman was working out there at the same time.
“Ky was there and they sat down and chopped it up for a while,” Thornton Sr. said. “Ky was just like, ‘[Christian] features his point guard. They run everything through their guards like they did with Jerome, like they did with Olivier before. It gives you freedom.’ ”
Bowman told him about all the work he did with Wuczynski.
“Derryck hasn’t had skill development since he left high school at either of the two schools he went to,” Thornton Sr. said. “For Derryck, that’s a part of who he’s always been. They’re in the gym, they’re working and working and working.”
Bowman told him, “I think it would be a great choice.’ ”
The positives also came with some reservations for Thornton.
The Eagles were coming off a losing season. Their 14-17 record was a step backward after going 19-16 and reaching the second round of the ACC tournament in the 2017-18 season.
But when Thornton looked at the pieces the Eagles still had in place, he saw a fit.
“I had them send me 10 games,” Thornton said. “At this point in the game, I don’t want to see highlights. I don’t want you showing me your highlights because we’ve been fooled by that before. ‘Yeah, this is what we run.’ Then you get there and it’s not that at all. So I was like, send me full games.”
The Thorntons’ visit with BC left an impression. But they were still fielding calls. Auburn, Texas Tech, Gonzaga, and St. John’s all reached out.
They decided to take a visit with Gonzaga. They were blown away. Gonzaga is its own planet. Without a football program, their basketball program is the fulcrum of athletics. Being ranked and going to the NCAA Tournament was a given. Their coaching staff is top-notch.
The one consideration: Gonzaga is known for sending big men to the NBA, not guards. When the Thorntons got back to Los Angeles, they decided to pore over the film one more time.
“When it came down to style of play, BC runs NBA everything,” Thornton said. “They run a lot of five-out stuff. They run a lot of stuff that starts with a pick, so if you’re slick with the ball and you’re quick, you can get to the cup.”
It was a dramatic shift from the sets Thornton was used two with two players typically taking up space in the post.
“I love how BC pushes it,” Thornton said. “As soon as they get it, Ky was out. They’re trying to score within seven seconds. Nothing there? Now we run the offense. They’re not looking to the side trying to call a play every two seconds.”
The film study went on for another two weeks — from YouTube clips to Synergy breakdowns. The more they watched, the more they saw how Thornton could thrive in Christian’s offense.
“What they run, for the first time, is made for what you do as a point guard,” Thornton said.
Thornton faced outsized expectations before his first college game. He came out of Findlay Prep a year early. He bypassed the McDonald’s All-American game to go to Duke a year early. He spent one season in Durham and averaged 7.1 points, 2.5 assists, and 1.8 rebounds in 36 games. He started 20 games, but was coming off the bench by year’s end.
After the season, he transferred to USC. But when Bland was fired, Thornton suffered. His first year, he made just one start. His scoring dropped to 3.8 points per game and his assists dropped to 1.2 per game. Last season, he scored 7.7 a night with 4.3 assists.
“I think that Derryck had never been told no,” Thornton Sr. said. “In high school, being ranked so high, coming out of high school so early to be the starting point guard at Duke. Then you get to college, it’s, ‘No, no, no, no, no.’ And I don’t think he was ready for that mentally as a kid. ‘Don’t do this. Don’t do that. Don’t do this. Go stand over there. I think that kind of stymied his growth. What we’re looking for in this last journey, this last part is positivity and a positive staff for one of the first times. They want to see you do well. Get back to saying yes and playing your game, the game you had your whole life and of course developing that further.”
Coming to Boston College will give Thornton a chance to write his final college hoops chapter and rediscover the talent that made him so highly touted to begin with.
“You want to really know the people you’re going to be dealing with in your last hurrah,” Thornton Sr. said. “If you’re going to go out, you want to go out playing your way. You want to go out playing how you played your whole life, and if that’s not good enough, that’s not good enough. But you want to be who you are and not put in a little box of who they want you to be.”