One of the main factors that persuaded USC transfer Derryck Thornton to write the final chapter of his college basketball career at Boston College wasn’t at BC for its season opener on Wednesday night.
Ky Bowman, the guard that held the keys to the offense for four years and drove it like a bumper car, was nearly 2,000 miles away in Houston, the face of a faceless Golden State Warriors team in town for a matchup against the Rockets.
Fans had no clue who Bowman was — a sign in the stands read, “Who are you guys?” — even though his 19 points and four rebounds stunned the Portland Trail Blazers on Monday.
Between Bowman and Jerome Robinson, drafted in the first round by the Los Angeles Clippers two years ago, the Eagles have a track record for developing guards and getting them to the league.
As Thornton plotted possible transfer destinations earlier this year, he watched Bowman and Robinson closely from afar, taking note of the long leash coach Jim Christian gave the former, and how the freedom on the floor paved a path to the NBA.
“Both are great, great scorers, great offensive players,” Thornton said. “They have kind of different styles. I think I play similar to both. I can play with the ball in my hand, but I can also play off the ball a little bit. Just the style in which Coach lets the guards play with freedom, I think that’s a big thing with me.
“Just being able to have some freedom, and play through mistakes here and there. Not having to look over your shoulder every two seconds for a play call. Stuff like that was a big part in my decision. Watching those two guys, I got to see how much freedom they got to play with, so that was really intriguing to me.”
Thornton transitioned seamlessly, scoring 23 points on 7-of-14 shooting from the floor, 2 of 3 on 3-pointers, and 7 of 12 from the free throw line in the Eagles’ win, 77-70, over Wake Forest.
For the first time in a long time, Boston College had playmakers — plural — on the floor. Freshman guard Jay Heath scored 18 points, grabbed five rebounds, and dished out four assists. Senior forward Nik Popovic added 19 points and three boards. Junior forward Steffon Mitchell did the dirty work with nine rebounds, four assists, two steals, and one block.
The Eagles went into the locker room up, 42-27. The defense squeezed two separate scoring droughts of three-plus minutes out of the Demon Deacons, holding them to 11 for 34 from the floor and 3 for 10 on 3-pointers.
When Thornton sat down with Christian in the offseason, they realized they had common goals. Christian laid out his style of play, and his vision for how Thornton would fit in it. He made it clear that he had his eye on getting the Eagles back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2008-09.
Thornton, a five-star, top-20 recruit in the 2015 recruiting class who spent one season at Duke before transferring after his freshman year, saw an opportunity for redemption in a return to the Atlantic Coast Conference.
“Initially, for me, I wanted to have a great relationship with the head coach,” Thornton said. “Other situations, I had a great situation with the coaching staff, but I wanted to really be on the same page with the head coach. The first time me and Coach talked, I feel like we had a very similar vision for myself and for the team. So that clicked.
“For me, it was a no-brainer. It was so much good from this situation for myself, and just for the opportunity to be back in the ACC . . . It was a pretty easy decision when it came down to the end of it.”
The Eagles had never opened the season with an ACC opponent before Wednesday night, and now have their first winning record in conference since 2010-11. In five seasons under Christian, they’re 18-86 in the ACC. Last season, in going 5-13, the Eagles were overwhelmed — 10th of 15 in rebounding, 13th in scoring defense, and 12th in turnovers in conference play.
Thornton sees the season as an opportunity to change things.
“It’s kind of that kind of feeling,” Thornton said. “BC has had some tough years, and so have I. Coming out of high school ranked high, having all the expectations for myself, and it didn’t go as well. I feel like I’m really rolling right now. I feel like I know who I am as a person and a player, so I’m more secure in that, and being able to do that has helped me be a better leader.
“I think this season is going to be a comeback season not just for myself but just for the whole BC program.”